According to the Vegetarian Times, 7.3 million men and women in the United States follow a vegetarian diet. And, sooner or later, a lot of these men and women will have kids and will make the decision whether to raise their children in a meat-free home.
Deciding whether to raise children as vegetarians is a personal choice that only their parents should make. Though many raise concerns about children getting enough nutrition without animal products, it has never been proved that children raised in vegetarian households are suffering physically, mentally or emotionally from their diets. As with any parent, making sure your kids are eating healthily is what is important.
This post isn’t about the ethics of raising a vegetarian or vegan child—it’s about what to do after that decision has already been made.
Read our related article “5 Expert Tips on Feeding Kids Vegetarian” with great advice from ZisBoomBah’s nutritionist Lisa Lanzano, MS, RD.
Many vegetarian mothers start receiving unsolicited commentary on the nutritional needs of growing children while still pregnant. Urgent emails with links to “studies” about vegetarian children with anemia, vitamin B12 deficiencies and stunted growth may fill inboxes. Well-meaning daycare workers may try to “sneak” some animal protein into toddlers’ meals, grandparents may openly disregard requests to serve vegetarian foods and eyes may roll at pediatric checkups.
You’d think that with over 1.4 million American kids between the ages of 8 and 18 living a meat-free lifestyle, there would be more acceptance of vegetarian households.
Tiffany, an office manager for a multifunction arts studio in Louisville, Colo., wishes that were true. The mother of two active boys, Luca, 8 and Tate, 6, she gets “occasional, curious questions” about her children’s diet.
“It hasn’t been too much of a challenge… Tate had a friend whose mom tried to feed him meat on play dates and parties. I had to keep reminding her, though I suspect she remembered. She just thought she knew better.”
Rebellion and resentment
One of the biggest challenges for vegetarian parents is social pressure—not on themselves, but on the children. Once vegetarian children enter a school setting, they feel compelled to fit in socially. This is a normal and healthy part of social development. Other children may feast on chicken nuggets or Lunchables, and innocent questions, like “Why can’t you eat what we are eating?” can make your child feel left out and vulnerable.
And then there is the rebellion that is also a natural part of growing up. Vegetarian children are not immune to pushing boundaries and separating from their parents to create their own identities. Vegetarian children may try eating outside their regular diet while out with friends. It’s important not to blow your top when this happens—just as with most adolescents, the more you push, the more they will push back. Forbidding makes it all the more appealing.
Tiffany has been open to having her boys question and try foods as they have gotten older. “When they were too little to make their own choices, they followed my diet. Once they were about 5 to 6 years, they started wanting to try things. Now they will eat the occasional turkey at Thanksgiving or a hot dog at school.”
“I’m not going to get tied up on controlling their food outside the home at this point. They need to start making their own decisions. I don’t think that my reasons for not eating meat should be their reasons too.”
Be prepared to compromise and let your older kids make their eating decisions when out of the house. You may be surprised that they will choose to completely embrace the vegetarian lifestyle. Younger kids may need more support. Provide lunches with foods that resemble their friends’ lunches: soy nuggets and soy dogs, tofu salad (stand-in for egg salad), and even cheese quesadillas with salsa. Invite their friends over for a play date and share a vegetarian lunch. The more support younger vegetarians get, the less vulnerable and stressed they will feel when confronted with daily communal meals.
Hope and understanding
Megan, a research assistant professor in Albuquerque, N.M., and mother of 2-year-old twin boys, has been a vegetarian for 26 years. Though she is currently not raising her kids as vegetarian, she knows the big questions will come soon.
For now, “When they offer me meat off their plates, I just tell them that I don’t eat meat. I am in the process of trying to broaden their eating habits by presenting them with veggies… I would love it if I didn’t have to feed them meat, but at the moment, that’s often all they want.”
Tiffany hopes her kids will get an understanding of where food comes from, especially meat products, so they can decide themselves whether to eat a plant-based diet. “When they eat meat, they [will] know it is a cow, pig, etc., and not just, for example, a hot dog… I’d like them to eventually make informed choices.”
And that’s just what any parent, vegetarian or not, wishes for their children.
Did you know ZisBoomBah has great free online games that empower kids to make their own healthy choices?
- Flip It! — the food flipping card game — playfully arms kids with knowledge about many foods they eat
- Pick Chow! — the food game for kids — lets kids create their own meals by dragging and dropping foods from the food groups onto their virtual plate. The Add It Up! meters instantly indicate the impact each choice has on the overall healthfulness of your child’s meal.
For vegetarian kids who would like some pointers and advice on being veg and proud, the Vegetarian Resource Group provides a book list divided by age group here.
Are you considering to limit or eliminate animal products from your diet or are you already living a vegetarian family lifestyle? We would love to hear about your own experiences in the comment section below!
If you find this article interesting, you might also be interested in our related stories on this blog:
- Is Vegetarian Automatically Healthy?
- 5 Expert Tips on Feeding Kids Vegetarian
- 4 Hearty Vegetarian Pasta Dinners (Recipes)
- Meatless Mondays and Beyond: How to Turn Your Resident Carnivore into a Flexitarian