Growing veggie kids

My 11-year-old son, Elias, decided in January to become a vegetarian. I wasn’t shocked, since he’s never been a big meat eater, but I was curious about his reasons. When pressed, he said it was because he likes animals and felt bad about eating them, and because he thought it would be healthier. Who could argue with that?

His decision came at an opportune time; my meat-loving 15-year-old daughter, Louisa, had just read The Jungle in English class and was recovering from the slaughterhouse descriptions; my 13-year-old son, Sebastian, had just sworn off fast-food after watching Supersize Me in health class; and my husband, Steve, and I felt like we were in a menu-planning rut. So I bought a vegetarian cookbook with some appealing, uncomplicated recipes, and we began experimenting with meat-free family dinners.

My main concern about this dietary change was ensuring that Elias would still meet all of his nutritional needs. I made him promise that he would be willing to try new foods, and that he would help with menu planning and preparation. 

Is this healthy?

Suzy Sorensen, a registered dietitian and a certified diabetes educator with Children’s Hospitals and Clinics in St. Paul, says “Is this healthy?” is a common question she hears from the parents of children who become vegetarians in the tween and teen years.

“Some parents will say, ‘Tell him to eat meat; he can’t live if he doesn’t,’” she says. “Or they will say, ‘Well, he’s interested in eating vegetarian. I don’t know how to help, and I want to make sure we are doing it in a healthy way.’ I’ve also heard people say, ‘I don’t know what to cook, and I don’t want to cook two meals, if I can help it.’”

Sorensen says she reassures these parents that plant-based eating is extremely healthful for people of all ages; its benefits include a reduced risk of obesity and hypertension, which may be why more adults are adopting vegetarian diets. 

Accommodating a vegetarian child’s needs doesn’t have to be expensive or involve cooking two separate meals. Sorensen suggests making a meal like tacos and letting each person choose whether to incorporate the meat; or, trying plant-based versions of meat products such as veggie hotdogs. Other good sources of protein are beans, tofu, and tempeh. Cheese contains protein, too, but it can be high in fat.

Sorensen says online resources like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s site, choosemyplate.gov, offer helpful tips for assessing whether a child is eating enough from the different categories of proteins, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy.  

She also recommends taking a daily multivitamin; a children’s chewable one (not the gummy kind) for kids under 12, and an adult version for kids 12 and older.

Children who are extremely picky and refuse to eat other sources of protein might need to reconsider the decision to be vegetarian, Sorensen says. “Buttered noodles are not going to cut the mustard for very long.” 

If an overweight child begins to lose weight on a vegetarian diet, there’s probably no reason to worry. But if a child who is already thin experiences significant weight loss, it might indicate that he or she isn’t eating enough of certain foods and needs help attaining a better balance. 

Although she hasn’t seen it with her own patients, Sorensen says some kids may claim to be vegetarians because it allows them to mask unhealthy eating behaviors.  

“If somebody really won’t eat any of those new foods, and has eliminated a lot of old foods, to me that’s a bit of a red flag,” she says. “Is this really about eating healthfully, or is there something behind the scenes, some kind of disordered eating?”

Parents who have questions or concerns about their children’s eating habits should consult with a dietitian or health care provider.  To find a certified local dietitian, she recommends searching the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website, eatright.org.

Sorensen says children who become vegetarians often have a positive influence on the health of other family members. This certainly is proving true for my family. Elias may be the only one who’s willing to give up bacon completely, but he has inspired us all to think more carefully about what we consume. I’m hopeful that our experiment in eating healthier meals will become a lifestyle.