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Happy and Healthy: Ten Tips to Raising Vegetarian Children

My twelve year old son found the PETA for Kids website several weeks ago, and he’s been saying ever since, “I’m going to be vegetarian.”  While he hasn’t yet taken the plunge, I want to support him should he pursue the endeavor because I was once a vegetarian and I loved the way my body felt when I focused on eating plant-based foods rather than thick, meat-laden meals.  To properly support my future-non-carnivore, I turned to the Vegetarian Resource Group for help in understanding how I can best raise a healthy, vegetarian child.  Thankfully, they had answers.  Lots of answers.  Dr. Reed Mangels, author of Simply Vegan, offers these 10 incredibly helpful tips, including a list of favorite vegetarian/vegan meals for kids, and how to get all of those needed nutrients into your little plant-eater’s diet.

HOW CAN PARENTS SUPPORT A HEALTHY VEGAN/VEGETARIAN DIET FOR THEIR CHILDREN?

1- Offer choices of foods, but limit choices to nutritious snacks. “Do you want carrot sticks or some grapes?” instead of “Do you want carrot sticks or cookies?” Keep trying. Just because a child refuses a food today, doesn’t mean it won’t be her favorite food next week.

2- Get children involved in food preparation. Even young children can select fruit for a fruit salad or put pre-measured ingredients into an over-sized bowl. Older children can make sandwiches and help to measure ingredients. In no time at all, they’ll be making dinner for you!

3- Set a good example. If your child sees you lunching on a diet soda and potato chips, they’ll wonder why they have to eat their hummus sandwich.

4- Make food fun! Try sandwiches cut into shapes, vegetables and fruits with dips, or pancakes for lunch occasionally.

5- Keep it Simple.  If your child is new to veganism, stick with familiar foods at first. Pasta, bean burritos, and peanut butter sandwiches may be “old friends.” Gradually introduce less familiar foods.

6- Be Sensitive. Some children don’t like being different. If that’s true for your child, packing a veggie bologna sandwich or tofu salad (instead of egg salad) will help make their lunch box more like his or her friends’. Other children like being trendsetters and enjoy corn chips with refried bean dip, bagels and hummus, and pasta salad.

7- Feed Your Family. If your entire family is not vegetarian, think of foods that everyone can enjoy. Some vegetarian meals will work for all family members. Sometimes you’ll be able to add the meat last (stir-fries and spaghetti sauce, for example). Keep some frozen convenience foods like veggie burgers around.

8- Share the food your family eats with others. Invite your child’s friends for snacks or meals. Nine-year old Sam’s non-vegetarian friends loved to be served salsa and chips, Amy’s Toaster Pops, tomato soup, Tofutti Cuties, and soy hot dogs in a bun (if not pushed as soy). But he would never take these foods to school. Each child is different.

9- Communicate. If your family is vegan, explain why and listen to your child’s thoughts about veganism. If your child has chosen to be vegan, listen to his or her reasons for this choice.

10- Find Support. To ask questions of other vegetarian parents, sign up for The Vegetarian Resource Group Parents’ E-Mail list here. Visit the Vegetarian Resource Group website

ALL ABOUT VEGETARIAN KIDS

What is the difference between vegetarian and vegan?
Vegetarian do not eat meat, fish, or fowl. A vegan is a vegetarian who does not use other animal products, such as dairy and eggs.

What foods do vegan/vegetarian children eat?
Many vegan children enjoy the following list of simple, familiar foods:
Veggie burgers
Tofu dogs
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
Breakfast cereals (with soymilk or fortified juice)
Pancakes, waffles
Bagels
Pasta
Pizza without cheese or with vegan soy cheese
Mashed potatoes
Shakes made with fruit and/or soymilk
Raw vegetables with dip
Hummus
Bean burritos
Fresh fruit
Frozen desserts

Where do vegan/vegetarian children get their nutrients?

  • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12-fortified foods include some brands of soymilk and rice milk, meat analogues, breakfast cereals, and Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast.
  • Vitamin D: Sunlight exposure is one source of vitamin D. Where regular sunlight exposure is not possible, some brands of soymilk or rice milk, orange juice, and some cold cereals are fortified with vitamin D.
  • Calcium: Good sources include calcium-fortified soymilk and orange juice and many brands of tofu (Read the label for calcium content since this varies). Dark green leafy vegetables including collard greens, kale, mustard greens, and turnip greens also provide calcium.
  • Protein: Beans, grains, soy products, meat analogues, nuts, and nut butters all provide protein.
  • Iron: Look for iron in whole or enriched grains and grain products, iron-fortified cereals, dried beans, green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits.

You can find a wealth of information on this topic in fellow Babble author Sierra Black’s article on Vegetarian Children.

Reed Mangels has a Ph.D. in nutrition, is co-author of the book Simply Vegan, and is raising her two children on a vegan diet.  The Vegetarian Resource Group is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public on vegetarianism and the interrelated issues of health, nutrition, ecology, ethics, and world hunger.

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