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raising a vegetarian child
Photography by chris roll, stuart, miles, clare bloomfield, and happy kanppy

raising a vegetarian child

by satkaur khalsa and jessie litow
Nutrition | Healthy Eating

Whether we are vegetarians or meat-eaters, planning our children’s diet is fairly simple when they are young. Breast milk is ideal in nutritional content for infants, and once children begin to eat solids, they still spend the majority of their time under our watchful eyes.

As our children grow, however, maintaining a vegetarian diet for a family can be a difficult and often confusing path. How do we explain our dietary choices and restrictions to our children? What do we do to maintain their vegetarian lifestyle when they are away from home? How do we ensure that our children are eating the healthiest diet possible?

Explaining the Veggie Lifestyle
Until they are nearly a year old, our children subsist largely on breast milk and baby food. They eat most of their meals in the family home, without the distractions of menu choices or others eating meat nearby. Once toddlers begin eating a wider variety of foods, many families venture out to restaurants more often. Though vegetarian restaurants are a great option, they’re not always available and occasionally ending up in restaurants that serve meat is practically inevitable.

If you are dining with non-vegetarian friends who opt for meat, your children’s curiosity could get the best of them. New sights and smells pique children’s interests, and before you know it, your little vegetarian could be reaching across the table to grab that meatball out of your friend’s spaghetti! Gaging how to react in these situations can be confusing. How do we encourage our children to respect the dietary rules of our household without creating a stigma against meat-eaters in their minds?

First, it is important to remember that different families choose the vegetarian lifestyle for different reasons. From health reasons, to religious practice, to animal rights concerns, vegetarians come in many forms. But regardless of the reason why a family chooses not to eat meat, there is a common thread that binds them all:  discipline. This is not to say that meat-eaters lack discipline.

Everyone in this world follows different principles that guide their lives from day to day. From artists to yogis to doctors and religious scholars, each of these life paths require a sense of discipline. It is also important to note that discipline does not negate freedom of choice. Part of raising children to be well-rounded adults is giving them the freedom to make their own decisions, but also providing the knowledge to help them make the best decisions possible, instilling in them the necessary sense of discipline to do so. 

It is important for parents in vegetarian families to talk to their children and explain the reasons why their family does not eat meat in clear and concise terms. For example, if you have strong feelings about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, you might say, “Mommy and Daddy’s bodies feel healthier when we don’t eat meat, but we can choose from lots of other yummy things for dinner.” If you are raising your child as a vegetarian for religious reasons, you might say, “In our practice, Mommy and Daddy’s teacher prescribes that we do not eat meat, so we respect those beliefs.” Educating children regarding other religions and cultures with dietary restrictions and spending time with other vegetarian families are easy ways to help children feel a sense of normalcy when it comes to their household dietary rules. 

Maintaining the Vegetarian Lifestyle Away From Home

It’s an unavoidable reality that once our children gain access to their friends’ lunch boxes in the school cafeteria, and are eating dinner away from home, controlling their diets will be difficult. Communication and attention to detail are vital in order to encourage children to respect the vegetarian lifestyle.

Just as parents are selective with babysitters and carpool drivers, it’s important to be familiar with which friend’s homes your children spend time in. It’s important to communicate your family’s dietary preferences, whether vegetarian or otherwise, to the parents who are responsible for your child and gage their reaction. If they seem put off or disapproving, think twice before allowing your child to spend time or eat meals in their home. If the other parent responds positively, it is always still a good idea to send healthy vegetarian foods along with your child on their play dates to prevent snack time conflicts at friends’ homes. Peanut butter-filled celery sticks, apples, and whole-wheat crackers are all wholesome, veggie-friendly and travel well.

Unfortunately, all of the planning and discipline in the world can’t prevent children from eating meat when they are out of their parents’ sight. Once they are in grade school, children often trade lunches with one another. If a child wants to try a friend’s turkey sandwich, there’s not much parents can do except hope that the discipline and values that they have instilled in them will hold true outside the home. If your child tells you that they have eaten meat and want to continue to do so, don’t be afraid to remind them that though you respect and appreciate their honesty, meat will not be served in your household.

Open the lines of communication and let your child know that you hope they will respect your family’s reasons for a vegetarian diet and adhere to those principles until he or she is old enough to make those decisions.