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Vegetarian Children: How to raise healthy kids with a vegetarian diet

When my kids were babies, I used to hold them in my arms and nuzzle their tummies and say, “I made you out of spinach and tofu and ice cream!” When they were toddlers, we started playing, “This little piggy:” and made up a different food each time. It was never “this little piggy had roast beef.” My kids wouldn’t know what that was.

We’re all vegetarians. None of the kids has ever eaten meat. Yesterday, my little one pointed at the golden arches of America’s favorite fast food hamburger joint and asked, “What letter is that?”

“That is an M,” her sister answered confidently. “It belongs to that very famous gas station.”

For me, the decision to raise vegetarian kids was an easy one. I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life, and my husband hasn’t eaten meat in over 10 years. Of course we feed our kids the foods we love. Plus, I’ve never shopped for meat and never cooked it. I wouldn’t know the first thing about including meat options in our menu plan.

While I gave little thought to raising our kids as vegetarians, plenty of other people have thought about it. Everyone from curious relatives to nosy strangers has asked me why I decided to raise my kids this way.

But vegetarian families aren’t that unusual; according to a study cited by the Huffington Post last year, one in 200 kids are vegetarian. Even though it’s increasingly commonplace, raising vegetarian children still raises questions.

Here are the top four questions I get asked:

1. How do your kids get proper nutrition? Won’t they be malnourished?

My kids get nutrition from eating food. There are literally dozens of cookbooks out there that will teach you how to feed your kids a proper vegetarian diet, to get the right balance of micronutrients and amino acids. The truth is, though, plants are rich in nearly all these nutrients. A steady diet of plentiful, diverse healthy food will be enough for your kids. We don’t spend a lot of time balancing proteins or matching amino acids in our house. We just eat a lot of good food. It works.

2. Shouldn’t the kids get to choose if they’re vegetarian? When are you going to let them choose for themselves?

Does your three-year-old get to choose her own diet? I didn’t think so. My kids eat what I prepare for them, which means no meat. Since they are my children, they get to grow up with my default setting until they’re old enough to make an informed decision to change it. Usually I quip that my kids will be allowed to eat meat when they are old enough to cook it.

3. Don’t your kids feel weird, being so different from their friends?

They’re not so different. At school, they eat a packed lunch just like everyone else. They might have slightly different stuff in their Hello Kitty lunchboxes, but they’re the same in that they eat food from their homes.

Since we hang out with a pretty crunchy crowd of hippie families that share our values, at home or at playdates, my kids are often with other vegetarian children. They like telling people that they’re vegetarians, and they’ve never expressed feeling left out because other kids were eating meat and they were not.

4. So, what do your kids eat?

Probably a lot of the same things your kids eat. Today, I sent them off to summer camp with carrot sticks, cheese sticks, a hard-boiled egg, a bagel and some apple slices. Sure, we eat more “hippie food” than the average household – the girls are masters of lentil soup, tofu stir fry and burritos – but essentially they eat a lot of classic kid food, just adapted slightly to leave out the meat and bring in more plant-based protein.

If these questions don’t intimidate you, and you’re interested in getting started with a vegetarian diet for your family, I wholeheartedly recommend Molly Katzen’s Moosewood cookbooks. They are classics of healthy, simple, delicious vegetarian cuisine. She has also published several cookbooks for kids, starting with Pretend Soup, which are full of fun pictorial recipes for snacks, desserts and dinners. My daughter got one for her third birthday, and it’s been a staple in our kitchen ever since.

Of course, you’ll want to check in with your pediatrician first before changing your family’s diet. Going veg is great for the planet and good for most people’s health, but a few people are prone to anemia or have other health conditions that make it a bad idea. Your doctor may want to run a few blood tests to make sure you’re in good health to start.

It’s also a good idea to change your diet slowly. If you’ve been eating meat, phase it out of your diet gradually. A low-meat diet is still better for the planet than the average American one. If you decide in a flurry of green guilt to turn your whole family vegan overnight, you’ll probably all end up hungry, irritable and sneaking cheeseburgers before long.

It takes time to create new habits. Try switching first to vegetarian breakfasts (my kids love yogurt with granola and nuts, fried eggs, and sweet potato pancakes). Next you can switch the meat out of their lunches. Once everyone’s adapted to eating meat more rarely, pick up some vegetarian cookbooks and start experimenting with new recipes for family dinners.

You might not ever decide to be fully vegetarian, but eating more meatless meals will be good for you, your kids and the earth.

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