I met my husband in college. Back then we had both already converted to some form of veggie lifestyle. I was a vegetarian for environmental reasons (didn’t want the rain forest being mowed down to make pasture, etc.) and he was vegan for ethical reasons (he didn’t think it was okay to hurt animals).
When we had our first kid 10 years ago, we knew it wouldn’t be easy to impart our outlier lifestyle to our child. We felt strongly about our reasons for being veg, though, so we did some research into the safety of raising a vegetarian kid. What did we learn? Well, it’s definitely possible to raise a healthy kid with no meat. Lots of veggie foods, like beans, soy, and nuts, are just as high in protein as meat. And, if you make sure that your kid gets a variety of fruits and veggies they will probably be getting a more complete array of vitamins and amino acids than most meat-eating kids.
Knowing that our kids would be healthy on a vegetarian diet didn’t exactly mean that they would be happy, however. I recalled my own childhood, and the extreme desire to be like everyone else. What if our kid felt ostracized because they couldn’t eat at McDonald’s with their friends? We didn’t want to create an intense feeling of differentness for our kid, but we still wanted them to eat well. We had some rough patches along the way, but in the end it’s worked out surprisingly well.
Here are some things we learned along the way, in case you’re considering bringing your kid up green:
- It’s not as hard as you think, if you start early. If you introduce your toddler to recognizable veggie shapes, like cut up broccoli tops and baby carrots, they’ll be less likely to freak out about eating them later on. While a kid who has been brought up on hot dogs and chicken nuggets might scream at the sight of stir fried veggies, if you give your child homemade food from the beginning, it’s not hard to feed them well later on.
- Let your kid help prepare the food. In today’s society, everyone, kids and adults alike, are distanced from the source of their food. Processed foods are the norm. Letting your kid do simple things, like chopping up melon with a butter knife or tearing leaves of lettuce, will make them more excited to eat the food you’re preparing. And, it will make them more familiar and comfortable with different types of whole, unprocessed foods.
- Explain it to them. I myself went through a vegetarian phase when I was a youngster after I realized that hamburgers came from a real live animal. Tell your child where meat comes from. If you’re passionate about environmental issues, tell them how factory farming hurts animals. Face it, the reasons you’re vegetarian are probably pretty basic; even your child will be able to get some understanding and appreciation for them.
- Be Flexible. As your child grows up and has more independence, their food choices will ultimately be up to them, whether you like it or not. If you smother them, they’ll just sneak foods when they’re at school or at their friend’s house. If their vegetarian-ness is making them feel ostracized, help them think up veggie alternatives, or consider making exceptions for certain occasions. For example, we let our daughter eat meat at birthday parties, if she wants to. Parenting is always about compromises, after all. Find a way to keep your child both healthy and happy.