A few months ago, my 10-year-old daughter announced that she wanted to be a vegetarian. I asked her how she came to this decision. This was, after all, the same girl who used to love bacon, sausage, and steak. She was an omnivore! Turns out, after learning more about where food comes from, meat processing, and commercial farms (thanks, YouTube!) and talking with some classmates, she decided that she no longer wanted to eat meat. It’s pretty common for kids around this age to start to make independent, value-based decisions, so I wasn’t too surprised.
She wasn’t asking me to join a cult or get a tattoo. I could do this!
Vegetarianism has a lot of variations, so I asked her a few clarifying questions. What kind of vegetarian diet did she intend to follow? Vegan? Pescatarian? Lacto? Ovo? Lacto-Ovo? We discussed the differences and she considered their potential impact. Ovo would mean no more milk or ice cream (gasp!), whereas pescatarian would mean she didn’t have to give up sushi (Winning!). She decided to be a pescatarian. Ok, cool.
Now that I knew what kind of vegetarian she wanted to be, my only concern was making sure she continued to eat a balanced diet. I talked to our pediatrician who assured me that a vegetarian diet can be a great option for kids as long as we made sure to eat a balanced diet and get enough protein, B-12, zinc, iron, and calcium. Basically, eating a balanced diet is critical, no matter the source. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about the care and feeding of a vegetarian kid.
Start with the basics of nutrition.
Balance is key! As long as she’s getting her daily allowance of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, and dairy, we’re good. To be honest, it’s more difficult to manage the amount of sugar she eats than to ensure a balanced diet without meat. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has some great visuals and tools to help kids learn about nutrition, no matter their dietary lifestyle. Their “MyPlate” image and explanation is a more easily-digestible (pun intended) version of the old food pyramid and includes an interactive tool to learn more about each group, including vegetarian options. She loves milk and other dairy products. We make sure she eats fish, eggs, soy products, and beans to get enough protein, for example.
Choose and prepare food together.
My daughter already likes to cook, but a new food lifestyle was the perfect opportunity to involve her in making our family menus and helping with meal prep. Having a vegetarian had the added benefit of nudging the whole family toward a healthier menu. I discovered some great new recipes from fellow Iowa City Moms Blogger Meg’s post about vegetarians and protein. This summer, we’ve made Cookie and Kate’s Crispy Baked Tofu, Sweet Corn and Black Bean Tacos (even her friends raved about this one!), and Broccoli Salad. I taught her how to make new things like granola, crepes, and stir-fried rice (we add scrambled eggs or tofu).
The whole family eats vegetarian one or two nights a week and on the other nights, we substitute fish for her when we’re throwing meat on the grill. We keep the ingredients for things like quesadillas, pasta, and burritos stocked in our kitchen, along with plenty of fresh fruits and veggies. I also take her grocery shopping and let her choose one or two new foods to try. (Eggplant! Who knew?). Having only one child might be a benefit in this case–I don’t know what kind of slippery slope we’d go down if one of four or five kids had an adapted meal plan…
You may be vegetarian, but you’re not special.
We took a family vacation this summer and my relatives went to a lot of work preparing meals for our huge, extended family. Every meal had non-meat components, but my daughter decided that she would all of a sudden become a picky eater and a vegetarian. By the second week of our trip, I was standing at the stove poaching eggs and flipping quesadillas for her just so I could enjoy my burger in peace. I realized I wasn’t doing her any favors by catering to her precious preferences, so my husband and I regrouped and explained to her that she could be either a vegetarian or a picky eater. She can’t be both. This turned out to be a great time to reinforce some basic etiquette about eating outside of your own home. 99% of the time, there will be something you can eat. Adapt and overcome, young Padawan.
Food choices can evolve.
Today, my daughter is a vegetarian. That could change. She could abandon this lifestyle next year and go all-in with meat again. She could become a flexitarian–someone who eats a plant-based diet with the occasional meat. That’s a thing. I looked it up. I figure this vegetarian choice is a good testing ground for our willingness to support her choices and developing independence. So, go ahead and dive into that tofu. It really doesn’t matter to me as long as she develops a healthy relationship with food and strives for a balanced diet.
Unless she tells me she wants to be vegan. That just might break this dairy-lovin mama’s heart.
Disclaimer: I am not a nutrition or medical expert. This is just what I have learned. Every kid and household is different!