Imagine: your oldest, who is turning seven this summer, has yet to eat a piece of meat. You cook and serve a wide range of foods at your house and have since he was an infant, yet he is holding fast to his vegetarian lifestyle. On the other hand, his little brother, who is almost four, enjoys a pork taco and overstuffed hamburger as much as the rest of them. Oh, the irony of motherhood.
It’s no secret that little people have big opinions, especially when it comes to their personal choices. And, it can be easy to worry about a vegetarian child’s choices. Is he or she getting enough protein? Are they just being stubborn? Should I continue to offer them a piece of chicken? If you’re an involved parent, nutritionist, or avid home cook, too, you may think that you’ll immediately have all the answers and know exactly how to navigate this path, but sometimes you don’t. However, after a lot of thought and reflection, one can become completely confident in their little one’s meat-free eating habits.
If you are in a similar situation, here are a few things that might help you to loosen up and enjoy cooking for and eating with a little vegetarian.
Get to the root: Kids choose not to eat meat for a million different reasons. Thinking about your child’s motivation helps to understand their choice. Some reasons for vegetarianism include: the sensory/textural experience of eating meat, watching what other family members eat, building independence, and concerns over animal welfare.
Be honest: If you try to hide meat in soups, casseroles, or tacos, your child is going to lose trust in you and become suspicious of all the meals offered.
No interference: Other family members should feel comfortable to cook and eat meat if they want to, without a lot of the “ew gross!” comments.
Provide quality and variety: There is a big difference between junk food vegetarians and whole food vegetarians. Junk food vegetarians tend to eat a lot of carbs, and not much else. Whole food vegetarians may eat a wide range of grains, eggs, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, dairy, and seafood products. Is your child getting this wide range of foods, including protein sources? If not, it’s important to work these items into their daily diet.
It’s (likely) temporary: Sure, some people are vegetarians their whole life, but for the most part, kids who don’t eat meat in the beginning grow up to enjoy it later on.
Give choice: Offer something that your child will happily eat with every meal, but avoid cooking a separate dinner for them. It’s important for them to navigate the food landscape on their own.
Remember the big picture: Step back and ask yourself the most important question—is your child growing and developing properly? Are they healthy? If so, they are most likely getting the nutrients they need, but it is always wise to consult your pediatrician.
Sarah Waldman is a food writer, recipe developer, and nutritionist. For more on Waldman, check out her recently released a cookbook, Feeding a Family: A Real-Life Plan for Making Dinner Work.
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