Growing up, my family had a loose dinner rotation that went something like this: Spaghetti, chicken, beef roast, pork chops, fish, pizza, steak. Plus a green and a starch. And everyone ate it all, because that was dinner.
Recent years have seen an increase in food allergies and also food-specific diets.
Knowing what ingredient staples to keep on hand, how much prep time busy schedules allow, whether vital nutrients are accounted for … it’s a complicated balancing act for many parents, leaving many to feel like the healthy meal that every member at the table will eat may as well be a unicorn today.
And then, just when you think you have it figured out, BOOM! your preteen daughter declares herself a vegetarian. Now what?
Accept the opportunity
Be supportive. “Don’t see it as a new burden to bear, see it as an opportunity,” says Mandy Katz, MS, RD, CLC, LDN, the in-store nutritionist at Giant Food in Timonium.
Ask your child what drives the decision, so you can understand his or her motivation and level of commitment. Often the reasons are emotional, when children first make that intense connection between meat and the animals it comes from. Older kids may see a vegetarian diet as a path to weight loss.
Most importantly, make the child a part of the solution. Katz advises parents to avoid the frustration of taking it all on themselves. “Don’t let the child lay it at your feet and walk away,” she says. Have your children take ownership of their choices and task them with doing research. Together, you’ve got this.
While you don’t have to change the entire household diet, you could throw in some meatless meals for everyone on a regular basis. Vegetarian diets can be great for the whole family. They are generally chock-full of veggies, fruits and fiber and are low in fat and cholesterol. They help maintain healthy body weight and may reduce incidence of some chronic diseases.
Create balance with alternatives
It can’t be about one person always avoiding the entrée at the family meal. Your child may say, “I don’t eat meat anymore … so I’ll just eat the side dishes.” That sort of selective eating sometimes happens when only one family member has a different diet. The key is finding suitable replacements for the nutritional components that may be missing, Katz says.
Consider some healthy sources of important nutrients: protein (legumes, nut butters); iron (leafy greens, whole grains); calcium (yogurt, fortified OJ); vitamin D (fortified milk, sunlight exposure); vitamin B12 (eggs, dairy); and zinc (wheat germ, nuts). Ensure that kids are getting enough calories to fuel their growing bodies and even more if they are athletes.
A meatless diet that includes dairy and eggs does make it easier to strike that balance and fulfill the nutritional needs of growing children and active young adults. Fortunately, it is more common for a child to decide to suddenly eschew meat, poultry and fish (I’ve heard the phrase “nothing with a face”) than it is to go full-on vegan.
Seek expert guidance
Tap into resources right where you shop. Giant Food, for example, staffs dieticians that cover every store district, Katz says. Some have in-store office space available for private consultations, and/or you can arrange for a dietician to meet you at your nearest store and help you choose items and design meal plans. The $25 fee for a one-hour personal consultation is refunded to you at the end of the appointment in the form of a $25 Giant gift card. Some other stores offer similar services; check them out and make your vegetarian child a part of the learning process, too.
Another source of wisdom and support can be a vegetarian friend. Whole-family vegetarians already know the benefits of vegetarianism, and they likely have developed time-tested routines that work for them, Katz says. They may be able to offer advice on where to shop, what staples to stock, favorite recipes, best places to dine out, how to manage social events, meeting the caloric demands of growth spurts and much more. When vegetarian eating is a household lifestyle, nutrition rarely misses a beat.
There are also many terrific online resources available to help you understand and better feed your vegetarian child, but watch out for food fads or “cherry picked” lines from studies that don’t tell the whole story. Get sound, research-based advice from reliable websites such as healthychildren.org (American Academy of Pediatrics) and VegetarianNutrition.net (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics), Katz says.
Don’t fear the change. Embrace it. “The good news is it’s actually a secret bonus for the family, because it leads to reexamining healthy eating for everyone,” she says.
Sample vegetarian meal ideas from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Cereal with soy or cow’s milk
Pancakes topped with berries
Bagel with nut butter
Oatmeal with fruit
Eggs, tomato, and cheese in whole wheat tortilla
Yogurt, fruit, and nuts
Bean soup with whole-grain bread
Noodles with peanut butter sauce
Nut butter and banana sandwich
Pasta with tomato sauce
Tofu stir-fry over brown rice
Vegetable curry with barley
Hummus with pita
Fresh or dried fruit
Raw vegetables with dip
Low-fat graham crackers