Does Your Child Want to Go Vegan?
Here's where to start when your formerly burger-scoffing baby suddenly announces "Mum, I'm going vegan." It can completely throw you!
It's a situation that's becoming increasingly common, particularly in Australia, but also in the UK, with some studies finding up to 10% of the population now eating a primarily vegetarian diet.
How can you tell if this is simply another picky eating phase, or a change in lifestyle that your child feels strongly about? How do you plan balanced meals for someone who doesn't eat meat, eggs, or dairy, when the rest of the family loves a good barbecue? To move forward, you'll need to have a real conversation.
Talk it outThere are a number of motivations for giving up animal products, and for many children it starts with concerns about animal welfare. Older children may be more concerned about environmental issues, while some small children simply never enjoy the taste and texture of meat. Before you write off your child's concerns as a passing fad, sit down and try to understand where she's coming from. Ask questions about why he's making this decision, whether it's for ethical concerns or is simply a taste issue. Either way, it's helpful to approach the discussion with an open mind and show you're willing to be supportive.
Meet with your doctorOnce you're on the same page, the next step is to meet with your family pediatrician or a nutritionist. Committing to a vegan diet means that extra work is necessary to ensure that growing children get all of the protein, vitamins, and other nutrients like iron that they need to thrive. Talking about nutrition from an early age can set good habits for life, so this step doesn't hurt whether or not your child decides to continue with the vegan diet!
Know your nutrientsIt doesn't hurt to brush up on nutrition basics yourself. Some of the key nutrients to be mindful of for vegetarians and vegans include the following.
Protein – One of the first questions any vegan gets asked is "where do you get your protein?" It's an important question to be sure, because protein is vital for healthy bones, nails, skin, and brain function. Vegans can find it from a variety of sources, including whole grains like brown rice, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds.
Omega 3 fatty acids – Normally found in fish sources like salmon, omega 3 fatty acids protect the heart and promote brain health. Vegan sources include flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Vitamin B12 – Unless your child loves munching on seaweed, she's unlikely to get enough vitamin B12 from a vegetarian diet. Sea vegetables are the only non-animal source of this important vitamin.
Iron – This is also one of the trickier nutrients for vegans and vegetarians to get enough of. A diet low in iron can cause fatigue, because it helps the body transfer oxygen. Leafy green vegetables like spinach and chard are a good source of iron, as well as certain seeds, lentils, and oatmeal.
Calcium – Dairy products are usual sources of calcium, but dairy's off the menu for vegans. Protect bones, muscles, and heart function with calcium sources like sweet potatoes, green vegetables, whole grains, and tofu.
You may feel more comfortable with your child taking supplements for some of these nutrients like B12 and iron, particularly if he or she is also a picky eater. With a working knowledge of the nutrients your child needs to grow and thrive, you can then create meal plans. Encourage your child to research recipes and start cooking if he's old enough, or find vegetarian substitutes for family meals. It takes a bit of extra planning and a hefty dose of understanding, but catering for a vegan child can ultimately teach self-reliance and educate the whole family about the basics of nutrition.