When Your Kid Goes Vegetarian (in An Omnivore Family)

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. 

  1. 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!”

Seriously, who is this kid?!?

Seriously, who is this kid?!?

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 :). 

Miss E, cooking a vegetarian dinner.

Miss E, cooking a vegetarian dinner.

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 :).

Back on the Horse (After Finishing My Course)

Several years ago, one of my physicians had a nurse who always smelled very strongly of cigarettes. Every time I saw her, I wondered how she could smoke when she worked in healthcare (yes, I know that many healthcare professionals smoke). She is well aware of the health consequences of smoking, right? And isn’t it part of her job to be a positive example of healthy living to her patients? 

A couple of weeks ago, I finally fulfilled my goal of becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). This required nearly four years of online coursework, followed by an 8-month internship and a comprehensive exam. It was such an educational and fulfilling experience; however, I would not say it was the healthiest time in my life. 

Going to school full-time with three young kids is a lot of work. While I did my best to maintain a healthy lifestyle throughout the process of becoming credentialed, stress often got the best of me. As a result, I placed some of my habits on the back burner. Handful of chips to get me through a study sesh? Yes, please. Sacrificing sleep in pursuit of an A? You betcha. 

I found myself thinking again about my old nurse friend, and about how I could, to some extent, understand how she could partake in such an unhealthy behavior. Here I was, training to educate people about how to nourish their bodies in the most healthy way, sometimes engaging in behaviors that I would not recommend to my future clients.

Now that the dietetics school pressure valve has been released, I am looking forward to relaxing a bit and working on being my healthiest possible self (and raising my healthiest possible family, of course!). 

Here are my priorities for getting back on track: 

Cleaning my kitchen. 

My cluttered kitchen counters. 

My cluttered kitchen counters. 

 

Do you ever overeat when you feel like aspects of your life are out of control? Recent research from Cornell University discussed the link between overeating and clutter. Researchers in the study compared snacking behavior among female participants who were offered crackers, cookies, and carrots in a messy, chaotic kitchen, compared to female participants who were offered the same snack foods in a tidy kitchen. In this study, participants in the cluttered, noisy kitchen ate 65 more calories from cookies than those in the calm eating environment. (1)

Sixty-five calories may seem insignificant; however, if a person ate 65 extra calories per day for one year, she could gain up to 6.8 pounds, depending on other factors like exercise! The researchers suggest that disorder and chaos create a sense that a person is not in control, and that some people tend to indulge more when they perceive that a situation is not within their control.

I admit that decluttering was not high on my priority list during my internship. My kitchen is always a little cluttered and very, very noisy, with three little ones running around. If cleaning it up a bit will help me to be a healthier eater, then that will be time well-spent. Plus, it will help with the second item on my to-do list... 

Planning and preparing. 

Pre-dietetics school, when I lost close to 40 pounds, one of my keys to success was to plan my meals. A 2011 study supports this, and indicates that planning meals in advance is a strong predictor of intake during the meal. (2) In other words, making decisions on the fly about what to eat and how much may come back to bite you in the you-know-what. 

Cleaning out the kitchen allows you to better know what ingredients you have available, so that you can begin building your meal plan. Here are some tips to get you started on meal planning. 

Measuring it out. 

As a nutrition practitioner, I am very familiar with the recommended portion sizes for a variety of foods. Theory and practice, however, are two very different things. If you put a massive bag of Cheetos in front of me, do you think I can eat just 21 of them? No way, dude. On the flip side, if I walk past the fridge and grab a small handful of baby carrots, does that count as one serving toward the recommended 5-9 servings a day? 

Research strongly supports portion control as a means of controlling weight. Measuring portions can also help ensure that you are getting enough of the right nutrients in your diet each day. 

Do you have to measure everything you eat every time you eat it? Not at all. But it is very helpful to measure your foods for a couple of weeks to see what a proper portion looks like, and to revisit this strategy every so often so that you stay on track. 

Unwinding.

Stress is such a doozy. In addition to making you feel terrible in general, it has the potential to seriously mess up your metabolism. Research suggests that stress increases cravings for sugar and fat (3), slows the metabolism (4), and increases insulin resistance (4). 

Now that I have more time and fewer responsibilities, I am working on dialing back the stress level by getting plenty of sleep, doing the workouts that I love (Crossfit, trail running, and rock climbing), and building in downtime away from the computer and phone. 

Focusing on progress, not perfection. 

There is an old saying that perfect is the enemy of good. As a perfectionist, I sometimes struggle to make changes in my life because I fear that I will not do it just right. I’ve come to realize there is no “just right” in healthy living, and that making a few small positive changes is far superior to doing nothing at all. 

Do you feel like you need to become healthier but don’t know where to start? Just set one achievable goal. Decide to exercise for 30 minutes a day, or to eat 5 servings of vegetables, and stick with it. You will be better for it, and your success in making that change will empower you to make other healthy choices. 

What about you? What do you do when you feel like you’ve gotten off track? 

Sources: 

1. Vartanian LR, Kernan KM, Wansink B. Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption: The Role of Mind-Set in Stressful and Chaotic Food Environments.Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption: The Role of Mind-Set in Stressful and Chaotic Food Environments. 2016. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2711870. Accessed June 20, 2016.

2. Fay SH, Ferriday D, Hinton EC, Shakeshaft NG, Rogers PJ, Brunstrom JM. What determines real-world meal size? Evidence for pre-meal planning.Appetite. 2011;56(2):284-289. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2011.01.006.

3. Harvard Medical School. Why stress causes people to overeat - Harvard Health. Harvard Health Publications. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat. Published February 2012. Accessed June 27, 2016.

4. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Habash DL, Fagundes CP, et al. Daily Stressors, Past Depression, and Metabolic Responses to High-Fat Meals: A Novel Path to Obesity. Biological Psychiatry. 2015;77(7):653-660. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.05.018.