Laying Down the Steak Knife How Meat-Loving Families Can Live Happily With a Vegetarian Child

Laying Down the Steak Knife How Meat-Loving Families Can Live Happily With a Vegetarian Child

My daughter’s decision to become a vegetarian two years ago was a quick and definitive one. She ate a ham dinner, pushed her plate away and stated that from now on, no animal flesh would enter her mouth. So far she’s followed the path. But it hasn’t been easy, especially for me.

When a child lays down a food ultimatum, there’s not much you can do. That goes for toddlers who refuse to eat vegetables as much as it does for teens who refuse to eat meat. For a family of fervent meat eaters, it can be a challenge. We didn’t even realize just how carnivorous we were until we had a teenager around to point it out.

In their 2010 national poll, the Vegetarian Resource Group, www.vrg.org, found that 7 percent of 8- to 18-year-olds never eat meat, while 12 percent of males ages 10 to 12 stated they don’t eat meat. That’s been a rising figure over the past few years and it’s expected to continue to increase as children (and their parents) grow more aware of the environment, of the living conditions of factory farmed animals and of healthy ways to eat.

Be Supportive

What’s a meat-loving family to do? The first thing is to make sure your child knows what being a vegetarian entails: what foods they should eat, what nutrients they need. Be wary if their primary motivation seems to be weight loss. Being a vegetarian is not a fad diet. If there is any reason to suspect an eating disorder, consult a registered dietician. (See sidebar for some good conversation openers.)

Reed Mangels, Ph.D., RD, Nutrition Advisor at The Vegetarian Resource Group and the parent of two vegan teens recommends having them help with meal planning and cooking. “Generally I think it’s good for vegetarian/vegans to learn how to prepare some simple foods so that the burden of cooking doesn’t totally fall on parents and so they don’t spend a fortune on convenience foods. Bean burritos, pasta with tomato sauce and chickpeas, and stir fries are all easy, quick and healthy foods.”

As a family you can also advocate “Meatless Mondays” when no one eats meat. “Meatless Mondays” was a WWII campaign to curb consumption of meat products. Today it’s a nonprofit initiative in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Their website, www.meatlessmondays.com, offers tips and facts and is a perfect way for a family to support a burgeoning vegetarian.

Make Sure They Eat Healthy

Keep in mind, however, that being a vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean eating a healthier diet. More than a few vegetarians have subsided on potato chips and cheese products. Joanna Dolgoff, M.D. author of the book Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right (Rodale Books, 2009), has seen this quite a few times. “More and more young vegetarians are turning into ‘carbaterians,’ eating few fruits and vegetables and opting for starches, such as pasta, pizza and French fries.” Too many carbohydrates result in elevated cholesterol levels.

Parent Julee Morrison found that when her son first became vegetarian he quickly dropped too much weight. “He just wasn’t ingesting enough protein and calcium to sustain him,” she explains. “Kids don’t always understand the full extent of the importance of balanced nutrition.” The idea that vegetarians would necessarily consume more fruits and vegetables isn’t always true. Make sure they are getting a good variety of foods.

Key Nutrients They Need

The biggest concern for most parents is protein. While it’s true that animal protein is often the principal form of protein in American’s diets, it doesn’t have to be. Cow’s milk, low fat cheese, beans, nuts, peanut butter, yogurt and tofu are all good sources. Just watch the high fat content of some nuts, cheese and peanut butter.

Iron, zinc and vitamin B12 are other key nutrients that growing bodies need. There are some easy substitutions. To add iron to the diet, try broccoli, eggs, raisins, watermelon, spinach and leafy green vegetables. Vitamin C aids in the absorption of iron, so encourage them to eat some citrus or tomatoes when eating iron-rich foods.

Good sources of zinc include wheat germ, nuts and pumpkin seeds. Get used to sprinkling wheat germ in sauces and cereals. Add nuts and seeds to salads or eat them as a snack. Vitamin B12 is found in many fortified cereals and also in dairy products and eggs. Vegans need to be particularly careful about getting the necessary daily requirements for this nutrient.

Overall, try to keep it as simple as possible for your child. “A healthy, varied vegetarian diet includes fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, whole grain products, nuts, seeds and legumes,” explains Mangels. “The key is variety. Vegetarians have the same nutritional needs as any other kid.”

Eating Out, Hanging with Friends

Today being a vegetarian is easier than ever. Practically every grocery store carries a small variety of non-meat alternatives. Veggie burgers, protein links (soy hot dogs), chicken-less nuggets and other typical kid fare can make the adjustment easy when a craving (or a backyard barbecue) hits.

Even fast food restaurants serve options. Burger King offers veggie burgers, Subway serves vegetarian sandwiches and both Chipotle and Taco Bell are cited for their vegetarian (no lard) beans. Asian and Indian cuisines also tend to be more vegetarian-friendly.

At home, just a few simple adjustments can make a huge difference. Start adding spinach leaves in salads, stir tofu into anything with a sauce, sprinkle nuts or seeds on salads and rice. Even teenagers only need 40-50 grams of protein a day. By involving the whole family, you will not only encourage everyone to eat healthier, you’ll be supporting your child as well.

Laura Amann is a freelance writer and the mom of three meat-loving kids and one vegetarian teenager.

Good Questions to Ask

If your preteen or teenager is considering becoming a vegetarian, be sure to examine their reasoning and guide them appropriately. Parents Michelle and Owen May worked with their daughter, Elyse May, to co-author the book Veggie Teens: A Cookbook and Guide for Vegetarian Teenagers (www.veggieteenscookbook.com/book.html). They recommend the following open-ended questions:

• Why do you want to be a vegetarian?

• Are any of your friends vegetarian? Why?

• Have you done any research yet about being a vegetarian?  What have you learned so far?

• What do vegetarians eat? What don’t vegetarians eat?

• How is that different from being a vegan?

• Do you know what to eat to be sure you’re getting all of your nutrients?

• Does this decision have anything to do with wanting to lose weight?

• Are you concerned about what you will eat at school and when you’re with your friends?

• Will we need to buy or prepare special foods?

• How will you help us with that?

If any answers bother you or you suspect they’re going vegetarian for the wrong reason, be sure to consult a doctor. A certified dietician or nutritionist can also provide detailed instruction and suggestions for both you and your child.