If you’re a parent, you know that kids are full of surprises. Late last week, my 9-year-old daughter hit me with one: She wants to be a vegetarian. Effective immediately. This is how the conversation went down.
E: “Mama, you know that chicken sandwich I ate last night?”
Me: “Yes, wasn’t it delicious?”
E: “It made me sad for the chicken. And GOSH it tasted good. But I don’t want to eat meat anymore.”
Full disclosure: My initial reaction was panic (selfish, I know). When I counsel clients, I typically recommend easing into diet changes gradually during not-as-stressful times in life. I’m not at my peak of creativity in terms of meal planning these days. It’s hard enough cycling through my go-to omnivorous options without delving into a brave new culinary world.
Once I got over my self-centeredness, a second wave of panic set in. As a dietitian, I know that a well-planned vegetarian diet can be very healthy, even for kids. BUT THIS IS MY KID! My reformed picky eater, who is much much better than before but still not super adventurous with foods.
Rest assured, I’ve shifted my attitude in the last couple of days. In fact, I’ve realized I’m grateful for this change. Here are five reasons why.
She’s Involved in the Meal Planning
Do you ever feel like you make so many decisions throughout the course of the day that you run out of mental horsepower by the time meal prep comes along? Yep, me too. I struggle with decision fatigue when it comes to meal planning.
E’s first official act as a vegetarian (mom’s orders) was to go through some cookbooks (as well as the free email newsletter my private practice puts together) and pick some recipes she wanted to try. I vetoed a few based on time and labor requirements, but she did really well! We’ve been working through those over the past few days.
As an added bonus, putting her in charge of what’s for dinner means that she’s much more likely to actually eat it, or at least try it. I nearly fell over yesterday when Miss E told me, “The fun part of being a vegetarian is you get to try so many new foods!”
So while this change involves some extra work on my part, it saves drama at the table (worth it, in my book!).
2. She’s Eating More Veggies
Confession: Well before I was a dietitian, I attempted vegetarianism for a few months. My attempts were fairly laughable—giving up meat allowed me to rationalize a whole mess of foods. I ate fries, and tots, and SO MANY CHEETOS! And Miss E would certainly do the same, were she not cursed (heh heh) with a dietitian mom.
She hasn’t particularly liked meat alternatives (tofu, seitan, etc.) in the past or since this change. We’re basing her diet more on vegetables, legumes, and grains. She’s doing a really great job. Her veggie intake has increased in the days since her announcement, and she’s opened her mind to some that she’s previously rejected (such as cooked spinach). Her greater appreciation for a rainbow of veggies means more opportunities for vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. This RD mama couldn’t be happier about that.
3. She’s Getting Enough (Protein, That Is)
As a society, we’ve become a bit protein-crazed. Yes, protein has a lot of important functions, including muscle growth and repair. But inadequate dietary protein intake is not that common.
Consider this: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans consider 34 grams of protein to be adequate for 9-year-old girls. Will a bit more hurt her? Nah. But she’s also not at risk for malnutrition :).
Still, I am a mom and I worry. Mostly to ease my own mind, I’ve made a couple of tweaks to my purchasing. I’ve started buying chickpea pasta (I love Banza)*—which is higher in protein than standard noodles—and the higher-protein, lactose-free Fairlife milk. I don’t push these on her every day, but I do encourage a glass of Fairlife if she’s eating a lower-protein meal.
4. She’s Learning About Healthy Eating
One of the bigger challenges I’ve encountered so far is what to do with school lunches.
Miss E has been a “buyer” since the day the option became available in kindergarten. This has saved me a LOT of time and effort in the mornings, and it’s also helped to diversify her palate. Let’s face it—kids are much more likely to try things for other adults than they are for mom and dad. From a financial standpoint, I’ve also paid for her lunches for the entire semester.
I had a really proud moment last night when I sat down with her last night to make a plan for today’s lunch. I offered to pack her an alternative protein when we saw that turkey tacos were on the menu. She thought for a moment, then said: “There are always beans on the salad bar. Maybe I could get my tacos with no turkey and add some beans to them?”
Kiddo is learning to think like a dietitian and I love it love it love it. Learning how to round out her meals is a skill that will help her to establish healthy eating habits, long-term. My goal for the near future is to sit down with her and, rather than quickly offer to send in an alternative protein, have her talk through some solutions with me.
5. She’s Setting a Positive Example for the Rest of the Family
Remember what I said about being a protein-crazed society? This big revelation has made me realize that our family could absolutely reduce our intake of animal proteins. Why? Because plant-based diets can help protect the heart and lower risk for certain diseases, while also helping the environment.
Completely eliminating meat isn’t practical for the entire family, and I’d never force that on anyone. But we can certainly scale back our portion sizes.
I’ve enjoyed mostly vegetarian dinners in the past few nights in solidarity, and the rest of the family has tried some veggie dishes as well! Long-term, I’m thinking of ways to marry her veggie eating with a veggie-forward plate for the omnivores in our family. When I make tacos, for example, I can replace half of the meat with lentils (which I’m already cooking for her). Mushrooms are a great add-in to pastas, so I can reduce the amount of turkey sausage I use.
It all makes a difference.
Now, I’m not completely naive. I know this new way of eating will be an adjustment! I also understand that there’s a possibility it won’t stick. I’ve discussed the importance of self-compassion with diet change so that Miss E knows we support her healthy eating ambitions, no matter what the outcome.
I certainly don’t have all the answers and, of course, time will tell if she’ll stick with it. However, I’ll be sharing some info along the way (victories and missteps!) for other families who are looking to eat a more plant-based diet.
Now, friends, I could use your help! What are your favorite healthy, plant-based, kid-friendly recipes?
*Note: I have no professional relationship with the brands named in this post—I just like ‘em :).