Lesley Lassiter had been a vegetarian for about a decade when her daughter was born.
“So it was just never a question to me whether I would raise her as a vegetarian or not,” says Lesley, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., and writes a vegetarian food blog.
Likewise, Anna Bedford, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, has been a vegetarian for 25 years. Her husband Barrett Dillow doesn’t eat meat, either. So when they became parents in early 2012, they chose to raise their son as vegetarian, too.
Although the overall percentage of people in the United States who consider themselves to be vegetarians is still relatively small—about 5% according to a 2012 survey by the Gallup Organization—many of them, like Lesley, Anna and Barrett, want to continue the vegetarian lifestyle when it comes to raising and feeding their offspring.
And that can be a very healthy choice, experts say.
“A vegetarian diet can be healthy as long as it’s well-balanced and nutritionally varied,” says registered dietitian Vandana Sheth, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Protein: Finding the Balance
Of course, eliminating meat does not necessarily make a diet healthy.
“You’ll find a lot of vegetarians are actually pasta-tarians,” says Lesley, referring to people who eat lots of bread products but not a lot of vegetables, fruits and protein.
The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to be deliberate about guarding against nutritional deficiencies. For example, parents need to ensure their children get an appropriate amount of protein.
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“It is important to not just take the meat and animal foods off the plate but remember to replace those with nutritionally similar plant-based foods to avoid deficits,” says Sheth.
And it’s a fairly easy thing to do, given that a variety of foods contain protein. Legumes, soy foods like edamame and tofu, meat substitutes like veggie burgers, nuts, seeds, and dairy products are all good sources of protein. Many plant-based foods are also good sources of calcium, Sheth says.
Incorporating protein is not a problem at all for Lesley, who serves lots of black beans and kidney beans. Her daughter also loves grilled cheese and peanut butter sandwiches. Likewise, Anna and Barrett’s son adores edamame and beans.
But a healthy vegetarian diet is not all about protein, either, Sheth cautions. “Often when going vegetarian, parents might be worried about adequately meeting their child’s protein needs and overdo this nutrient.”
Beginners, Do Your Homework
Want to raise your children meat-free? If the vegetarian lifestyle is completely new for you and your family, you might want to try making the transition in stages. You could start by incorporating more whole grains and plant-based proteins into your diet while you slowly ease out the meat. Replace the meat with your favorites sources of plant-based protein.
Sheth also recommends doing a little homework. Try reading up on vegetarian nutrition and recipes. Consider consulting with a registered dietitian to discuss how to best meet your family’s nutritional needs. You could also discuss your decision with your pediatrician so you can stay on top of your child’s changing needs based on their age and developmental status.
“It might initially seem daunting,” Sheth says. “However, with so many more food options available at the grocery store and in restaurants, it can be easy.”
If you’re interested in learning more about raising vegetarian children, start your research at some of these great resources:
- KidsEatRight.org is the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ online resource about children and healthy eating.
- Lesley Eats is Nashville mom Lesley Lassiter’s blog about vegetarian eating. It’s “more than just rabbit food,” she promises.
- Meatless Monday is a useful resource for anyone who wants to try to go meat-free at least one day per week.
- VeggieKids is a blog started by mother Sarah Creighton, author of The Boy Who Loved Broccoli, and contains lots of vegan recipes.
- VegKitchen offers lots of healthy (and easy!) vegetarian and vegan recipes for children and families.
- Vegan Planet by Robin Robertson is a great go-to cookbook for vegetarian families.
- The Cranks Recipe Book: The Vegetarian Classics is a longtime favorite cookbook of vegetarian Anna Bedford.