When I was ten years old, my teacher showed a video about slaughterhouses and how chicken was raised and produced.
It was horrifying.
That day when I arrived home from school, I marched up to my Mom and promptly announced that I was a vegetarian and that I would never eat meat again.
My Mom suppressed a laugh and simply said, “Okay Marg. We’ll see.”
I think she assumed that I was on one of my emotionally-driven tangents (I had oh-so-many at that age) and that my newfound aversion to meat would quickly fade.
Much her to dismay, it did not.
(Well, at least not until I discovered beer and the magic of 2am beef tacos at college.)
See, I grew up in a Jewish-Italian family where food was the foundation of every family gathering, every holiday, every life event and special occasion.
Not to mention, nightly family dinners that generally centered around a main course comprised of chicken, fish, or red meat.
Needless to say, my Mom was less than pleased at having to prepare a separate, vegetarian meal for me every single night.
And although she never missed an opportunity to grumble about it under her breath, she always made sure that I had a fully meat-free home-cooked meal.
I think that even though my vegetarianism created more work for her, she was proud of the fact that I was committing to something and sticking to it.
Whether your child decides to become a vegetarian (or vegan) of their own volition or you make the decision to raise your children as non-meat eaters, raising vegetarian/vegan kids can be challenging.
And although my own children are full-on carnivores, I spent most of my life (on and off) as a vegetarian and for 10+ years have stuck to eating only chicken and fish.
So, if you’re considering raising your kids’ vegetarian/vegan or already grappling with the struggles of raising vegetarian/vegan kids, I’m here to share my life experiences and ample research to help you navigate being a meat-free mother (or father!).
Why Raise Kids Vegetarian or Vegan?
Vegetarianism/veganism has become far more mainstream in the past ten years than it ever was when I was growing up. In fact, “a nationwide survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that 3 percent of American youth, or about 1.4 million people between ages 8 and 18, are vegetarian.
For those of you whose kids have already taken it upon themselves to go vegetarian/vegan (like I did), you might look at this section as positive reinforcement for the situation that you have been thrown into.
Because even if you love nothing more than diving into a perfectly prepared steak and resent the fact that you now have the added work of cooking both meat-filled and meat-free meals, there are some positive aspects to raising kids who have chosen to go vegetarian/vegan!
And for those of you who are debating whether or not to raise your kids’ sans meat, consider some of the following:
There are plenty of people out there who question the appropriateness of imposing a meat-free diet on children based on the belief that it will negatively affect their growth and development.
And if your child’s vegetarian/vegan diet is mostly composed of sugar-coated cereal and macaroni and cheese (the unfortunate top two staples of my own teenage vegetarian diet, hence constant weight struggles…which is another story entirely), then hindered growth and development is a real concern.
However, if you provide your kids with a well-balanced vegetarian/vegan diet, then there are actually numerous health benefits that they can experience from cutting out meat products.
According to the American Dietetic Association, “Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes.”
The key to making sure that your kids enjoy all of the benefits that come from a vegetarian diet, such as preventing and treating a variety of diseases, is ensuring that they are eating a diet filled with fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts. Basically, you want to make sure that they are getting all of the vitamins and minerals that they would usually get from eating meat, from a variety of other wholesome and nutritious foods.
Which requires careful and diligent planning.
But, with the proper planning, your kids can look forward to a lifetime of health benefits from adhering to a vegetarian/vegan diet as a child. Research indicates that adults who consume fruits and vegetables are those who consumed these foods during childhood.
Some of the most common health benefits that your kids can expect to see from sticking to a vegetarian/vegan diet include:
- Lower cholesterol levels and improved cardiovascular health
- Reduced risk for developing cancer
- Lower obesity rates
- Increased intake of antioxidants, resulting in a better immune system and higher resistance to a variety of illnesses and diseases
- Some studies have even indicated an increased IQ in those children who ate a vegetarian diet
Relationship to Food
Disordered eating is something that affects millions of people worldwide, including children. With the growing influence of social media and unrealistic standards of beauty, children and teens are more at risk than ever for falling victim to various patterns of disordered eating.
And while there is a fine balance between teaching your kids to be aware of their eating habits and make healthy choices and placing an unnecessary amount of focus on what they put in their mouth, sticking to a vegetarian/vegan diet can help your kids develop a healthy relationship with food.
According to health writer, Kristen Fisher, “Feeding kids plenty of vegetables and plant-based foods right from the start helps set up healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime, given that food preferences usually develop during the first few years of life.”
Keep in mind, vegetarian/vegan kids are not immune to the perils of disordered eating and unhealthy relationships with food, a vegetarian/vegan diet done right can help boost the likelihood of your kids developing a lifelong, healthy relationship with food.
Foodborne Illness Safety
I had never experienced the extreme health risks that can come from eating undercooked or contaminated meat until my ex-husband wound up in the hospital with salmonella from undercooked chicken.
It was terrifying.
Two days in the hospital, IV’s, explosive bodily fluids everywhere – YUCK.
Eating meat, especially meat that is not personally prepared and monitored by you, can carry great risk for exposure to various meat-borne illnesses.
And while it is certainly possible to be exposed to food-borne illnesses from consuming produce, that risk is greatly reduced with proper washing techniques. But when it comes to meat-borne illnesses, it can be difficult to know just how safe your meat is.
Which means that avoiding meat entirely keeps your children one hundred percent safe from meat-borne illnesses, giving you one less thing to worry about!
There are a variety of reasons that people choose to go vegetarian/vegan…health reasons, religious purposes, cultural beliefs, or a concern for animals and the environment, to name a few.
For me, it was that fateful day that I witnessed just how disgusting the meat industry was.
No matter what inspired you to raise your children vegetarian/vegan, there is a good chance that it offers a perfect opportunity to educate your kids on a variety of important topics.
For example, if you have chosen to raise your kids’ vegetarian in an effort to live an environmentally-friendly life, you can use that as a jumping off point to educate your kids about global warming, pollution, littering, and all other aspects of being environmentally conscious.
Or, if you have chosen a vegan lifestyle for religious reasons, you can use it as an opportunity to not only teach your kids about your own religious beliefs but to expose them to the great variety of religious beliefs that exist worldwide!
Top Meat-Free Challenges
Raising vegetarian kids certainly has its advantages, but its important to also make yourself aware of some of the challenges that also exist.
Depending on what age your children are, you will find that different challenges present themselves with going vegetarian/vegan.
Luckily, infants have a fairly limited diet of either breast milk or formula, making it pretty easy to adhere to a vegetarian diet, at least in the first six months of life.
However, if you are breast-feeding and sticking to a vegetarian/vegan diet yourself, you will want to make sure that you are supplementing your diet with enough B12 and Vitamin D, so that your breastmilk is nutritionally sufficient.
Once your infant begins to transition to solid foods, it is important to ensure that they are receiving enough iron, often obtained through iron-fortified cereals.
As you continue to introduce your infant to a more solid food diet, it is important to make sure that they receive enough protein, which can be tough without meat.
However, protein-rich vegetarian options might include pureed tofu, yogurt, cottage cheese, or pureed beans.
If you have ever tried to feed a toddler, you know just how infuriating their innate pickiness can be, vegetarian or not.
However, ensuring that toddlers who are eating a vegetarian/vegan diet are receiving the proper nutrients can be very tricky. Vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and zinc are all common deficiencies that vegetarian/vegan toddlers may face.
Getting your toddler to eat enough vegetables to provide proper nutrition may be difficult, which means that providing a vitamin supplement may be the best option.
Another great way to help your toddler get excited about the vegetarian foods that they are eating, try getting them involved in the food preparation process!
Similar to toddler, dealing with the pickiness of pre-teens and teens eating habits can be exhausting.
I know that I was a nightmare when it came to picky eating habits. I was a vegetarian who hated vegetables – not a good combination.
Aside from picky eating habits making a vegetarian diet even more restrictive, it can be challenging for pre-teens/teens to stick to a meat-free diet because they are often not eating all of their meals at home.
If your school offers vegetarian options, then you are in luck!! This means that you don’t have to worry about preparing a vegetarian-friendly lunch for your child every day.
However, many schools unfortunately do not offer meat-free options on a daily basis. Which means that you will need to get creative with your grocery shopping and meal prep to ensure that you child is receiving the highest possible nutrition from their packed lunch – not just French fries and Jello pudding cups.
Luckily, nowadays there are a ton of nifty Tupperware-type contraptions that make packing salads, soups, fruit and veggie slices with dip, and other vegetarian-friendly meals a cinch.
And, to put a positive-spin on it, teaching your child to make and pack their own nutritious lunches provides a great opportunity to take on more responsibility!
Birthday parties, sleepovers, school dances, and sporting events – pre-teens and teens tend to have a jam-packed social life.
Which can make ensuring that your child always has vegetarian options available difficult.
Rather than dealing with frantic phone calls from your teen that the sleepover birthday party they’re at only has hot dogs and hamburgers available – something I did to my Mom countless times – get in the habit of calling ahead to check food options and always packing emergency foods like string cheese, granola bars, apple slices, or peanut butter sandwiches.
And of course, you can always offer to host the sleepover parties and social events to ensure that a variety of healthy vegetarian options are available…but, this is ultimately more work than simply calling ahead or packing snacks.
As discussed before, kids today are inundated with unrealistic body image expectations and unhealthy methods for achieving meeting these expectations.
Which makes it more important than ever to teach your kids from a young age how to have a healthy relationship with food and body image.
And while raising vegetarian/vegan kids can help encourage a healthy relationship with food, it can also potentially lead to an overly restrictive diet – which often leads to disordered eating habits.
Make sure that you are monitoring how much, how often, and what kinds of foods your kids are eating to ensure that they aren’t restricting their foods excessively. And if you suspect that they might be falling into an unsafe pattern, have an open and honest conversation with them.
Helpful Tips to Go Meat Free
Talk About It
As with most parenting situations, starting and maintaining and honest and open line of communication about your child’s diet is one of the most important and helpful strategies for success.
A good place to start might be discussing the different types of vegetarianism and figuring out which type of vegetarianism works best for your individual child. Here’s a basic overview from KidsHealth.org:
- lacto-ovo vegetarian:eats no meat, poultry, or fish, but does eat eggs and dairy products (what most of us mean when we say “vegetarian”)
- lacto-vegetarian:eats no meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, but does eat dairy products
- ovo-vegetarian:eats no meat, poultry, fish, or dairy products, but does eat eggs
- vegan:eats only plant-derived foods
Beyond discussing the various types of vegetarianism, it is also important to discuss the reasoning behind becoming a vegetarian/vegan, what it means to eat a wholesome and well-rounded diet, and what obstacles might come up with eating a vegetarian/vegan diet.
This will also allow your child the opportunity to ask any questions or voice any concerns that they might have!
Meal-planning is essential when it comes to successfully adhering to any kind of specific diet, including vegetarianism/veganism.
First and foremost, it is important to know the most common vitamins and minerals that are obtained from eating meat and understanding how you can help your kids get these nutrients from other sources.
According to kidshealth.org, here is a simple list of essential nutrients that your kids might be missing out on from a meat-free diet and vegetarian-friendly substitutes:
- vitamin B12:dairy products, eggs, and vitamin-fortified products, such as cereals, breads, and soy and rice drinks, and nutritional yeast
- vitamin D:milk, vitamin D-fortified orange juice, and other vitamin D-fortified products
- calcium:dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, dried beans, and calcium-fortified products, including orange juice, soy and rice drinks, and cereals
- protein:dairy products, eggs, tofu and other soy products, dried beans, and nuts
- iron:eggs, dried beans, dried fruits, whole grains, leafy green vegetables, and iron-fortified cereals and bread
- zinc:wheat germ, nuts, fortified cereal, dried beans, and pumpkin seeds
And while the list above is a great jumping off point, it doesn’t include all of the newest advances in vegetarian-friendly foods that didn’t exist when I was a kid. There are a ton of meat-free foods made to look and taste like meat that are available today – meat-free chicken nuggets, meat-free deli meats, Boca burgers or Gardenburgers, Tofurky…the list goes on and on.
And luckily, most of these are available at your local supermarket!
Once you are familiar with the variety of vegetarian-friendly nutrient rich foods out there, the nest step is meal planning!
Even though my kids are not vegetarians, we sit down and plan out our meals for the week each Sunday morning with breakfast – a helpful tool for any family!
This way, your kids get a say in what they will be eating that week and there are no surprises or melt-downs when you make something that they don’t want.
I also like to keep our weekly meal plans in a binder after we use them so when we find ourselves with a busy Sunday and no time to sit down and plan our meals for the week, I can just grab a past weeks meal plan and use that!
It’s also helpful to plan out weekly school lunches (if your school doesn’t provide vegetarian-friendly lunches) while you are planning dinners for the week. And why not plan snacks as well!
I’m a firm believer that a solid list can alleviate any amount of stress and dysfunction, so get out your pen and notepad and get planning! I promise it will help your vegetarian-friendly weeks go more smoothly.
Supplements & Specific Foods
All the meal-planning, wholesome food preparation, and careful monitoring in the world sometimes just won’t make up for the nutrients that your child may be missing out on due to not eating meat.
Which is where supplements come in.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, iron is the most common nutrient that vegetarians and vegans tend to be deficient in.
But iron isn’t the only nutrient to be mindful of. Zinc, DHA, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D are all important nutrients that can be tough for vegetarian/vegan children to get enough of from plant-based sources.
Educating yourself is one way to ensure that you are taking the proper steps to meet your vegetarian child’s nutritional needs. There is a wealth of information out there for parents and you might even consider asking for help from a dietician or nutritionist.
For example, tips like the following, from the National Institutes of Health, can take some of the guesswork out of getting your kids the most nutritional value from the foods they eat: to make plant zinc more absorbable try “soaking beans, grains, and seeds in water for several hours before cooking them and allowing them to sit after soaking until sprouts form.”
Katie Kavanagh, a registered dietitian and professor at the University of Tennessee, suggests providing vegetarian kids with fortified foods to guarantee they are consuming enough of the necessary nutrients like calcium and vitamin B12 and D. She says, “Many of those are pretty easy to find these days in products like soy milk or orange juice.”
Outside of choosing fortified foods, it is always a good idea to give your children a daily multivitamin as extra protection against various nutrient deficiencies. Luckily, nowadays, there are a variety of different types of multivitamins and even gummy-style vitamins to make sure that even the pickiest child will take their daily dose!
Bottom line – raising your kids vegetarian/vegan doesn’t have to be difficult or stressful! With the proper information and planning, raising vegetarian kids can actually be a very healthy decision!
In fact, according to Neal D. Barnard, M.D., “When it comes to growth and overall health, don’t worry. Vegetarian children do really well. You should worry more about the nonvegetarians in your family.”
How about that for some (vegetarian) food for thought!