For years I pushed back against my youngest daughter’s grumblings about giving up meat by stating that once she was old enough to purchase and cook her own food, she could do whatever she wanted. My main concern was that as a growing girl who played a bunch of sports, she get enough protein. When she became a teen, I relented. It was clear that insisting she consume meat would only create conflict—and who needs more of that during an already fraught time for parent-child relations? I could also see she was becoming genuinely upset about eating meat. “In adolescence, it’s pretty common for kids to want to try vegetarianism for a variety of reasons,” nutritionist and registered dietician Angela Lemond tells Elizabeth Street. “At some point they realize, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m actually eating a dead animal.’”
Lemond, a mother of three, is extremely rational and intelligent and a fount of sensible information about family nutrition. She points out that it’s quite rare for Americans, whether or not they eat meat, to be protein deficient. Teenage girls need about 46 grams of protein a day, and boys need 52 grams. Younger kids require less. If your teen eats two eggs, a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread, and drinks three glasses of milk, they have hit their daily target. See? Not that difficult.
While animal products provide complete proteins (which means they contain nine essential amino acids), plant sources are, for the most part, incomplete and need to be combined. Generally speaking, that would be eating a legume or nut with a grain. Food combining may sound complicated, but if you think about at the way people around the world eat naturally—rice and beans or tortillas and beans, for example, or tofu with rice or that peanut butter sandwich—you get the idea. What’s more, you don’t need to consume complementary foods at the same meal as previously recommended. If your child eats a variety of whole grains, legumes, and nuts, plus milk and an egg, over the course of 12 hours, they’ll be set for protein and in fact, be eating better than most people on the planet.
However, in order to have a healthy diet, kids also need to consume an array of other nutrients, which can be a little challenging—especially if they want to follow a vegan diet and avoid all animal products completely (including milk and eggs). Lemond says parents need to be sure that their vegetarian and vegan kids are getting enough calcium, Vitamin D, iron and B-12. Here’s what you need to know about these minerals and where you can find them:
—Calcium and Vitamin D are essential for building strong bones. If your child isn’t drinking milk, check that the non-dairy beverages they do consume, such as soy or rice milk, are fortified.
—Iron from plant-sources can only be absorbed if consumed with Vitamin C. Dried beans, dark green leafy vegetables, quinoa, and tofu are good sources of this essential mineral, but eat them with a serving of vitamin-rich fruit or vegetable such as broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries, melon, or glass of orange juice.
—B-12 is critical for brain and central nervous system function and only found in animal products. Milk and egg yolks both contain B-12, but if your child is following a vegan diet, speak with your pediatrician or a nutritionist about taking a supplement.
No matter what, it’s important that your child understand that being “vegetarian” doesn’t mean eating just pasta, cheese and bread. As Lemond says, “The first part of ‘vegetarian’ is ‘veg.’” One benefit of a child deciding that they want to try out a plant-based diet is that it often encourages more adventurous eating—not just for them but for the whole family. Flipping through classic books together such as Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone by Deborah Madison or Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian to find inspiring, delicious recipes is a fantastic way for kids to learn about meal planning, cooking and nutrition.
But at the end of the day, you’re usually the one responsible for getting dinner on the table and keeping everyone’s bellies full. And while it can be fun to experiment with new vegetarian recipes, it can also be stressful. I’m a fan of topping almost any vegetable, grain, or bean with a fried or poached egg and calling it a special gourmet dish for the lone vegetarian. Or throw a frozen veggie patty on the grill alongside the ground beef or turkey on burger night. If you are still feeling overwhelmed or anxious about your junior vegetarian, perhaps take comfort in Lemond’s observation that, “It’s usually a phase.”