These days, more children and teens are saying no to meat, either for environmental or ethical reasons. This can leave parents wondering how to ensure that their children receive a balanced and healthy diet. Whether preparing vegetarian meals once a week or every day, knowing how to properly combine foods for adequate nutrition can benefit the entire family.
Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins
An important fact to keep in mind is that the protein from vegetable sources, including grains and legumes, is incomplete in most cases. It has insufficient amounts of one or more essential amino acids (most commonly methionine, tryptophan or lysine), which makes it less efficiently used by the body than protein from animal sources such as meat, fish, or eggs. Thus vegetable proteins must be combined with other foods to complement one another and form the complete set of amino acids that the body requires. Animal proteins such as meat, fish and poultry are called complete proteins.
Combining Foods to Make Complete Proteins
The specific amino acids lacking in a vegetable can be provided by a grain product or another vegetable at the same meal or later in the day. Such combinations are called complementary proteins. Once you have the right knowledge, food combining becomes easy. One familiar example of this is a peanut butter sandwich, which combines complementary proteins from peanuts and whole grain wheat.
Tips for complete proteins
• Combine eggs or dairy with any vegetable protein
• Combine legumes (dried beans or peas or peanuts) with grains
• Contrary to common belief, you do not have to combine complementary foods at the same meal to achieve a complete protein for that day
Variety is key
It takes only a little planning to maintain a vegetarian diet that is nutritionally adequate, healthful and tasty. If you are following any type of vegetarian regimen, the word to remember is variety. Consume a wide range of foods daily, including vegetables (especially dark green or deep yellow), fruits, whole-grain products, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy products and essential fats.
Beginner vegetarians may wish to consult a clinical nutritionist or certified health professional who can help with designing a program that meets the nutritional needs and tastes of the entire family.