Probably the most controversial part of a vegetarian lifestyle is whether or not to include your children in your new lifestyle. Those against a veggie diet for children say that you won’t be able to give your child the nutrients they need to grow up healthy. This isn’t necessarily true.
We all start out life as lacto vegetarians. Out first food is our mothers’ milk, made just for us and full of all the nutrients we need. Infant formula, the alternative to breast milk, is made as close as possible to that of mother’s milk, and it’s all we require or should eat for the first four to six months of life.
The good news is, if you’re a vegetarian, your breast milk is superior to that of meat-eating mothers – you’re not passing on any of the antibiotics, pesticides or other contaminants that you would if you were eating meat. (And if you’re a vegan and you breast feed, your child is still a vegan, too – breast milk is a natural food for humans while cow’s milk is not).
Whether or not you breast feed is entirely your decision but, for most babies, breast milk is the optimal food. In addition to the sugars and other nutrients, scientists believe that there are other, as yet unidentified, substances in breast milk that make it superior to infant formula. Should you decide not to breast feed, choose a soy-based formula – soy is less likely to cause allergies than cow’s-milk-based formulas. But don’t give regular soy milk to a baby less than a year old, as it’s not designed to meet their nutritional needs.
Cow’s milk should never be fed to babies under one year old, as it can cause intestinal bleeding and lead to anemia. Also, studies have shown a link between infants drinking cow’s milk and their increased risk to become diabetic later in life.
At the four-to-six month mark, it’s time to introduce your baby to solid foods. The timing varies from baby to baby – when your child reaches 13 pounds or double his birth weight wants to breast-feed eight times or more during a 24-hour period, and when she takes a quart or more of a formula per day and still acts hungry, it’s time to transition to solid foods.
You’ll want to introduce solid foods slowly, so that their systems can get used to the change in diet. Start with cooked grains – rice cereal is best, as almost every baby can digest it easily and unlikely to cause an allergic reaction. Once your baby eats cooked cereal, begin to slowly introduce other foods.
You can buy commercial baby foods or puree your own fruits and vegetables in a blender. If you buy prepared foods, buy ones that are free from added sugars, preservatives and any other additives that your baby doesn’t need. Start with raw, mashed fruits and move on to cooked vegetables like mashed sweet potatoes. It’s smart to introduce new foods one at a time, so if your baby has sensitivity to a food you can easily identify it.
When your child starts teething (somewhere between 12 and 24 months) they can move on to foods that need to be chewed. Raw vegetables can be introduced then, starting with veggies that are easy to chew and unlikely to present a choking hazard. When giving babies "finger foods," take care that the foods aren’t too hard, large, sharp, or round. Good choices are carrot sticks, lettuce and other leafy green vegetables, and lightly blanched and cooled broccoli. As long as it’s safe for the baby to chew, an vegetables that adults eat are fine for a child.
Follow the same feeding schedules and advice that you would for any other baby, except for not feeding them meat. Adapt the guidelines in the baby books to the vegetarian diet. Just make sure that you don’t let other people convince you that you should be allowing your baby to drink cow’s milk – once your child is old enough to transition off formula, you can give him water, regular soy milk or rice milk, juice, regular soy milk, or any other nutritious liquid.
At seven to ten months, start introducing high-protein legumes to the baby’s diet. Slowly add tofu into their meals and snacks, as well as soy cheese and soy yogurt – two servings per day, about a half-ounce per serving. Most babies are very fond of lentils, which can be cooked until fairly soft and have a pleasant, bland flavor. Nut butters should not be fed until after 12 months.
As you ease into the toddler/preschooler years (ages 1 to 4), you can start offering your child some vegetarian versions of classic kids’ favorites. Vegetarian and vegan children are just like any other kids – they’ll be a bit fussy sometimes, but there are a wide variety of nutritious foods that children universally enjoy:
- Spaghetti with meatless sauce
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
- Baked French fries with ketchup
- Veggie burgers, hot dogs and sandwich slices
- Whole wheat bread and rolls
- Grilled soy cheese sandwiches
- Veggie pizzas with soy cheese
- Pancakes or waffles, with fruit or maple syrup
- Vegetable soup
- Baked potatoes with non-dairy sour cream
- Rice and beans
- Spinach lasagna
- Calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice
- Cold cereal with vanilla soy or rice milk
- Chicken-Free nuggets (soy protein nuggets that taste just like breaded chicken)
- Fruit, cut up into bite sized pieces
- Raisins and banana chips
- Trail mix
- Fruit smoothies
- Vegan cakes, cookies and other baked goods
Vegetarian diets feature a lot of bulky, filling plant foods, and since small children have equally small stomachs, they sometimes don’t get all the calories they require. Make sure to include a lot of calorie-dense foods in your child’s diet so that they get all the energy their growing bodies require – add avocado, which is calorie-dense and full of good fats, to sandwiches. Peanut and almond butters are excellent sources of calories for kids, too.
Very young children also need to eat more than three meals each day. So be generous with the snacks featuring grains, fruits and vegetables to add lots of necessary nutrients to their diet. Don’t worry about a vegetarian diet affecting your child’s growth – a 1989 study of children living in a vegan community in Tennessee found that while they were slightly shorter than average at age 1 to 3, they caught up by age 10, when they were actually taller than average, and weighed slightly less than children raised on an omnivorous diet.
Handling Partner's Objection
What if your partner doesn’t support your vegetarian choice? This can be a very sticky situation – especially if you have a husband or wife who loves a nice juicy steak on a regular basis.
All marriages are about compromise. You choose someone to spend the rest of your life with and, as time passes, you often find yourselves negotiating to find a middle ground that you can live with. One of you is messy, but the other is neat. He loves reality television, she adores opera. One partner may be a social butterfly but the other’s happy to stay home every night with a good book. Married couples figure out how to adapt to such differences, and a vegetarian/omnivore marriage has to negotiate many more obstacles than most.
It’s understandable, when you’re single and dating, to believe that your ideal partner will share all of your values. But that’s unrealistic – no two individuals are exactly alike, and the day-to-day struggle of paying bills, doing laundry, getting to work and raising children can sometimes make even the smallest difference seem enormous. As the popularity of vegetarianism increases, so do the number of "mixed marriages" between meat-eaters and non-meat eaters. You and your spouse may agree on a lot of things, but still disagree on how to eat.
The key to making it work is acceptance of each other’s choices. If you judge your spouse harshly for not joining you in your vegetarian journey, you may be turning them off entirely, closing the door to them making that step themselves in the future. No one likes to be told that they’re "bad," particularly if they’re simply eating the same diet as most of the other people they see every day.
Try to keep in mind that your choice to become vegetarian was a personal one, and it has to be for them, too. You can’t control what your spouse eats – but you can control how you behave towards them.
Here are a few things for you to consider:
• Cherish the issues in your marriage that you agree on. There are probably far more of those than there are issues on which you don’t see eye-to-eye.
• Acknowledge that your spouse’s diet isn’t meant to hurt you. If your partner eats meat, it isn’t a choice designed to make your life unhappy or more complicated. Try to respect their decision, whether it is based on ethical principles, on convenience or on habit.
• Try to get your partner to compromise on certain foods. See if you can get them to eat soy hot dogs, veggie burgers and non-dairy cheese at home.
• Never attack your spouse’s point of view, especially in public. Belittling your partner will only cause them to be resentful and more resistant to vegetarianism.
• Try to find restaurants where you can eat together. Choose venues that offer both meat dishes and vegetarian options, so that you can enjoy a fine meal together.
• Play an active role in shopping and preparing meals. Cook a variety of tasty, appealing meals so that your partner can see that the diet isn’t boring. Buy a few cookbooks and try new recipes to keep things interesting.
• Be a positive role model. Allow your cheerful attitude and good health serve as an example of how great vegetarianism can be.
• Don’t talk endlessly about your diet. If your partner is interested, the subject will come up naturally – but don’t lecture.
• If you’ve agreed not to eat meat at home, accept that your spouse may eat meat sometimes when they’re not with you. Again, you can’t control what they eat, and nagging doesn’t help.
Eating together is one of the great pleasures of any relationship. Negotiate a menu plan that’s acceptable to both of you, and then enjoy your meals together!
You are likely to encounter people who are less than supportive of your diet choices. Although vegetarians aren’t looked down upon today as much as in the past, there will still be people who think that your new lifestyle is a weird one.
Having a headache coming up with healthy recipes that your children will love? Then you must check out Menu Planning Central