People have many reasons for being vegetarian: health, ethical, cultural or religious. If you’re considering making the switch to a meat-free diet for your family, here are some tips on how to get started.
Understand the Benefits
Being a vegetarian at a young age could help your child be a healthier adult. A child who learns to include fruits, vegetables and other heart-healthy foods, and skips junk food, in his diet can cut the risk of ailments later in life.
“There’s really good evidence that vegetarians have a lower risk of dying from heart disease,” says Reed Mangels, a registered dietitian who is the nutrition advisor for the Vegetarian Resource Group in Baltimore. “There’s also evidence that you tend to eat the way you are raised, which means there is a good chance your child will stay vegetarian long-term. Vegetarian children tend to be leaner than nonvegetarian children. In this obese time, that’s a big thing.”
However, cutting out meat does not mean your child will eat a healthier diet. Parents need to consider that children may be drawn to unhealthy items like french fries, chocolate and high-fat cheesy dishes. Teach your child that although fast-food fries may be cooked in vegetable oil, that does not make them a healthy choice. Eating just fruits is not healthy either. Parents need to strike a balance and carefully consider what their child is getting (or not getting).
Realize the Risks
Parents worry about our children getting enough nutrients. The same holds true whether they are meat eaters or vegetarians. Yet, when a child doesn’t eat meat or animal products, they may not be getting everything they need to thrive. The key to a good diet, vegetarian or not, is incorporating a variety of foods to cover your child’s nutritional needs.
“Vegetarian diets are a viable alternative, if well devised,” says Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, chief of neonatology at Georgia Health Sciences University. “Certain components of the diet may be in short supply and require special attention in meal planning. These concerns are more pronounced for children because they are growing.”
Parents need to make sure their children get enough iron, vitamin B12, zinc and other minerals if they eliminate meat, and calcium and vitamin D if they eliminate dairy products, Bhatia says. Protein is also a big concern for children who don’t eat animal products. Parents can provide protein in the form of milk and cheese, eggs and egg substitutes, nuts and seeds, tofu and other soy products, quinoa and other whole grains like brown rice, meat substitutes like seitan and even protein shakes and supplements.
For many vegetarian parents, supplementing their child’s diet is just part of being a parent. Tracy Reiman, executive vice president for PETA, has raised her eight-year-old son as a vegan since birth and is proud that he only has to see the pediatrician for his annual visit. “I think I would give him vitamins even if he weren’t vegan,” she says. “It’s hard to ensure that young children can get all of the nutrients they need.”
Figure Out What Your Child Likes
We all know how many children turn up their noses at the sight of green vegetables, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t vegetarian options for even the pickiest of eaters. It just depends on what foods your child enjoys and is willing to try.
“Figure out what works for your child,” Mangels says. “Some kids only eat raw vegetables, some only eat cooked. Some want them with a dip. Some do better if they pick them out at the store or you have a garden.”
Make the Switch
When you’ve decided that you are ready to go vegetarian, it’s up to you how you make the transition. A good idea is to start being a vegetarian home and introduce vegetarian items in your regular offerings. Many organizations offer free vegetarian starter kits that help guide you through the transition. You can also find countless vegetarian recipes online.
“Start experimenting, whether with meatless Mondays or jumping in with both feet,” Reiman says. “Sometimes people cheat on their husbands by making tacos with veggie ground substitute instead of ground beef, and they never know.” You can also use fake meat in your spaghetti sauce. Most of these substitutes can be purchased at a regular grocery store.
Along the way, make sure you set an example by eating the vegetarian items you are trying out on your family. If you are going to convince your child that a vegetarian lifestyle is the right choice for him, then you have to show that it’s the right choice for you.
Help Your Child Understand
While the decision to eliminate meat or animal products altogether may be a no-brainer for an adult, children may have a harder time watching a peer eat something they can’t have. If your child is upset or confused by why he can’t eat something, try to discuss your decision to be vegetarian in ways he can understand.
“It’s time to have a basic discussion of where that turkey sandwich comes from,” Mangels says. “A lot of kids really get it. Vegan kids are amazed at the idea that someone would eat a cow or a turkey. They say, ‘I can’t do that.’”
If a child inadvertently eats a food without knowing it contains animal products, such as gummy bears or other items made with gelatin, use it as an opportunity to talk about vegetarian foods and reemphasize your choice to be vegetarian, rather than make your child feel bad about the mistake.
“Even little children can learn that they are vegetarian/vegan and that this means they don’t eat animals (or eggs or dairy),” Mangels says. “Parents may talk to their children about vegetarian marshmallows, jelly beans, and Jell-O and explain why the nonvegetarian ones are not something the family eats.”
It is important to explain to your child that while the vegetarian lifestyle is best for your family, it may not be the best for other families. Emphasize that everyone has a choice in what they eat, and none should be held as better than another.
Explore the Vegetarian Community
Living in a nonvegetarian world can be difficult. It’s a good idea to find other families who eat vegetarian diets. You can share tips, swap recipes, plan events and more. Some cities have vegetarian playgroups. Mangels suggests checking listservs and vegetarian restaurants or natural food stores to make connections.
Communicate with the School
It’s up to the parent to educate the school about their child’s diet. Today’s schools tend to be more aware of what children should or shouldn’t eat due to concerns over food allergies. “Be clear about what you want, and don’t have a fit if someone gives your child Jell-O,” Mangels says. Be prepared to bring alternatives to a classmate’s Rice Krispie treats, and don’t expect other parents to provide something to suit your child’s diet. Remind your child of the foods she can have and encourage her to ask the teacher if she’s not sure.
Although your child’s vegetarian diet may not be a serious health issue like an allergy, the school should treat it seriously, especially if your choice is based on a strongly held belief for your family, Mangels says. Be flexible, but expect the school to respect your child’s diet.
Educate Friends and Family
It’s important to inform your friends and child’s playmates about your child or family’s vegetarian diet. You can even introduce them to fun and tasty vegetarian foods in the process. Make sure to pack snacks and treats for your child to have on hand for play dates and birthday parties, in case the host isn’t prepared. As long as you bring your own vegetarian version, your child should adjust to eating something “special.” You may be surprised to find that the other children are more intrigued by his treat than the cupcake sitting in front of them.
Find a Supportive Doctor
It’s important that your doctor be on the same page as your family when it comes to your vegetarian lifestyle. If you sense resistance, ask around for a pediatrician who is more supportive. The Vegetarian Resource Group has a listserv where you can post questions.
Make It Fun!
Try to help your child get more out of being a vegetarian by making it a positive experience. The Vegetarian Resource Group’s website provides a list of books with vegetarian themes, and you can even find vegetarian coloring books. Cook food together, especially in preparation for a holiday. Think of what vegetarian dish you can contribute to the family Christmas dinner, and ask your child to help make it. You may also want to celebrate vegetarian holidays like World Vegetarian Day (Oct. 1) or attend a vegetarian conference that has children’s activities, Mangels recommends.