Is Choosing a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet a Good Idea for your Family?

Image by Maddi Bazzocco from Unsplash

My 8 year old son and I are currently vegetarian. He wanted to stop eating meat last year for animal welfare reasons. When he’d suggested it the previous year I’d put him off saying he needed meat to grow properly. This is the message I had received from my mum. She comes from a generation who remembers the meat rationing during and after WWII and certainly believes you aren’t eating healthily if you don’t eat meat. So I did some research (mostly to arm myself against my mother’s objections) and found out that her fears, and mine, were pretty much groundless.

Eating a vegetarian diet for a child helps to combat childhood obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. All of which are on the increase in the UK. There are also already more than one million people in the UK following vegetarian diets. A vegetarian option is available in lots of nurseries and schools. So I made the decision to give up meat. The main health considerations with a non-meat diet are getting enough protein, iron, calcium and vitamins. Here’s a list of which foods which can help to keep your intake up:

Protein – Good choices of protein include lentils, beans, soya and soya products, milk, cheese, nuts and eggs and they’ll need 2 to 3 portions of these a day.

Iron – Meat is a good provider of easily absorbable iron so you will need to offer alternative sources to ensure your growing child gets enough. Foods that provide iron include wholegrain cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, bread, fortified breakfast cereals, dried apricots and figs. Remember vitamin C helps our body to absorb iron from non-meat sources so try to include fruit and vegetables at every meal time.

Calcium – Be particularly careful that vegan children get enough calcium to support their growing bones and teeth. Milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, some dark green leafy vegetables such as kale all provide calcium. Fortified soya drinks, as well as other dairy alternatives, often have added calcium but remember to check the label.

Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is typically found in products from animal sources. Milk and eggs are important sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians. For vegans, who eliminate animal products, useful dietary sources include fortified foods such as some fortified breakfast cereals and yeast extracts.

(extract from nutrition.org.uk)

My son isn’t a bad eater but he isn’t keen on lentils, pulses and nuts so most of his protein and calcium intake is from dairy foods and faux (fake) meats. I also insist that he takes a daily vegetarian multivitamin that contains nutrients, vitamins and iron. I hope to widen his food tastes as he gets older.

Unfortunately the rest of the family isn’t following the veggie diet, at least not all the time. My 2 year old is pretty much vegetarian but my middle son is a fussy eater. I don’t mean a bit fussy. At the age of 3 he only ate 8 foods and they were all orange. He has never eaten dairy on its own and didn’t eat a piece of fruit till he started nursery. This wasn’t for a want of trying on my part believe me. As far as we can tell his pickiness and liking for extremely bland food comes from his extreme sensitivity to smell and taste. He finds most foods just too much. So I don’t limit his food choices at all. Every food that he eats or is willing to try is a win for him. He also takes a chewy multi vitamin and a chewy calcium supplement.

My husband is also non veggie as he is suffering from a mystery illness which is not allowing him to absorb iron. He is on iron tablets and we are boosting his iron intake through his diet as much as possible. Because of this we are eating more green leafy vegetables and whole grains but he does insist on a regular steak too.

This family split results in me cooking 2 different meals, or variations of the same meal. This requires planning on my part which I do on a Friday evening before the weekend food shop. However, I have managed to get us all to eat veggie spaghetti bolognaise, using soy mince, and have substituted veggie scampi without my middle son realising. I’m hoping I can continue this trend till they are at least 50% veggie.

The main reason I support my son and became vegetarian myself is the environmental impact of meant production. I believe we must find a sustainable diet which doesn’t create global climate problems such as deforestation. Ideally I would like to move towards a vegan diet but with my family’s current situation I don’t feel it’s viable. The fact that my vegetarian son is so reliant on dairy foods means he would struggle to be healthy and the others are not ready either. I will keep moving us towards it though and help my children to understand about a healthy diet. I will keep trying them with vegetables and other challenging foods (they all struggle with spices and herbs).

In conclusion I think going veggie or even vegan as a family can be done and gives great benefits to your health and the planet. The younger your kids are the easier it will be. However, you need to read up to make sure you are eating a ‘healthy’ veggie or vegan diet. You also have to consider if your family are ready for such a change. Mealtimes should be an enjoyable, social time of the day for everyone in the family. Introducing such a big diet change could cause a lot of unhappiness and stress if not done in the right way.

 If you’d like to give it a go I recommend starting off going meat free one day a week. Launched by Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney in 2009, Meat Free Monday is a not-for-profit campaign which aims to raise awareness of the detrimental environmental impact of eating meat, and to encourage people to help slow climate change, conserve precious natural resources and improve their health by having at least one meat free day each week. If you start there who knows where you’ll end up?

Further Reading:

NHS Guidelines on Vegetarian Weaning and how to keep healthy:

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/vegetarian-vegan-children/#video-is-it-ok-to-bring-up-my-child-as-a-vegetarian

Article about Vegetarian and Vegan Nurseries:

https://www.daynurseries.co.uk/news/article.cfm/id/1580875/children-eat-meat-free-as-the-number-of-vegetarian-nurseries-grows

General healthy Eating Advice for all ages:

https://www.nutrition.org.uk

Great family friendly veggie recipes:

https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/collection/vegetarian-kids

A great resource for facts about the effect of meat production on the planet, as well as vegetarian and vegan diets and recipes:

All about veganism and gives you a link to download their VeGuide App:

https://www.vegansociety.com

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