My Child Wants to Be a Vegetarian: A Guide for Parents
Vegetarian diets are on the rise all over the world. Statistics have shown that roughly five percent of the population in the United States follows a vegetarian diet. And these numbers aren’t limited just to adults: around five percent of youth ages 8 to 17 describe themselves as vegetarian.
Reasons why people choose to follow a vegetarian diet are varied and can include things like health reasons or ethical reasons. If your child decides they want to follow a vegetarian diet, there are plenty of ways you can support them, even without becoming a vegetarian yourself.
We sat down with pediatrician Dr. TJ Gold from Tribeca Pediatrics to talk about what parents can do if their child decides they want to pursue a vegetarian diet.
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My child told me they want to be a vegetarian. What should I do?
Off the bat, it’s important to go into the conversation with an open mind and think about letting children, especially teens and adolescents, make their own choices when it comes to food.
“This conflict with teenagers and parents is always something we want to avoid,” Gold says. “We want to give kids autonomy with that so that they’re truly learning how to make those good choices.”
That said, it’s still important to provide support and oversight. For example, have a conversation with your child about why they want to become a vegetarian and what that means in terms of food choices going forward.
Gold says sometimes adolescents and teenagers don’t want to eat meat, “but their life is a potato chip and cheese pizza diet.”
“Technically, that’s a vegetarian diet, but just not eating meat doesn’t necessitate or guarantee that you have a healthy vegetarian diet,” Gold says. “There is a word in there called ‘vegetable.’”
While teens should have autonomy in what they eat, especially as they get older, parents should provide guidance to ensure that their kids are still getting the nutrients they need after switching to a vegetarian diet.
At the same time, parents should be aware of how much control they’re exercising over food choice.
“Kids aren’t going to follow things if it becomes a chore or it’s complicated or their parents are always having to follow them around and make sure they get things,” Gold says.
Gold recommends that parents talk to their kids about what their bodies need and giving them control within that guidance.
“I really want to enroll them,” Gold says. “And usually it’s just giving them some of these simple guidelines.”
How can parents make sure that their vegetarian kids are still getting what they need from a nutritional standpoint?
Taking meat out of a diet can leave gaps in essential nutrients.
While taking supplements to fill these gaps is always an option, but Gold recommends getting what you need through food first.
“It’s not unnatural to supplement,” Gold says. “But I really want it to be eaten in the food itself as opposed to having to pop pills.”
Gold outlined where some of these gaps can occur and provided recommendations on how to get those nutrients without meat.
Essential nutrients for the human body, protein is used to build things like muscles and organs in the body. Aside from meat, protein can come from things like dairy, eggs, beans, lentils, seeds and avocado.
Vitamin D is important for bone health. It can be tricky to maintain adequate vitamin D levels, even for non-vegetarians, considering a large portion of our vitamin D comes from the Sun.
“The world is pretty sun-phobic, because of trying to have healthy skin and avoid skin cancer,” Gold says. “So we’re already starting off a bit vitamin D deficient.”
For vegetarians, “literally the only vitamin D source that exists naturally is mushrooms.” Gold says. “It’s not like mushrooms are always the big fan favorite for young kids.”
If you have a mushroom hater on your hands, look for things like milk with vitamin D added.
Found almost exclusively in animal products, vitamin B12 is essential for things like red blood cell formation, nerve function and the production of DNA. It’s difficult for vegetarians to get enough vitamin b12 because it’s mostly found in meat.
To supplement, turn to foods like eggs, fortified cereals and nutritional yeast.
Iron is important for red blood cells and is commonly found in red meats. For vegetarians, look for iron in fortified cereals, eggs, leafy green vegetables, kidney beans and lentils.
An important thing to remember is that absorption of iron from plant based sources is much lower than the absorption from animal based sources.
Gold recommends squeezing lemons and limes onto leafy greens. The vitamin C from the lemons and lime “enhances the ability to get that iron out of the plant network of fibers,” Gold says.
While getting the right nutrients is important, don’t get bogged down in making sure your vegetarian kid eats the entire food pyramid every single day.
“It’s unrealistic, and I think it makes the whole process a little more anxiety-producing, especially for parents,” Gold says.
Some parents are resistant to the idea of one of their kids becoming a vegetarian because they have to cook for the whole family. How can these parents accommodate everyone, including their vegetarian kid?
Family dinners don’t always have to center around meat. The vegetable can be at the center of the meal.
“There are so many exciting things we can do with vegetables,” Gold says. “The vegetable items themselves can be an entire meal.”
For dinners like this, Gold says the meat can be an additive for those who want to eat it, but dinners don’t have to be just side dishes for the vegetarian kid.
Parents can also get their kids involved in cooking dinner, whether that’s one dinner a week, a side dish or another arrangement that makes sense for the family.
Not everyone in the family has to become a vegetarian alongside your child, but there’s plenty of ways to support your new vegetarian in their choice.