5 Questions for the Registered Dietician on Vegetarian Kids
By Susan Flynn
Besides being a beloved book about friendship and devotion, Charlotte’s Web can be a cruel introduction to the hard, cold fact that farmers raise pigs like Wilbur so people can eat them.
Sooner or later, whether in books, movies or a trip to the supermarket, the truth comes out. Some kids, unsettled by such a discovery, announce that they will never eat meat again. But they soon forget the proclamation the next time the family orders out for pepperoni pizza.
Other children are more steadfast in their refusal to eat meat. In the United States, roughly 3 percent of children ages 8 to 18 are vegetarians, according to the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group.
If parents are supportive, it’s entirely do-able for a child to adopt a vegetarian diet, even if everyone else in the house is not, says Reed Mangels, R.D, Ph.D., a nutrition advisor for the Vegetarian Resource Group and a vegetarian for more than 25 years. Both of her daughters, ages 16 and 19, were raised as vegetarians, and they still aren’t even the slightest bit curious about what a hamburger tastes like.
We recently caught up with Mangels at her home in Amherst to talk about the kids who are actually clamoring to eat more vegetables. Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
1 My 10-year-old comes home from school and announces she wants to be a vegetarian. Should I let her?
It is safe to be a vegetarian from birth on, so the age isn’t an issue. I would start with some questions to determine whether it’s a passing fancy because someone they saw on TV is a vegetarian, or is it something where they don’t want to eat animals anymore because it doesn’t feel right to them. It’s important to stress that if you are going to be a vegetarian, you have to be a healthy vegetarian. You can’t just eat salads every day.
It’s not going to be successful from a nutritional standpoint unless the parents really take an interest in it.
2 What about the belief that for kids to grow up healthy, they must eat meat?
That’s been pretty disproven. Protein is found in a lot of things – soy, nuts, beans, whole grains, tofu, eggs and dairy products. If you do the math, it’s so easy to get all the protein you need.
3 How should parents approach play dates at someone else’s house, where maybe hot dogs are on the menu?
If the child made the decision themselves to become a vegetarian, it’s very easy to tell his or her friends they don’t eat meat. I might call ahead of a play date and explain that my child is a vegetarian and ask how I can make it easier on the parents. Would they like me to send over some hummus and pita bread? The key is to not make a production out of it, but to be respectful of the host.
4 Does Thanksgiving at the relatives get complicated?
If your child is the only one who is a vegetarian, you need to make sure you bring along side dishes that they can eat and you can share with others. We also always say you cannot criticize other people for what they are eating. It’s not a table topic. We’ve been very fortunate. I have never had to step in to defend my kids about our decision. Because my husband and I were vegetarians before my kids were born, I think the relatives used up all their ammunition on us.
5 Is there any common misconception that still lingers about vegetarians that you would like to dispel?
That it's difficult and time-consuming. The reality is that if you want to cook elaborate vegetarian meals you can; you can also make a good dinner in under 20 minutes. There are a number of really good, fast vegetarian cookbooks these days.
Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper.
The Vegetarian Resource Group -- www.vrg.org -- offers a helpful Listserv for parents raising a vegetarian or vegan child. Parents exchange ideas on topics such as tasty snacks for toddlers, how to handle family gatherings and helping kids handle peer pressure.