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 :).

Hide and Sneak? The Case Against Hiding Vegetables.

Have you ever played hide and seek...with vegetables?

If you’re a parent, perhaps you’ve played without even realizing it. Your fearless kid, who barrels down the tall slide head first at the playground, hides under the table the second a single green bean hits her plate. You’ve been patient. You’ve tried other vegetables. You’ve begged. Maybe you’ve even bribed (I don’t recommend that, but I certainly get it).

carrot.jpg

 

Out of pure love for your little booger, you resort to hide and seek. You sneak a little pureed zucchini into her favorite soup. You hide shredded carrots in her hash browns.

Believe me, I understand. Because I’m an RD mom, people often assume that my kids nibble away at kale and salmon three times per day. This could not be further from the truth. I work very hard to promote healthy eating in my home. Do I struggle at times? Heck yes. Have I ever broken child feeding “rules” out of desperation? You know it.

Friends, please heed my advice. You may not see the harm in sneaking some veggies into a sauce. But don’t make that your only strategy for getting your kids to eat veggies. Because let me warn you: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In this post, I’m going to share why your strategy of hiding vegetables in “safer” foods may backfire. I’ll also share some tips for promoting veggie intake in picky kiddos.

WHY WON’T YOUR KID EAT HER FRICKIN’ VEGGIES?!?!?

Do you want your kid to eat the rainbow every single day? Don’t we all?! The first step is understanding why she is being so darn picky.

It’s possible that your little peanut doesn’t like the flavor or the texture of the vegetable you’re offering. But often, it has nothing to do with the vegetable in question.

Pickiness is often one of a child’s first acts of autonomy. Don’t take it personally—it’s not you, and it’s not your cooking. Your little rebel is showing her first signs of independence (I’ll pause so you can wipe those tears)!

So what does this mean? For one, little bits is growing up!

And second, your kid is pretty darn smart. So smart, in fact, that she may discover that you’re hiding her veggies. She may begin to wonder why you’re hiding veggies. Is there something wrong with them?

Friend, you've just created a negative association with veggies, which may make her less inclined to accept them down the road. It may also make her reject the foods that you use as vehicles for veggie smuggling—ones that used to be her favorites. Finally, the strategy of hiding all the veggies doesn’t give her the full opportunity to experience new flavors and textures—which is key to becoming an adventurous eater.

Now, you may be asking yourself if it’s ever okay to add veggies to sauces, soups, and smoothies. The answer is yes, sort of. But there is a difference between adding vegetables to boost a dish’s nutritional profile and hiding vegetables to avoid drama at the table. If you add veggies to boost nutrition, make sure to frequently offer veggies in plain view as well. And don’t lie about it! If your kid asks why her smoothie is green, tell her it’s the super spinach!

But let’s say you’ve been playing hide the veggie a little too often. There are a few tried and true strategies to help your little muffin eat her greens. No trickery required.

Five Strategies to Turnip the Beet

1. Let Her be the Boss (Within Reason)

You can throw your hands up in frustration when little bits is being picky. Or you can appeal to her growing sense of autonomy.

Seek her input as you’re planning meals. Let her know that you expect her to eat her veggies, but let her decide which ones. You might say: “Lucy, we are having chicken tonight. Would you like broccoli or cauliflower for our vegetable?”
 

veggie tales.jpg

This one little trick has significantly cut down on food-related tantrums in my home.

Be sure to switch up the veggies you offer, as opposed to offering the same two every night. This will ensure that your family is eating a variety of nutrients. It also helps develop your family's palate for veggies.

2. You know what they say about assuming…

Have you ever said, “There’s no way my kid will eat that”…about a food she’s never tried?

I hear this quite often when working with families. Of course, no one knows your kid better than you do. But how many times per day does your little one surprise you?!? Food is an adventure! You’d be AMAZED at some of the things kids love, if you give them the chance.

Serve a small portion, and see what happens.

3. You will eat it, and you will like it.

Parents, I’m referring to YOU. You can’t expect kids to accept foods that you shun. Set a good example. Sit at the table with your kids. Eat your frickin’ veggies. Rave about how delicious they are.

Little eyes are watching.

4. Variety is the spice of life.

For years, I thought I hated Brussels sprouts. I’d only tried boiled Brussels sprouts, which smell like butt and taste even worse (I'd imagine).

I was shocked when I fell in love with Brussels after eating them charred at a restaurant. I’ve since learned that I also enjoy them crunchy in slaws and oven roasted. I didn’t hate Brussels—I hated boiled Brussels.

Say your kiddo detests cooked carrots. Try serving them crunchy next time. Make a salad out of shredded carrots and raisins. If you want to get wild, serve a duo of carrots—two different preparations of carrot on the same plate! Don’t be afraid to experiment with flavor and texture.

5. Let Them Get Their Hands Dirty

Children who garden and cook are more likely to accept a variety of vegetables into the diet. If you have the space, help your little one plant a small veggie garden and let them dig away. My kids like decorate our veggie garden with little toy trucks, dinosaurs, and fairies. But even more than that, they are so proud to harvest our veggies and sample the crops!

Look at my handsome little garden helper! 

Look at my handsome little garden helper! 

No green thumbs in your household? That’s okay! You can also encourage veggie intake by giving kids age-appropriate tasks in the kitchen. Even little ones can pluck stems off of cherry tomatoes or wash cucumbers. It all makes a difference!

6. Patience is a Virtue

Above all, don’t give up. Studies have shown that children may need up to 20 exposures to a food before accepting it into the diet.

Don’t stress out if your little one rejects her peas at dinner. Wait a few days, then offer peas again, right alongside foods that she likes. Over time, she may grow to love them.

Parents, have you ever dealt with veggie hate in your home? What struggles have you had, and how have you handled them? I’d love to know your thoughts!

4 Feeding Lessons You Can Learn from Your Dainty Lil' Eater

One of the most common questions I hear when people learn that I am both a mom and a dietitian is, “Should I worry that my kid doesn’t eat very much?” Friends, I have been there.

It can be scary when a little one develops a dainty appetite. You worry about her growth, and (if you tend a bit toward extremes, like me) whether there may be some illness keeping her from eating. Sometimes, these concerns are very valid. But most of the time, this is a normal phenomenon in otherwise healthy kids. In fact, we could even learn a few feeding lessons from our children!

Let’s talk about that for a bit! Read on for 4 feeding lessons you can learn from your kiddos. And for you parents that are a little nervous about your child’s small appetite, I’ll give you some behaviors to watch out for and nip in the bud. But first, a little background. 

If you know my family, you may know that my firstborn is my picky eater. She’s made tremendous strides in the past year or so, but I used to be terrified that she would starve to death.As you can see, she was a very enthusiastic breastfeeder. But once we transitioned to solids, girlfriend just would. Not. EAT.

My pickiest eater--the early days.

My pickiest eater--the early days.

(My pickiest eater--the early days)

I raised this concern with my pediatrician at little bit’s 2-year checkup (this was at the very beginning of dietetics school, before I learned all this stuff). He gave me some excellent advice:

“It’s not a big deal if she eats. It’s also not a big deal if she doesn’t eat.”

My initial reaction was, “WTF?!? How can it not be a big deal if she doesn’t eat?” Then it dawned on me. She will eat when she is hungry.

When you think about it, babies are some of the most intuitive, mindful eaters out there. For the most part, they will let you know when they are hungry and will eat just enough to satisfy that hunger. If you’ve ever had babies, you know that they tend to eat every 20 minutes during growth spurts because their bodies need the energy. Fast forward a few years. My daughter still eats like a bird sometimes, only to be followed by stretches when I am sure she is going to eat us out of house and home. Two weeks later, all of her pants are too short.

My point is, some kids are more attuned to their natural hunger cues than adults.

So what feeding lessons can we learn from those smart little cookies?

1.         Stop eating when you are no longer hungry.

Did you grow up in a household in which you were encouraged to clean your plate? This mentality sends the message that one should eat beyond the point of satiety (which means satisfaction, by the way).

I recently noticed that my 4-year-old will eat a few bites and they tell me she’s not hungry. This is what you should be doing as well! Rather than eating to the point of fullness, eat until you no longer feel hungry.

This is a skill that takes a lot of practice. You may find that it’s easier to undershoot and have to eat a little bit more later. That’s okay—it’s worth it! It is a mindful eating practice that leads to better physical health, as well as a better emotional relationship with food down the road.

2.         Eat on kid plates.

Still having trouble quitting Clean Plate Club? Steal your kids’ plates!

A often-cited study of plate size showed that people eating cereal out of larger bowls ate 16% more cereal than those who ate out of smaller bowls. Moreover, the large bowl group believed they were eating less than the small bowl group.

Serve your meals on smaller plates--ones that are 9 inches in diameter (the size of a standard paper plate) or smaller. Feel free to serve your veggies on large plates, though! We could all stand to eat more of those. Feel free to pass that feeding lesson along to your kids--they'll love it :). 

3.         Slow down.

I admittedly get frustrated when we are in a hurry to get somewhere and my kids are taking FOREVER to eat their breakfast. But guess what—they are doing it right! Receptors in the stomach communicate with the brain when the stomach is stretched. In turn, the brain releases hormones that signal satiety and fullness. This process takes time!

If you tend to overeat and have kids that dilly dally, try to match their pace for a meal or two. This may mean getting up a bit earlier in the morning, or dialing back the clock on dinner hour. If this seems like a pain, keep in mind that it may make you more likely to share family meals, which is a healthy eating practice itself!

4.         Stay busy. 

Have you ever told your kiddo, “You need to eat lunch before you play!” en route to a birthday party? Yep, guilty.

One of the reasons why mindful eating can be so difficult is that we place so much emotional value on food! We save ourselves from being outcasts at parties by migrating toward the buffet. The party MVP is always the one who brings the best dip. Heck, we plan entire holidays around food!

This is one of the great feeding lessons you can learn from your kid. Find something else to do. If you are at a social engagement, see if you can help with something. If you're at home, play with your kids or tackle a small project you’ve been putting off. It could save you from eating when you aren’t truly hungry.

See how your kids may be outsmarting you in the eating department (in a good way)?

Now, sometimes parents have legitimate reasons to be concerned about how much their child is eating. Here are some behaviors that warrant a call to the pediatrician:

1.         Low appetite in an underweight child.

I can appreciate your concern if your kid has a small appetite and your doctor (as opposed to a nosey auntie) has indicated he is underweight for age and height!  

Once your pediatrician rules out any underlying health issues, she may refer you to a dietitian to suggest some more energy-dense (but still healthy) foods to move toward a healthier body weight. This might help your child to increase calories while taking in the amount of food he desires.

2.         Excessive weight gain.

While this post has highlighted some silver linings of a seemingly low appetite, some kiddos do tend to overeat.

If your child has a very healthy appetite and is overweight (or seems to be gaining significant weight), it is definitely worth mentioning to a doctor. She can monitor growth, and she or a dietitian can help your family to make a plan to prevent further gain.

3.         Concerns about body image.

It makes me so sad to hear children of any age express concerns about “being fat.”

In both my dietetics education and my previous career in nutrition community outreach, I have been surprised by the prevalence of low body image in kids of all age. If your child isn’t eating much and is also making concerning comments about her body, PLEASE seek help from your pediatrician. It is very important to address these concerns as early as possible.

4.         Low appetite with other physical symptoms. 

Finally, if your kiddo isn’t eating much and has a fever, complains of aches or pains, seems tired or lethargic, or just isn’t himself, definitely give your doctor a ring! He may have an infection or virus that needs attention.

What do you think, parents? Have you ever picked up any clever feeding lessons from your kids?