Raising your children as vegetarians is a personal choice more and more parents are making due to health and environmental benefits. If you're among them, read on for tips and advice on how to help your family stick to a vegetarian diet without sacrificing nutrition.
There are an increasing number of vegetarians in our country - so it stands to reason that more parents are being faced with a choice about whether or not to raise their kids according to their own moral and dietary practices. That could be a good thing: Compared to the population at large, vegetarians have a lower overall body mass index, lower LDL (so-called "bad") cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and eat more fiber, says Marie Schneider, M.D., a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine. Here's what to consider if you are thinking of having a meat-free household.
Know the different types of veggies out there - and the specific dietary concerns for each.
The most common type of vegetarian diet is lacto-ovo: those who don't eat animals but do eat products derived from animals like milk, eggs, and cheese. "The big take-home is that lacto-ovo vegetarianism is fine from a nutritional perspective for people of all ages," says Schneider.
Protein is the most obvious concern for lacto-ovo vegetarians, but pediatricians recommend beans, nuts, and legumes for kids just as they would for adults. Hooray for hummus! Vitamin supplements are also recommended for B12, which is exclusively found in animal protein.
There's also veganism, in which people eat no animal products whatsoever, including dairy, eggs, and less obvious things like gelatin and honey. "With vegans, there's also the potential lack of things like calcium and vitamin D," says Schneider. Increasingly, though, she says fortified products are hitting the grocery shelves that cater to those two specific needs: Fortified cheese, soy milk, and cereal are among the most visible.
Protein and fat are more supremely important for infants, even more so than for toddlers and preschoolers, so good thing breast milk is vegan. "It used to be that 30 years ago the soy formula wasn't as good as regular formula in every way," says Melvin Heyman, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. "Now it has adequate nutritional content for growing kids, though," he adds. (For lacto-ovo vegetarian kids, whole milk or 2 percent milk are also important after their first birthday.)
Beyond that, everyone seems to have their personal definition of what it means to be vegetarian. Some individuals don't eat red meat; some don't eat any "animals" but do eat fish, also known as pescetarians. Rule of thumb: The more limited your family's diet, the more information, support, and knowledge you should seek.
It might be worth seeing a nutritionist or dietician. Dieticians have tricks of the trade that go beyond the obvious. Take the example of iron. The source that is the most bioavailable, or useable for you body, is animal protein - meat. But you might read that spinach also has high levels of iron, so you try to serve it up in vast quantity. Before trying to sell the tenth Quiche Florentine to your protesting family, you might want to talk to a dietician, who would tell you that eating spinach with an acid, like vinegar, citrus, or tomatoes, will increase your body's ability to absorb the iron - and your child's ability to as well. In addition to such insight, dieticians might be more specially trained to monitor your child's growth curve, which is very important.
What if your kids don't want to eat veggies, much less be vegetarian?
Picky eaters are a reality - and also a headache - for many parents, and that can be especially concerning if you've put lots of thought into a vegetarian lifestyle. "With all kids, exposure and repetition are very important," says Schneider. You shouldn't be a short-order cook. You should be able to put one meal on the table, no matter what that looks like for your family. "It is important to repeat the exposure in different ways," she says, "Variety is what is exciting about life!"
Another game to play to keep lots of variety in meals has to do with counting. "One piece of advice that I heard that I thought was useful was to make kids count the colors in their meals," says Heyman. If they get to five, it's probably a healthy feast, vegetarian or not.
What if your school-aged kid goes veggie, and your family is not vegetarian?
Most parents have heard the legend: A school-aged kid is forced to dissect a frog, then gets freaked out at the thought of eating any animal. Many parents are distraught by this prospect - they just don't know what their kids are going to eat - but the best thing to do is give them support and give them information.
Also, the majority of vegetarians are female, and "a small subset of people with eating disorders are vegetarian," says Schneider. (Please note that the opposite is not true: Many vegetarians do not have eating disorders.) Those individuals might be trying to cut out fat and calories from their diets in general. It might also be worthy taking an extra look at more specific signs of a larger problem if you feel like your son or daughter might be in that very small group.