Becoming Vegetarian

So it’s finally happened, the day you’ve been dreading but told yourself would never come: your child has learned that meat comes from animals, not the grocery store, and announced the she doesn’t want to eat them anymore. Now what do you do?

Odds are, if this is the situation you’re in, you don’t know much about vegetarian cooking or nutrition. You want to encourage your child to make independent decisions and stand up for their beliefs, but you also want to make sure that she is getting the proper nutrition that she needs to develop, so what do you do? Time to take a crash course in vegetarianism and nutrition.

What Kind of Vegetarian?
Hopefully your child already eats a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If she doesn’t, you might want to ask her to seriously consider what she plans to eat once she cuts meat out of her diet. Use this as an opportunity to discuss proper nutrition with your child.

If she is planning to become an ovo-lacto vegetarian, meaning she’ll still eat dairy products, such as milk, eggs and cheese, then getting enough protein into her isn’t a big concern. If, however, she’s planning on going vegan, meaning she won’t consume any animal products at all, then you’re both going to have to be more vigilant about what she’s eating.

Fortunately, there are a wide variety of soy foods and beverages on the market that can be used to help supplement a vegetarian or vegan diet. Soymilk, for example, is an especially good option for vegan kids since it contains calcium supplements, can be used any way that regular milk can and comes in a variety of flavors.

Not Always Healthy
Be aware though, many convenience foods marketed to vegetarians are heavily processed and contain high amounts of salt and other additives that you don’t want to eat a lot of. Basing a diet mostly on these packaged foods is just as unhealthy as a diet based on processed foods that contain meat.

Like any other diet, a vegetarian diet should consist of lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, such as whole grain bread and brown rice. Look at this as a chance to get creative - instead of buying meat substitutes, you can try making your own using beans and legumes. A few good, kid friendly vegetarian cookbooks will prove invaluable tools in creating vegetarian meals that the whole family can enjoy.

Getting Enough
The main dietary deficiencies you will have to worry about with vegetarian children are iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12. Beans and dark green vegetables, such as broccoli and spinach, are good sources of iron. Also, try pairing foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, with foods rich in iron to help the body absorb it better. Beans are also a good source of zinc, as well as eggs and milk products – vegans may wish to take zinc supplements to be sure they’re getting enough.

Calcium, which as we all know is important for building strong bones and teeth, can be obtained from dairy products, but nuts, soybeans, broccoli, dried fruits and sesame seeds are all good sources of calcium too. Unfortunately, the best, reliable sources of vitamin B12 are meat and dairy products. Fermented foods such as apple cider, sauerkraut and tempeh are also sources of B12, but if your child is vegan you may want to give her a supplement, just to be sure.

A Forever Choice?
Finally, take a close look at your child’s motives for giving up meat. Children will have different reasons depending on their age. If your child is young, the motivation is probably just an aversion to eating the cute lamb or piglet, and may not last more than a few weeks or months.

In older children, such as teenagers, going vegetarian might be an attempt at rebellion or even a way to lose weight. While teenage rebellion is hardly anything new, if you feel that your child is giving up meat as a way to diet, you might want to keep an eye out for signs of an eating disorder.

If you are concerned about your child’s motives for becoming vegetarian, talk to them about it. You may discover that your child has put more thought into their decision to give up meat than you realize. If your child is serious about living the meat free life, then be sure to support them. Whether you’re 8 or 80, following a vegetarian diet can actually be quite healthy, it may just take a bit more effort to get all those nutrients that you need.