I have been a vegetarian for approximately 18 years. Over the years I have come to learn how to be a very healthy vegetarian and I have enjoyed excellent health as a result of learning about the nutritional benefits of my diet. This is turn has fueled my passion and my reasons for becoming vegetarian in the first place.

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In addition, I have chosen to raise my children vegetarian. With the help of books like Raising Vegetarian Children and Becoming Vegetarian, I have found the confidence and evidence-based health reasons to do so.

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I believe that eating a vegetarian diet is healthier than eating a meat-based diet and decreases one’s risks for chronic disease. This is made evident in The China Study (a book I highly recommend). I also believe that each individual who adopts a vegetarian diet is doing the best thing towards saving the environment. I believe it helps to teach children compassion for animals which makes them more compassionate towards other living beings. I believe that modeling and instilling a healthy vegetarian diet for our children helps to create the peaceful world our children deserve to inherit.

However, instead of arguing any of the social or environmental reasons for raising my children vegetarian, I am going to discuss the most important reason of all: their health.

People ask me all the time, “Aren’t you worried about their protein intake?” “Where do they get their iron from?” “What about calcium?” So I am going to focus this post on all three of these concerns. Information cited here comes from Raising Vegetarian Children by Joanne Stepaniak and Vesanto Melina.

Protein

The protein requirements for children are easily met by a vegetarian diet because all plant foods contain protein. Protein is an essential part of every plant cell. As long as a child’s caloric needs are being met and beans, nuts, and other legumes are included in the diet, then a child is sure to be getting enough protein, iron, calcium, zinc and other vitamins.

Children need .5-.7 grams of protein for each pound of body weight. Soy foods are more easily digested than protein sources from plant whole foods, such as beans, nuts and legumes. However, with what we now today about the dangers of soy (when eaten in abundance), I choose to feed my children the less easily digested proteins. The fact that we also eat some dairy foods give me some wiggle room. When I introduced solids to my kids I relied more heavily on dairy, eggs and soft beans like lentils, mung beans and black beans. Cubes of tofu were introduced closer to the age of two for allergy reasons, but they were infrequent snacks.

Iron

Since iron is absorbed more slowly from plant foods than from meat, many parents worry that their child (or mine!) is not getting enough. However, this is counterbalanced by two essential facts. First, plant foods contain plenty of iron. For example, soybeans, lentils, tofu, pumpkin seeds, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, kale and blackstrap molasses all contain triple the amount of iron per calorie compared with ground beef. If we build our diets on plant foods and include beans, nuts and legumes choices, we’re not likely to run short on iron.

Second, the typically high intake of foods containing Vitamin C in a vegetarian diet boosts iron absorption significantly. In fact, meat-eaters have a higher incidence of iron-deficiency anemia than vegetarians. I have been vegetarian since adolescence, have gone through two pregnancies and approximately 288 menstrual periods (when you bleed you lose iron), and I have never had anemia (I have been tested periodically throughout my life). Yet, interestingly enough, a number of my meat-eating friends and family have had it at some point in their lives.

Calcium

“It is believed that before the dawn of agriculture, which occurred about ten thousand years ago, our ancestors’ diets provided an estimated 1400 to 200 milligrams of calcium per day without a single drop of cow’s milk. This is about twice as much calcium as we take in today.” ~ from Raising Vegetarian Children

Some people worry about calcium-intake when one chooses to avoid dairy foods. I don’t heavily rely on dairy for my or my children’s calcium and protein needs but it does fill in some dietary gaps. However, for those of you who are interested, and I was asked this recently on twitter, some non-dairy calcium-rich foods include almonds, sesame seeds (tahini), broccoli, kale, collards, cabbage, Chinese greens, okra, figs, calcium-fortified orange juice and enriched soy milk and tofu.

We help our children absorb more calcium when we offer it throughout the day and not all at once. Absorption rates are highest with juice that has been fortified with calcium citrate malate (about 50%) and with the green vegetables I listed above (about 40-60%). Calcium-set tofu has an absorption rate that is comparable to cows milk (31-32%). Other calcium-rich foods have lower absorption rates.

Doesn’t this mean cow’s milk is essential for meeting our calcium needs? No. Yes, it’s an easier way to meet calcium needs, but for anyone who wants to omit it from their diet, they safely can. And for those of you worrying about building bone mass, consider the eating habits of other mammals.

[Even] those with enormous bone mass, such as elephants and rhinoceroses, obtain calcium from plant sources after they are weaned…. It is groundless and illogical to assume that the milk of another species is essential for bone growth and human health. ~from Raising Vegetarian Children.

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I was going to leave it at this but then I realized that a number of people are going to be reading this post for reasons besides health. The how-do-you-make-it-work reasons. So here is how I raise my vegetarian children.

Picky Eaters

Both of my girls have been picky eaters at some time or another. The one thing I have been most proud of though, is the fact that my oldest daughter’s favorite food as a toddler was beans. And that she still loves them. If you have a picky eater you’re job is a little tougher, but not necessarily. To me, it’s no different from the dedication and commitment it takes to breastfeed successfully. Healthy vegetarianism depends on how committed you are to eating healthily (I could take some of my own advice here), and then it takes work. “Must enjoy chopping vegetables” is a requirement for the job.

There are ways to ensure your children get a balanced diet, even if they refuse their veggies. One way, as you’ve probably heard before, is to hide it inside other foods they like. My girls don’t like peppers, mushrooms or zucchini, so when I make a pasta sauce I blend it after it’s finished cooking. Instead of finding a pile of vegetables on their plate when they’re done, their plates are actually clean! You can also hide beans in tomato sauce this way. Fruit and veggies can be hidden inside baked goods. Grated carrots, zucchini, apples, beets, spinach, pineapple and bananas can all be hidden inside cakes and muffins. You can also hide beans inside baked goods. I still haven’t done it, but it can be done! Recipes abound on line for these treats.

Also, it is important to remember that young children especially have more sensitive taste buds than we do. That is why they tend to prefer plain foods (remember when your favorite food was buttered spaghetti?) over casseroles and stir fries. This used to be a problem for me, but now I just make sure that there are always plenty of raw, cut veggies and mildly spiced beans (I use chili powder) to go with whatever grain food we are having.

One of my readers recently reminded me that if you get your kids to help you make the food you want them to eat, they are more likely to eat it. So true! I also like to take my girls grocery shopping with me. In the warmer months we go to the Farmer’s Market and to the CSA farm we buy shares from so they can meet the farmers who grow the food and see where it comes from. Growing your own garden is also great for teaching kids about how food makes its way to your table.

Family

The children and I are vegetarian but my husband eats meat. So does the rest of my family for that matter, with the exception of my step-mom. While this will complicate teaching our children about the benefits of eating a plant-based diet as they get older (because they aren’t really questioning it yet), it also reminds us about the importance of respect and tolerance for other people’s choices and values. When they are educated and old enough to choose for themselves, I will let them decide if they want to eat meat. In the meantime we are lucky to have relatively respectful relatives when it comes to our vegetarianism, and the ones who aren’t are never left alone with my girls to be able to encourage them to eat something behind my back.

When our children are away from home

When my oldest is invited to a birthday party and they are serving food, I just let the parents know that she is vegetarian and offer to bring something for her to eat. So far, it has never been a problem. If it gets to be a problem when she gets older I guess we’ll cross that bridge then. In pre-school they served snacks, which sometimes included meat. It was on her file that she was vegetarian and the teachers used to tell me that if meat was being served on a certain day my daughter would announce to everyone, “I don’t eat meat, but it’s okay if you do!” And that’s really what we’re all about teaching our kids at this point.

“Some people eat meat and some people don’t. Everyone chooses to eat different foods for different reasons. In our family, except for Daddy, we don’t eat meat.” That’s just how we roll.

Some Helpful Resources

My Food Guide (Build your own food pyramid based on age, weight, food intolerances, etc. Great activity to do with kids!)

Raising Vegetarian Children by Joanne Stepaniak, MS ED and Vesanto Melina, MS RD (Scientific and well documented. Contains easy recipes that include stats on nutritional content)

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, PhD, and Thomas M. Campbell (Scientific and well documented, life changing book)

The New Becoming Vegetarian by Vesanto Melina, MS, RD and Brenda Davis, RD (Scientific and well documented. Contains easy recipes to get you started on a healthy vegetarian diet)

The Vegetarian Resource Group (an on-line resource group)

**I feel like I need to make a disclaimer here. I didn’t write this post to try to convince anyone to convert to a vegetarian diet. I just wanted to share what I know about vegetarian nutrition and provide resources for you to do your own research if you are interested. Information on soy foods (for and against) are shared for educational purposes only. Of course, before adopting any dietary changes for you or your children I recommended that you speak to a health care provider.

I welcome respectful dialogue on this topic.

Posted on Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade and Food on Fridays at Ann Kroeker.

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13 Responses to “On Raising My Vegetarian Children”

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