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Achieve a healthy diet without meat

Meatless diets: Helping your teen achieve a healthy diet without meat

When they reach the teen years, children take on a greater role in determining diet and food choices. At this age, continuing to educate yourself and your child about healthy food choices for growing bodies is as important as ever.

With a trend toward more teens preferring not to eat meat (i.e., beef, pork, poultry or fish), many parents may be wondering, does my child need to eat meat to be healthy, and how can I help ensure they're getting the nutrition they need without meat?

Does my child need to eat meat to be healthy? 

Eating meat is not essential to a healthy, balanced diet. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Food Guide Pyramid includes the food group "Meats & Beans" which allows other foods with similar nutritional value to be substituted for meats. According to USDA literature, "vegetarians get enough protein from this group as long as the variety and amounts of foods selected are adequate." (1)

Why are foods from the "Meat & Beans" group important?

There are many nutrients found in foods from the "Meats & Beans" group that are particularly important to a child's health and growing body.

These include:

  • Proteins: building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, blood, enzymes, hormones and vitamins as well as a source of calories 
  • B vitamins: help the body release energy, play a vital role in the function of the nervous system, aid in the formation of red blood cells and help build tissues. 
  • Vitamin E: helps protect vitamin A and essential fatty acids 
  • Iron: carries oxygen in the blood 
  • Magnesium: used in building bones and in releasing energy from muscles. 
  • Zinc: helps the immune system function properly

What are the alternatives to meat in the diet? 

If your child or family prefers a "no meat" diet, there are a variety of food choices available to meet the USDA's recommended amounts for the "Meat & Beans" food group. You can visit the USDA website to calculate recommended daily amounts based on age, height, weight and activity levels. According to the site, for a 15-year-old male of average height and weight who is physically active 30-60 minutes each day, 6.5 ounces from the "Meat & Beans" group each day is recommended; for a female with the same statistics, the recommended daily "Meat & Beans" portion is 5.5 ounces.

Below are some alternatives to meat in the diet. To give you an idea of quantities needed to meet recommended daily portions, the USDA considers the following as a 1 ounce equivalent from the "Meat & Beans" group:

  • 1 cup cooked dry beans
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon of peanut butter or ounce of nuts or seeds.*

* eggs, split peas, peanuts, black beans, white beans, pecans, black-eyed peas, bean burgers, pistachios, chickpeas, falafel, pumpkin seeds, kidney beans tempeh, sesame seeds, lentils, tofu, sunflower seed, lima beans, almonds, walnuts, navy beans, cashews, peanut butter, pinto beans, hazelnuts, nut butters, soy beans, mixed nuts

Here are a few ideas for quick and simple ways to incorporate these choices into family favorites and on-the-go snack options:

  • Add soy crumbles (ground meat alternative) to chili, soups or pasta sauce
  • Be creative with beans: make Three Bean Salad, taste-test vegetarian baked beans; and cook soups with beans, lentils or split peas
  • Consider spreading Hummus on crackers or on bread inside grilled cheese sandwich
  • Try eggs for more than just breakfast: cut up hard boiled egg for a snack; try a casserole made with eggs, egg salad or a fried egg and cheese sandwich for lunch or dinner
  • Blend tofu or crushed nuts into milk shakes and fruit smoothies
  • Add honey, fruit spread or bananas to sweeten nut butter sandwiches or crackers
  • Enhance desserts and treats: consider Baklava, sundaes or cookies with added nuts; mix chopped nuts or seeds into yogurt; or make trail mix made with nuts and seeds

Also, many companies such as Amy's Kitchen, Boca, Gardenburger and Morningstar Farms make products that look, feel and taste like meat, but are made from soy and vegetables. These products are known as texturized vegetable protein and can be found in your grocer's frozen food section. Try recipe starters such as "chicken" or "steak" strips, ground "sausage" or "beef," and "meatballs."

For the meatless version of some favorites, try veggie corn dogs; breakfast "sausage" or "bacon"; "chicken" patties, tenders, nuggets and wings; as well as a variety of veggie burgers.

Overall, knowing the options, and planning in advance, can help ensure a diet that meets your goals for your child's nutritional health and your teen's goals for a meat-free diet.

Also remember that meeting the daily requirements of all of the USDA's other food group recommendations (grains, vegetables, fruits and milk) is important as well.

Additional resources: (formerly

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Sarah Benton, PsyD, LCP
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Sangita Kling, RD
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Kimberly Ritenour, MS, RN, CPNP
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Angela Smith, PhD, LCP
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