As parents, we spend a lot of time thinking about what our kids eat. It begins from the very day they are born. Over the course of their childhoods, we worry whether they are getting enough nutrition, plan and schedule their meals, and help them develop what we believe to be the best eating habits.
So parents may experience a variety of reactions when their teen suddenly announces a desire to go vegetarian or vegan. You may be confused as to why your child has made this choice, concerned for their health and nutrition, or angry at what might seem like a judgment on the eating habits you’ve taught them or the way you choose to eat yourself. You may feel frustrated at what may seem like yet another teenage rebellion. All of these are normal reactions. But despite these feelings, why should you support your child’s desire to “go veg”?
Today, we spend a good deal of effort teaching our teens that their bodies are their own. We teach them that no one has a right to touch them in a way that makes them uncomfortable; we teach them that real friends don’t pressure use drugs or alcohol. Essentially, we teach them that they have the right to control what happens to their bodies and to say “no” to what they feel is wrong for them. Ask yourself, so long as your child’s dietary choices are healthy and safe, would it not undermine that message to insist they put what foods you choose into their bodies, not what they choose? Isn’t that sending mixed signals?
But, you may ask, is a vegan or vegetarian diet actually safe and healthy? You’ll be relieved to know that according to the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics - the largest organization of nutrition professionals in the world - a vegetarian or vegan diet is safe and appropriate for people in all stages of life, from infancy to adulthood. In fact, they note that not only are these diets “healthful” and “nutritionally adequate," they “may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
Certainly, as they point out, a vegan or vegetarian diet must be “appropriately planned.” But that planning is not as difficult as you may fear. Contrary to what you may have heard, it is easy to get enough protein, as well as most vitamins and minerals, from everyday foods. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) has terrific advice on planning a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet for children of all developmental stages.
Moreover, today it is easier than ever to be a vegan or vegetarian. Most grocery stores carry vegan staples like almond milk, soy yogurt, or veggie burgers. And many of the foods your teen may already eat - from cornflakes to cookies, from soup to snacks - may be “accidentally vegan.” Most restaurants have vegetarian options on their menus, and many can be made vegan simply by saying “hold the cheese.” Many colleges today are even going vegan-friendly!
So what can you do to support your vegetarian or vegan teen? Here are some important guidelines.
1. Talk to your child about why they’ve made this decision.
Most kids go veg for reasons of conscience. Frequently, they’ve realized for the first time that the animals they visited at the petting zoo are the same kinds of animals that end up on their plates -- or have seen videos documenting the conditions in factory farms. While you may not personally have an ethical concern about eating animals, shouldn’t we encourage our children to explore ethical issues as they mature and live by the standards they believe to be right? Each of us surely wants to see our children grow into adults with integrity and the courage to stand up for what they believe.
However, it’s possible that your child might be going veg for the wrong reasons: as a fad diet, to impress someone they have a crush on, or on a whim - without giving nutrition much thought. It’s important that you make sure they’ve thought the decision through, and are ready to take the additional level of responsibility for their own nutritional health that going veg can require.
2. Come to an agreement on terms.
Obviously, you’re going to have concerns if a child who has never willingly eaten a vegetable announces they’re going vegan. Let your child know that in order to have your support in this choice, they have to agree to eat a healthy diet - including a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and nuts - and to take their vitamins. Do the research together and make sure you both fully understand how a healthy vegetarian or vegan eats.
Also, depending on your home environment - who does the cooking and shopping, for example - you may need to come to an agreement on how much responsibility your child will have to take for preparation of their own meals. A vegetarian or vegan can often share many of the same dishes with the rest of the family, eating the side dishes that are prepared or taking out a serving of a main dish before meat is added. But come to an agreement about what will happen when the family is eating something that your veg kid won’t eat. Consider school lunches as well, and whether appropriate options are available, or if your child will have to pack a lunch.
3. Monitor your child’s health.
During routine physicals, remind the pediatrician of your child’s dietary choices. When doing blood tests, the doctor may choose to check your child’s levels of certain vitamins or minerals that may be of greater concern in vegetarian or vegan people, such as iron, and vitamins D and B12. For most people, a daily multivitamin combined with a healthy diet including fortified foods (such as cereals, breads, and non-dairy milks) is enough to meet their needs for these vitamins and minerals, but it’s good to check and make certain your child is getting enough of them.
Between physicals, make sure that your child is eating sufficient calories. Vegetarian and especially vegan foods tend to be lower in calories, and some people may need to increase the volume of food they eat in order to take in enough. If your child lacks energy, seems fatigued, or loses weight uncharacteristically, consult with their pediatrician, but they may simply not be eating enough.
If your child is having difficulty meeting their nutritional requirements, most insurance companies will pay for a consultation with a registered dietician. These nutrition experts will be able to help your teen come up with a plan for meeting their needs.
4. Refrain from teasing.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a vegetarian or vegan adult who doesn’t occasionally get frustrated with teasing from well-meaning family and friends about their food choices. But teens may be less equipped to handle the razzing. Whether it’s trying to tempt them to eat foods they no longer eat, or silly jokes about the poor broccoli they’re “killing,” your kids are likely to receive some teasing from their schoolmates, peers, and even siblings for being different. Make home a supportive environment where they can feel comfortable with their choices. (It may help to have siblings involved in your discussions from the beginning, so they understand why their brother or sister is making this change and what it will involve.)
5. Be an advocate for your child.
There are occasions that can be difficult for a vegetarian or vegan child to navigate alone: parties, field trips, family holidays, and other everyday events where their food choices may become an issue. Depending on your child’s personality, they may have a hard time speaking up or planning ahead to make sure they will be able to comfortably enjoy events where food is involved. Encourage your child to ascertain ahead of time whether veg-friendly food will be available, and to plan to bring their own if it is not.
Raising a happy, healthy vegan teen does take a little bit of adjustment, not just on your child’s part but on yours as well. But the benefits are many: your child will likely become more open to trying new foods, be more conscious of their health and nutrition, become more sensitive to social and environmental issues, and may avoid many diet-related illnesses later in life. Plus they’ll develop the strength of character that comes from following their conscience, and the confidence that comes from knowing they have the support of loving parents. And isn’t that what we all want our children to have?
More Online Resources for Parents:
The Vegetarian Resource Group
Vegetarian Kids, Teens, and Family
Boston Vegetarian Society
Resources for Raising Vegetarian & Vegan Children
Also remember to check out TDIV's vegan recipes.
Photo credit: TDIV