BACKGROUND:Dietary intakes and nutrient status were compared in meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey of children aged 1.5-4.5 years. METHODS:Children (n = 1351) were categorized as 'omnivores' or 'vegetarians', according to whether they consumed meat or meat products during a 4-day dietary record. Blood samples were also obtained for analysis of haematological and biochemical nutrient status. RESULTS:Three per cent of children were 'vegetarian'. They consumed higher proportions of milk and milk products, although this was significant only in older children (P = 0.007), owing to high consumption by the high proportion of Asian children. In vegetarians, energy intakes tended to be lower in both age groups. Percentage energy from protein and fat were lower, while that from carbohydrate was higher compared with omnivores. Cholesterol intakes were lower, significantly so for younger children (P < 0.001). Intakes of micronutrients were either higher (vitamins C and E, potassium) or lower (niacin and sodium) in younger vegetarians compared with omnivores. Energy-adjusted intakes of iron and zinc did not differ significantly from those of omnivores, although both intakes were low in many children (6-20% < LRNI), particularly in the younger group. Haematological and biochemical nutrient status indices showed few differences. Serum ferritin was lower in vegetarians, significantly so in younger children (P = 0.002). Antioxidant vitamin (A, C and E) status tended to be higher in vegetarians, while vitamin B12 intakes and status were more than adequate. Apart from poorer vitamin D intake and status in older Asian vegetarians, very few ethnic differences were observed. CONCLUSIONS:Nutrient intakes and status were generally adequate in preschool children who did not eat meat. Although serum ferritin levels were inferior (particularly in vegetarians under 3 years old), the lower intakes of fat, cholesterol and sodium, and higher antioxidant vitamin intakes and status indices were potentially beneficial. Given a balanced diet, adequate nutrient intakes and status can be maintained without consuming meat.