Is It Safe for My Child to Become a Vegetarian?
By Erica Leon, MS, RDN, CDN, CEDRD
My daughter was ten when she refused to eat meat because she didn’t want to harm animals. A class discussion had raised this topic and she was sold. I listened calmly to her rationale, and it made sense. The bigger question for me was how to manage dinner for a vegetarian and a meat-and-potato-loving husband and preteen son!
Preparing different meals is a common concern I hear from parents with kids becoming vegetarian. Additional questions I often hear include: Is it safe? How will my child get enough protein? What other nutrients should I worry about? Here are some suggested guidelines for responding to the topic of vegetarianism if your child or teen brings it up:
Listen. Talk calmly with your child about their reason for eliminating meat. If it is about animal rights or another reason that you feel makes sense to your child, be respectful of his or her choice(s). It is not worth a power struggle and shows that you value what your child feels. If you have any concerns that your child is cutting out a category of food(s) for weight-loss purposes, it is important to talk about balanced eating and healthy habits rather than weight. In some cases, a sudden change in diet can indicate potential eating-disordered thoughts, and you may have to take the opportunity to address this swiftly.
A well-planned vegetarian diet can be nutritionally adequate according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A healthy vegetarian diet will contain a variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and calcium sources. Your child must learn that a steady diet of pizza, pasta, mozzarella sticks, and bagels does not constitute a “healthy” vegetarian diet.
Nutrients in shortest supply in a vegetarian diet, particularly a vegan diet (one that excludes dairy and eggs), may include:
- Protein: Vegetarian sources can include eggs and cheese, legumes (beans), nuts and nut butter, seeds, tofu, and other soy products.
- Calcium: Vegetarian-friendly sources of calcium include: cow’s milk, yogurt and cheese, calcium-fortified soy, rice, oat or hemp milk, calcium-fortified juice, and tofu, broccoli, leafy greens, beans, almond and almond butter, sesame seeds and sesame butter, and soy nuts.
- Iron: Rich sources for vegetarians include fortified breakfast cereals, enriched breads and pasta, eggs, beans, and dark leafy green vegetables. Soy products such as veggie burgers are generally fortified with iron. It is important to consume a good source of vitamin C in order to increase absorption of iron. Vitamin C is found in citrus, tomatoes, and peppers.
- Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products including eggs and dairy. If your child is a vegan, he or she will need supplementation. Many soy products and milk substitutes are fortified, so read labels.
- Vitamin D: Considered the “sunshine vitamin” since our body can make it from exposure to sunlight, some vegetarians who do not consume fish, eggs, or dairy and/or do not spend time in the sun will benefit from supplementation.
Do I need to prepare two dinners? A vegetarian diet can be healthy for the whole family, so this is your chance to slowly introduce some new foods into the entire family’s diet. I usually involve my kids in planning several meals for the week.
Simple meal suggestions my kids came up with:
- Whole grain pasta with ground turkey (son) AND vegetarian crumbles (daughter). We added salad and soy milk for calcium and protein.
- Stir-fried vegetables with chicken AND tofu and quinoa or brown rice.
- Rice and beans was a great main meal for my daughter and a side dish for my husband and son. Smaller amounts of red meat and vegetables rounded off the meal.
- I experimented and would make dishes that everyone could enjoy such as whole grain vegetable lasagna using tofu instead of ricotta cheese, with lots of vegetables and soy cheese instead of mozzarella.
- Turkey tacos and bean tacos were common fare.
- When I made breaded chicken cutlet, I make breaded tofu cutlet.
- On hectic nights, I confess that I have used frozen foods such as Amy’s Organic Bean Dishes, Morningstar Farm or Dr. Praeger’s Veggie Burgers, or Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods frozen vegetarian meals. Even a dietitian needs a night off from cooking!
Where can I read more about vegetarianism? Some great websites for vegetarian nutrition include:
- The Vegetarian Resource Group, www.vrg.org
- The Plant Powered Vegetarian, www.sharonpalmer.com
- The Vegetarian Times, http://www.vegetariantimes.com/recipe/
- PETA Kids, http://www.petakids.com/animal-facts/