So Your Child Wants To Be a Vegetarian: A Pediatrician's Advice
Ventures into Vegetarianism/Veganism (and Movie/TV Montage)
One of my favorite movie moments is when Aunt Voula in My Big, Fat Greek Wedding learns that Ian Miller, the non-Greek protagonist soon to join the family, is a vegetarian. She asks, “What do you mean he don’t eat no meat?” and the hoopla of the engagement party falls to a stunned silence. The festivity only resumes with her reassurance, “That’s okay, that’s okay – I make lamb!”
I laugh at this scene because for me it hits home. You see, when my younger sister was 8 years old, she announced to my family that she intended never, ever to eat meat again. My usually well-spoken Texan grandparents, who expressed their love for us (at least in part) by buying us kids barbeque, could only stand there and say, “Huh?” And my Italian grandmother and extended family on the other side - well, they acted like Aunt Voula. My grandma would say she understood the vegetarian thing and then would proudly present my sister with an aromatic vegetable dish that was exquisitely seasoned and essentially perfect except that it was decorated with bits of … were those bits of ground beef? Let’s just say my sister’s vegetarianism, which often has edged into veganism, has been an education for my entire family over decades. And my sister, as per her promise, truly has never eaten meat again.
What did my parents do, after a short period of puzzlement? And -- more to the point – what should YOU do, should your child or teen make a similar declaration? Here are a few tips I hope you will find helpful.
1.Consider the reasons behind the choice. My funny and, yes, perhaps dated movie reference for this section is a scene from Notting Hill, when Hugh Grant’s character, William Thacker, has a dinner date with a fruitarian woman who says she believes “fruits and vegetables have feelings, so we think cooking is cruel.” Hugh listens attentively and non-judgmentally as she clarifies her position. He starts, “So these carrots,’ and she cuts in, “have been murdered, yes.” “Murdered,” he says sensitively, “Poor carrots – that’s beastly.” In all seriousness, however, and with all due respect to fruitarian Steve Jobs, listening is important. My parents listened carefully to my sister’s reasons in accordance with their goal of rearing a self-assured, independent thinker. Like many school-aged children, she expressed her horror on learning that beef, pork, poultry and seafood were cows, pigs, chickens and fish. She became a fervent spokeswoman for animal protection and for humane farms. Inspired by a recent school unit on the environment, she – like Dr. Seuss’s Lorax - also spoke for the trees. She listed ecological concerns about large food industry’s destruction of the rainforest and the need to share the earth’s resources responsibly. My sister’s heartfelt explanation helped my parents arrive at acquiescence and ultimately support of her decision.
Indeed, there are many very good reasons people have in choosing vegetarianism (eating no meat) and/or veganism (eating no meat, dairy products or eggs). Aside from the environmental and ecological arguments, it is a decision that for many is tied to cultural or religious beliefs. Teens who are trying to define themselves and formulate their own beliefs may want to back their newly-stated opinions with actions.
Words of warning: While I strongly advocate really listening to your child’s reasons, as a physician I am also on the alert for a teen who does NOT seem to have well-thought-out positions. Beware of kids and teens who choose veganism for the WRONG reason, such as using it as a cover for excessive or unhealthy caloric restriction and eating disorders.
2. Make a general team strategy. Something as big as dietary change is best done as a family unit. It is too big a project, with too much potential for family dissension, for poor, dear Mom or Dad to tackle alone or for the child to manage without help. In the movie Everything is Illuminated, Elijah Woods’s character visits Ukraine and explains to utterly baffled companions at a restaurant that he eats no meat. When he is told that there is nothing available without meat, he asks if he can have just one of the potatoes that would otherwise be served with meat. The scene’s ending is poignantly and amusingly pathetic, as he is presented with a single, peeled baked potato on a plate, without even a sprinkle of chives … that then sadly rolls onto the floor. Poor guy – oh, the plight of the unaided vegetarian! Honestly, that simply should NOT be how it is, for a good vegetarian effort takes teamwork. Meal-planning, grocery shopping and cooking are all affected. In fact, if you have been a family of omnivores all along, it may be wise to take baby steps into vegetarianism or veganism. After all, it is truly daunting for a parent who knows how to cook a certain repertoire of meat-based meals to face the task of relearning a vegetarian selection (and as a pediatrician, I do recommend home-cooked meals as often as possible). To borrow Sheryl Sandberg’s phrase, you might consider “leaning-in” to a change – in this case, changed dietary habits – by instituting Meatless Mondays, or Meatless Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays! After all, cutting out half the meat still makes a positive impact on animals and on the environment.
My sister would consider nothing other than being a full-on vegetarian, while the rest of us still enjoyed our brisket and Chicken Marsala. However, we omnivores did slowly learn to cook more vegetarian dishes, to modify the ones that had dashes of bacon bits to include the veggie mock-bacon bits or perhaps sesame sprinkles instead, and to cook the vegetable dishes that we already knew more frequently than before. We cooked things that had vegetarian versions, like pasta that she could eat with straight red sauce, though we omnivores added meatballs. Many Sundays, my mom cooked a big pot of some variation of vegetable/bean soup, made with vegetable broth, NOT chicken broth! We often enjoyed it that first night as our family dinner entree, after which it made for great vegetarian left-overs for my sister throughout the week.
3. Be Smart about Nutrition. There is a classic scene from I Love Lucy in which Lucille Ball does a commercial for a syrup called “Vitameatavegamin” that is supposed to provide everything needed for good health. The scene is a riot, as Lucy endures its foul-taste for many repeated filming takes until she becomes drunk on the concoction. For a wonderful laugh – check out on youtube! But, seriously, back to your vegetarian child, there is not one simple formula to ensure good nutrition. ANY restricted diet means more potential for nutritional deficiency, and that means more of a need for planning. To begin with, be sure calories are sufficient. I recommend the website, www.choosemyplate.gov, which also includes a tracking feature called supertracker.usda.gov that can help in following calories and nutrients in a child’s diet. Another good parent resource is the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website, www.eatright.org, which has recipes and good articles on nutrition.
If your family is new to vegetarianism/veganism, it might be a good idea to have your child take a multivitamin. Truth be told, however, if your child is a non-picky vegetarian who eats milk and eggs and a pretty wide variety of vegetarian foods, he/she is probably getting all the nutrients needed without said vitamin. Similarly, if your child or teen has chosen to be a vegan but consumes a varied diet including fats and protein as well as a fortified milk substitute (like fortified soy/almond/cashew/coconut milk), then he/she is also probably set on nutritional requirements (due to supplementation in these dairy replacements). Without milk substitutes, though, I do worry about your child’s not meeting nutritional needs and would definitely recommend a multivitamin, particularly for Vitamin B12, calcium, Vitamin D and zinc. If in doubt, I recommend meeting with a nutritionist, and Cook Children’s has a wonderful nutrition department. If you live further away, the www.eatright.org website I mentioned above has a “Find an Expert” function to help you locate a Registered Dietician Nutritionist near you.
Dr. Shaw goes even more in-depth on this topic in this companion blog. Click to find out more about your vegetarian's requirements for protein, fat, iron, calcium and more by clicking here.
4. Make things delicious.
One of my sister’s biggest pieces of advice to other vegetarians/vegans and their families is to continue to expand your culinary and dietary horizons and not view vegetarianism as an impediment to enjoyment. As a physician who wants people to strive for variety in even a restricted diet, I whole-heartedly agree. Take a world view.
Asian food is great for vegans - the only big things to avoid are fish and oyster sauces, but many recipes and restaurants can make do with soy sauce alone. Curries often are made with coconut milk - perfect. Mexican food allows for many vegan options such as veggie tacos, guacamole and salsa and black bean soup. Italian food with its pasta and tomato and pesto sauces, pizzas that can be made vegetarian and risotto (great with mushrooms) offers great options. As do Greek, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines with their salads, hummus and baba ganoush. Indian cuisine with its rice, naan, garbanzo beans and spinach paneer (to name just a few things) is perfect. The list goes on. Often, the heart of a dish is really its seasoning and spices, and those can be enjoyed with just vegetables or a meat substitute!
There are so many options available at grocery stores now, too. Score! You can buy faux chicken fingers, veggie burgers, “meat”balls,” meatless-sausages and of all kinds, and even vegan hotdogs. And - from experience - they can taste pretty good!. Veggie bacon may not taste quite as amazing as real bacon, but it helps fulfill a craving, doesn’t allow for feeling deprived, and holds to your vegetarian choice. You can also learn to cook with meat-substitutes like tofu, tempeh, and seitan (contains gluten) that are now featured entrees of some world-class vegan restaurants.
There is also the potential for amazing desserts. There are many vegan ice creams available now that are incredibly tasty. You can also whip up cashew cream to use in place of real cream in cake and other recipes. My sister likes to slice bananas, freeze them, and then put them through the food processor with peanut-butter and/or chocolate syrup for a delicious and pretty healthy vegan dessert.
Best wishes for your ventures into vegetarianism and veganism. Who knows, dietary change that seems intimidating now may become second nature and a part of your child and your family’s identity. Think of Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde, introducing herself to her Harvard Law School classmates. “Hi, I’m Elle Woods, and (holding up her chihuahua) this is Bruiser Woods,” she says, “and we are both Gemini vegetarians.”
Bon appetit to all, and many thanks to my awesome sister, Ariana Nizza-Chapman, for the vegetarian inspiration and the many tips! Thanks, too, to nutritionist Kati McKissic, RDN, for her extremely helpful input.
Get to know Daphne N. Shaw, M.D.
Dr. Shaw is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Fort Worth (Henderson), board certified in pediatrics. To make an appointment with Dr. Shaw, call 817-760-2096 or click here. Dr. Shaw graduated with honors from Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., before earning her medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. She followed with internship and residency at Baylor College of Medicine’s general pediatrics program at Texas Children’s Hospital and Ben Taub Hospital. She wrote and illustrated a children's book called No Shots for Me about a little girl confronting her fear of getting vaccines. Her outside interests include spending time with her husband, two children and two dogs (as well as some fish and even a gerbil), as well as traveling, reading and writing.