Supporting Kids’ Food Choices
Our children don’t always want to eat the same way we do. Of course, many kids today are interested in filling up with junk food, but a lot of kids also go through a vegetarian phase. Parenting forums are filled with moms lamenting that their children are refusing to eat meat, and panicking over how to sneak meat into their diets or otherwise ensure they get enough protein. As parents, the best thing we can do for our kids is to find ways to be supportive of their food choices.
When kids decide to follow a different path from their parents – whether it is dietary, religious, or political – it is hard as parents not to feel that we have in some way failed them. It feels like a judgment to have your child refuse the food you always fed them. Almost as if they are saying you are not a good enough parent and you raised them the wrong way. Our task as parents is to raise ourselves above this natural inclination and to ask ourselves what is best for our child.
Research has long shown the health benefits of a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet. A new study also shows major cardiovascular benefits for kids on a vegan diet, which is important because heart disease begins in childhood. Many people are trying hard to get their kids to eat a more heart healthy diet. Yet, if it is our children who make the decision to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, we resist it. Oh, the ironies of life!
Unfortunately, I know too many kids who become vegetarian and end up eating more junk food and processed, pre-packaged foods. Today, vegetarian processed foods are widely available, which makes it easy for kids to access them. Additionally, there is a natural human inclination that when we give one thing up, we should get more of another thing we like to replace it. Kids who give up their steaks and fried chicken legs might feel justified in downing some extra potato chips. But when this happens on a regular basis, it adds up to some pretty unhealthy eating.
As parents, we need to be supportive of kids’ dietary changes, even if we disapprove. The problem is that if we are not, then our kids will not be able to make the healthiest choices within their range of options. Vegetarian and vegan kids whose parents are unwilling to cook separate food for them end up replacing meat with canned or instant foods, or junk foods, which are high in sodium and sugar.
On a personal level, I have known in my lifetime far too many kids who gained weight and became much less healthy on a vegetarian diet. When I spoke to them about it, I found they were carbohydrate loading. Pasta and bread were their main foods. Junk foods and other high-calorie convenience foods were also way up there in their list of things to eat. Remember, potato chips and deep fried french fries are vegan and pizza and lasagna are vegetarian. While these foods can be delicious treats, they should be “once in a while” foods, not everyday foods. When I saw vegetarian kids gaining weight, I found they were eating these foods frequently, and were eating far too many calories (especially from fats and carbohydrates) overall.
As parents, it is our job to combat this behavior: Not by denying our kids the freedom to make some dietary decisions. Not by forcing our kids to eat foods they don’t want to. But by helping them make healthy food choices within reasonable parameters.
Here are some quick tips for busy parents whose kids want to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet:
- Find healthy alternatives to bread, pasta, potatoes, and rice. Quinoa is my favorite, but oats (especially steel-cut) are fantastic for breakfast (even pancakes!) and potatoes can be replaced with more nutritious root vegetables, like sweet potatoes or turnips.
- Make sure all grains are whole grains. Whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, and brown rice are all much more nutritious than white, refined carbohydrates.
- Make beans! Beans are a great source of protein, fiber, and lots of other vitamins and minerals. Don’t buy the canned kind – buy dry beans. They won’t have any added sodium and they are much cheaper. Soak them overnight, then boil them. Do a big batch and keep them in the fridge. Beans are incredibly versatile and can fill in as a meat substitute for many kinds of meals. There are lots of kinds of sauce you can put on them, you can add them to eggs or other cooked dishes, and you can also puree them to make a spread for bread or a dip for vegetables. As a bonus, there are many different kinds of beans, each with a slightly different flavor and texture, so you can offer your child some variety.
- Make smoothies. It’s easy to toss some fruit in a blender for a quick meal or snack. For a vegetarian meal on the go, add some milk (or rice milk) and some nut butter for added bulk and protein. For a snack, make it lighter, by adding only fruit and some ice.
- Provide healthy snacks. Healthy crackers or muffins are easy to grab on the go. Even sweets like cookies and cakes can be healthy treats if they’re made right. Providing the kinds of snacks you want your kids to have available makes it less likely they’ll grab a bag of chips when they’re out. Package snacks in small, disposable snack size bags (I use biodegradable ones, which are now very good quality) and you make it even easier for kids to grab and go. (I prefer to use reusable containers, but for many kids on the go this will be a deterrent, as they will now have another item they need to remember to bring home, even after they’ve finished their snacks.)
- Use juice pulp. Making fruit or vegetable juice is a great, healthy addition to any diet, but don’t throw away that pulp. Many vegan and vegetarian kids are eating pasta and bread until they are full, whereas heavier proteins can make you feel fuller. Help kids feel fuller, faster, by giving them some extra fiber in their diets. Add fruit juice pulp to muffins and oatmeal. Use vegetable juice pulp to make pasta sauce, burgers, and crackers.
- If you can’t beat them, join them. Try making all-vegetarian meals a few times a week. You might find you enjoy them, too. By including kids in family meals, they are more likely to eat a healthy diet.
I hope these tips help ease the adjustment when you have a child who decides not to eat meat anymore!
If you have other tips, please share them below!