Raising your children vegetarian isn’t that different from raising non-vegetarian children – though a few simple strategies can make it easier to ensure they’re healthy and well adjusted.
To make sure your children grow up healthy, parents need to lead by example. When we keep healthy foods in our homes and consistently eat well , it’s only natural our kids will too. You can live on candy and soda and still be vegetarian – but common sense tells us to eat fresh fruits, veggies and a variety of protein sources every day.
It’s convenient that a lot of traditional “kid food” is already vegetarian, like grilled cheese, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and meatless pizza. Start expanding your children’s horizons with alternative protein sources – like edamame, black beans, chick peas and tofu – as soon they can eat finger foods. Your child’s pediatrician is a great resource if you have dietary questions.
Vegetarian kids may not realize there’s anything different about them until they’re in day care or preschool. That’s when it’s important to educate both your child and the adults in their life about your beliefs and preferences.
First explain to your child what it means to be vegetarian, and why your family made that decision. Only use language you’re comfortable with them repeating loudly, in public places. It was easy for me to explain to my son that “we think it’s disgusting to eat dead animals.” He then made some very rude comments to his grandparents and preschool buddies. With my second child, we simply explained “it’s how we keep our bodies healthy” or “we love animals.”
Also make sure your children know their soy hot dogs and fake chicken nuggets are different from the ones served at school or friends’ houses. Look-alike meat products are understandably confusing for kids and could result in them accidentally eating meat if you’re not careful.
That’s why it’s important to educate the adults who interact with your child about their dietary boundaries. It may be obvious to tell your son’s preschool teacher that your family is vegetarian. But you also need to inform substitute teachers who don’t know your family. If there are parents chaperoning a field trip where lunch is served or a friend’s teenage brother gives out the snacks at a play date – tell them your child is vegetarian, too. My son has only eaten meat once, when a substitute teacher gave him pepperoni at snack time.
Similarly, non-vegetarian adults may not realize there are meat products in items like ramen noodle flavoring, worcestershire sauce or caesar salad dressing. They may assume it’s OK to feed your child fish sticks or re-fried beans with lard. Try to be clear in your instructions without being preachy. Or, to ease your mind and ensure your preferences are met – take a tip from parents of kids with food allergies – and consider packing your child’s lunch or snack.
Naturally, as children get older they’ll become more socially aware and better able to explain their food preferences. Older kids can also understand the more complex reasons for living a vegetarian lifestyle. Continue the conversation with your children as they grow – especially if they encounter adversity. And always, always be a good example in your choices and actions.