Your child comes home and declares that she is a vegetarian. She decides that she loves animals too much to eat them. While you might want to be a supportive parent and let her choose to live a meat free lifestyle, you secretly worry about whether your daughter’s dietary preference is healthy.
Is she getting enough protein? How about calcium, iron and vitamins? Is this diet sustainable? Especially for a growing child?
Vegetarianism has been around for several hundred years. There are entire populations who have sustained on a plant based diet for centuries and prospered. The key is to eat a balanced meal from all food groups. You do not need to eat animal protein to lead a healthy life. There is a small amount of protein in all foods including fruits and vegetables. A diet that has plenty of grains, vegetables, beans and lentils will provide all the nutrients a growing child needs. Here are some tips to help your growing child live a healthy vegetarian lifestyle.
First, ask your child what kind of vegetarianism is he practicing. A Lacto vegetarian is a vegetarian who abstains from meat and eggs but consumes dairy products. A lacto-ovo vegetarian is one who does not eat meat but does eat dairy and eggs. A vegan is one who practices the strictest form of vegetarianism. They abstain from all animal products and eat only plant based food. If your child is a lacto vegetarian or a lacto-ovo vegetarian it is fairly easy to prepare a well balanced meal for your child. There are thousands of vegetarian recipes available that incorporate all the major food groups. Besides pasta dishes, you can also make hearty soups, dishes with a variety of grains and baked dishes like ratatouille and lasagna. Make sure your child drinks milk or eats other dairy products everyday to get enough protein for their growing body. A vegan diet requires a bit more planning than a lacto vegetarian diet. Since vegans do not consume any animal products, you have to find the calcium and protein from other sources of food. Green leafy vegetables are rich in calcium and iron. Make sure your child incorporates plenty of these vegetables in their diet. Lentils, beans and nuts are excellent sources of protein for the vegan. Another source of complete protein is the grain quinoa. Quinoa can be used in the place of other grains like rice. When looking for recipes, look at recipes from traditional cultures. Many of them have numerous vegan dishes that have been handed down over generations. Depending on the age of your child, you can help her learn to prepare her own meals.
The older child can help by cutting and assembling simple dishes. For the younger child, try to make dishes in which meat plays a minor role, like pastas and vegetable stews. Simply add the meat for the rest of the family after you set aside a portion for your vegetarian child.
Do not let your child fill herself up with food that might be vegetarian but have no nutritive value. French fries and pasta with cream sauce can be an occasional indulgence but is extremely unhealthy when eaten too often. Encourage her to eat a lot of fruits, vegetables and grains. Instead of butter, use herbs and spices as seasoning for the vegetables.
Another mistake new vegetarians make is to eat too much processed food. Even vegetarian processed food can contain excessive amounts of salt and preservatives. Learning to cook your own meals is a big part of staying healthy and avoiding or reversing disease.
It is a proven fact that vegetarians have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. With childhood obesity increasing in most developed countries, encouraging children to eat a healthy vegetarian diet will help reduce this problem and prevent them from developing chronic illnesses at a young age.
Who knows, as you help your vegetarian child eat a balanced vegetarian diet, you might find that a plant based meal does not lack in flavor or nutrients and consider going vegetarian too!