Have you considered a vegetarian diet for your family, but aren't sure if you're ready to take the plunge? A flexitarian diet may be a happy middle ground. Flexitarian eating is mostly plant-based, but still allows for small portions of meat, fish and poultry. It's less restrictive than a vegetarian diet, but delivers many of the same health benefits. "A flexitarian plan provides more fiber, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins C and E than a typical American diet," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, LDN. "So, it's a healthy choice for kids and families."
Intrigued? Here's how to help your family flex in four simple steps:
- Rethink Your Plate
A flexitarian plate looks a lot like the USDA's MyPlate. Vegetables and fruits take center stage, covering half of your plate. Then, balance is divided 50-50 between whole grains and lean protein. The protein can be meat, poultry or fish, but it can also be plant-based protein such as beans. Beans are packed with fiber, iron, potassium and heart-smart plant protein. That makes them a healthy stand-in for meat in tacos, burritos, pasta, chili or stir-fries. Simply trade ¼ cup of beans for every ounce of meat you’d usually use. While you’re at it, experiment with other meat substitutes too. Instead of a hamburger, serve up a veggie burger or swap tofu cutlets for chicken cutlets. Make sure to drain and rinse canned beans thoroughly to remove up to 40 percent of the sodium.
- Pump Up the Nutrition
When meat, poultry and fish move to the sidelines it's easy to reach for child-friendly favorites like French fries, pizza and macaroni and cheese. Yet, these can be high in fat and calories and lack the nutritional punch of other plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. "Challenge yourself to try a new vegetarian recipe each week," says Blatner. If you have vegetarian friends ask them to share their favorite recipes.
- Keep the Calcium
Low-fat dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese are an important part of a flexitarian eating plan. They're excellent sources of the calcium your child needs for strong bones and they supply plenty of high-quality protein to support growth. Make sure your child gets two to three servings of dairy a day: two servings for children ages 2 to 3, two-and-a-half servings for those ages 4 to 8, and three servings for older kids and teens. If your family doesn't consume dairy, fortified soymilk is a smart substitute.
- Fill in the Gaps
While a flexitarian diet can deliver all the nutrition your child needs, iron may require a little extra attention. Without enough iron, your child may become tired, listless or have difficulty concentrating. Because iron in plant foods isn’t as readily absorbed as the kind in foods like beef, poultry or fish, you may want to offer your child iron-fortified whole-grain cereal for breakfast or a snack. Pairing iron-rich plant foods such as beans, potatoes and spinach with foods high in vitamin C, like tomatoes, peppers and orange juice, can help increase iron absorption.
Finally, be a great role model. "Over time, kids eat what their parents do," says Blatner. "If you love and are excited about butternut squash fries, zucchini fritters or mashed cauliflower, your kids will be too."