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 :).

Pass the Peas (Just Add Some Corn): Protein Quality 101 for Vegetarians

I am a failed vegetarian. 

I gave it a good 10 months, but my effort was doomed from the start. I was still exclusively breastfeeding my oldest daughter, getting no sleep, and did very little research before embarking on my meatless lifestyle (this was before dietetics school, obviously). 

Note to nursing moms: Never read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma when you are sleep-deprived and emotional unless you are ready to go veg. You may never want to eat an animal again. 

I have total respect for vegetarians and may give it another try at some point. I think a well-planned vegetarian diet is one of the healthiest and most environmentally sustainable ways to eat. 

Lately, I’ve had many questions related to quality protein sources for vegetarians. Because of the circles I run in, most of these inquiries have come from either athletes or concerned parents, which is interesting because these are two populations that often need more protein than the standard recommendation for healthy adults. 

I do Crossfit, which often includes heavy weightlifting, 4 times per week. Protein is key in muscle building, recovery, and adaptation to exercise. Protein needs for athletes vary depending on the frequency and intensity of their workouts; however, many athletes need 1.2 grams or more of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (compared to 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for most adults).

Children often need a bit more protein than adults to support growth. Protein needs among healthy children are highest in infancy and decrease per kilogram of body weight gradually as the child ages. 

So here is the protein pickle vegetarians (and especially vegans) may encounter: The highest quality proteins are found in animal products, including meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. Quality proteins are those that include all nine essential amino acids—which are the building blocks of protein—in adequate amounts. 

The good news for vegetarians is that you can pair plant-based protein sources in specific ways to ensure that you are not missing out on essential amino acids. Proteins that are combined to create a quality protein source are called complementary proteins.

For example, white rice is too low in the essential amino acid lysine to be considered a quality protein. If you eat it with either corn or Cremini mushrooms, however, that combination of foods would yield a quality protein and better meet your body’s needs. 

So how do you know if a food is a quality protein? Magic? Telephone psychic? 

The internet, silly! I am a big fan of Self Magazine’s NutritionData website, which gives very detailed analysis of protein quality. Here’s how to see how your favorite plant proteins stack up: 

  1. Navigate to NutritionData
  2. Type in the food you want to look up in the search field located at the top right of the screen. Be as specific as possible. In this example, I will use frozen green peas. 
  3. Click on the option from the list that is closest to the one you are planning to eat.
  4. Scroll down to the box that says “Protein Quality.” The nine spokes represent each of the nine essential amino acids. If one of the spokes is not completely filled, then that amino acid is deficient in that food. A food that has an overall score of 100 or more is considered a complete or quality protein.

Our frozen peas have a score of 84, which indicates that they are not a complete protein. The limiting amino acid is methionine + cystine. If you are not familiar with the abbreviations on the graph, you will learn what they mean in step five (so read on!). 

5. This is where the site is really nifty. Rather than making you guess as to which foods might complement the food item in question, NutritionData makes it easy for you. If your food’s score is less than 100, just click on the link that says “Find foods with complementary profile.” At the top of the list, NutritionData provides the full name of the limiting amino acid. 

You can filter the results at the top to include only vegetable-based items, or to include dairy or egg products if you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian. If you create an account, you choose to show only items that meet your dietary preferences. 

hoosing a food from the complementary protein profile can help fill the gaps in your diet and ensure that your body has the tools necessary for growth, muscle development, muscle retention, etc. Just to finish out our example, one of the veggie options that NutritionData lists for peas is corn, meaning that if you mix your peas and corn, you will have a higher quality protein. 

retty cool, huh? 

Vegetarian readers, what are your favorite sources of protein? Did you learn anything about them by plugging them into NutritionData? Do you use another method to determine protein quality?