October 11, 2016

So You Want to Raise a Vegan Child

Becky Ramsing

Becky Ramsing

Senior Program Officer, Food Communities & Public Health Program

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

school lunchWhen you have an infant, you are in complete control of what you give your child. The ball is in your court to make sure they have a balanced diet. Between the ages of 6 to 12 months, adequate protein intake is critical because of rapid growth and the use of supplementary foods.

As they become toddlers, your child may become more “choosey.” It is common for a toddler to want to eat only a few types of food. Even at a young age you can involve him/her in choosing and preparing the food you eat. Making food fun by dipping, rolling or using pretzel sticks and skewers can also increase willingness to try something new. But don’t worry too much. They are doing better than you think. Your job is to make healthy food available; their job is to eat it. Getting anxious, forcing or bribing your toddler to eat will backfire and worsen the picky behaviors.

School age is when being vegan may get tough! Kids are exposed to all kinds of foods as they eat with their peers, and parents may need to step back and decide how they want to approach their child’s diet. It may take some liberality and patience!

First, remember that you are modeling your values and dietary choices at home every day. Your child is learning. For now, you may choose to let your children broaden their horizons, taste new foods and start to decide for themselves. Allowing them to make more food choices outside of the home and possibly try animal products at home will help them to explore and ultimately appreciate the decisions you have made. Some vegan parents will serve animal products if they know where they came from, such as from a local farm or with a Certified Humanely Raised and Handled label.

Talking with your children – even younger children – is essential. Most kids connect strongly with animals, so conversations about how animals are treated in industrial operations can be powerful. I recently had a conversation with one vegan parent who’s raising vegetarian kids: she shared that their family talks openly about how animals are treated in industrial operations and visits farm sanctuaries for the kids to spend time with rescued farm animals.

A vegetarian parent and blogger who is raising her children as omnivores explains, “I wanted my kids to have more options at a restaurant. I didn’t want them to have to answer the requisite 3,000 questions that vegetarians hear every time they bring up the fact that they don’t eat meat … I didn’t want them to spend their time worrying about every ingredient in every dish, having to ask if chicken stock was in the soup or bonito flakes in the sauce.”

As teens, many kids decide to be vegan or vegetarian or flexitarian on their own. And it is better if it is their choice! Again, discussing why you choose the diet you do and letting them make their own decisions will give them the tools they need to make decisions as adults. They may want to experiment and ask questions. The most important thing is to model and teach what makes up a healthy, balanced diet – with or without meat.

Most of all, be careful about being too strict. Food restriction with kids does not work and often leads to disordered eating and obesity. Exposure to a variety of foods and modeling healthy eating are ultimately more effective and a lot less stressful!

If you are not a vegan and your child decides to be, talk about why. Support them in eating a balanced diet. It’s not an excuse to eat plain pasta at every meal! Your child can take responsibility in procuring and preparing foods – especially if it’s not what your family is eating. And, be willing to try some of their meal. You may find that you like it!

For information about nutritional considerations for vegan children, please check out my earlier post, Can Kids Go Vegan?

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