“Mum, I’ve decided to become a vegetarian.”
Those few words fill parents with dread. Can you stop them? Will they change their mind? Won’t they get ill? And what on earth will you feed them?
My six year old decided to become vegetarian a few weeks ago. It didn’t come as a surprise and having become vegetarian at a similar age myself, I was lucky. Not only could I turn to my own mum for advice on how to cope, I have remained vegetarian ever since. In fact these days, my diet is predominantly vegan because I didn’t fully transition back to normal after veganuary. So, we were already eating vegetarian food at home and coping with my child becoming vegetarian has been surprisingly easy. Here are a few tips from our experience.
1. So your child is vegetarian? Don’t panic!
First things first, don’t panic. The more you fight against it, the more likely they are to stick with it. Both of my children have gone through “I’m going veggie” phases in the past. I’ve just accepted it and pointed out what’s veggie and what isn’t when we’ve been eating out. Usually, they change their mind pretty quickly when they realise they can’t have a ham sandwich. But if they don’t, that’s fine too. These days, there are plenty of veggie meat alternatives. Virtually all cafes and restaurants do a veggie option and most home cooked meals are easy to adapt.
2. Embrace their adventurous spirit
Since becoming vegetarian, my six year old has become notably more willing to try different foods. She has always eaten well, but had begun to get a bit fussy. Avocados? No. Beetroot? Nope. Chickpeas? Rather not. Mushrooms? Not a chance. Now though, she’s having the veggie option for her school lunch, which means eating what she’s given. And that’s exactly what she does. So when it comes to meals at home, anything goes. It has actually made my life a lot easier.
3. Help them out
This is a big decision for a little person. In the case of my six year old, she’s doing it for moral reasons. Along with trying to reduce her use of plastic (no straw for me thank you), picking up litter and being quite vocal about protecting the environment. So, I’m helping her out where I can. I tell her what’s veggie and what isn’t. I help her to choose the vegetarian options for school and mention it to friends’ parents if she’s going round for lunch. Just as important though, is to avoid putting on any extra pressure. I don’t mind whether she stays vegetarian and I won’t make her feel guilty if she wants to eat meat again. It’s part of discovering who she is, and that’s a tough enough gig without me making it more difficult.
4. Read up on how to ensure your child gets everything they need in their diet
These days, there is plenty of advice out there about having a healthy vegetarian diet. There are protein alternatives, vegetarian vitamin and mineral supplements and meat-free ready meals. Even the NHS gives advice on achieving a balanced diet as a vegetarian. Know what foods provide iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and omega 3. If your child won’t eat those foods, it’s worth considering a supplement. Keep an eye on them as well. If their energy levels become low or behaviour changes, it’s well worth getting a check up with the GP.
5. Know what’s veggie and what isn’t
Become an expert on veggie foods. Check labels, find out what unexpected things aren’t vegetarian. Did you know that marsh mallows contain gelatine? Or that not all ice cream is vegetarian? If you don’t check the labels, your child probably will. It’s not worth falling out over, so do try to make sure that what you’re buying for them is inline with their chosen diet.
6. Think about vegetarian snacks for your child
The only thing Libby has found difficult so far about being vegetarian is not being able to have certain sweets. I rarely give my children sweets, but if their friends are eating something like Haribo and offering them around, she does feel like she’s missing out. Most jelly sweets aren’t vegetarian, with the exception of jelly beans, which usually are. I do intend to keep a small packet of vegetarian sweets with me so Libby doesn’t miss out. It will rarely come out of my bag, but it’s good to know I’ve got something for her if others are having a treat.
7. Give your vegetarian child some responsibility
Libby is only six, but she’s not incapable of preparing food. If she’s going to be vegetarian, it’s important that she understands the nutrients she needs to consume. So, she has started helping out in the kitchen occasionally. We chat about why we need to eat certain things and why there are other foods we shouldn’t eat too much of. There will come a time when she’ll have to cook for herself if she wants to eat vegetarian. Maybe not until she’s at university, maybe when staying with friends. Either way, I want it to come naturally to her so I know she will always eat well.
8. Eat together and eat the same thing if possible
Most meat meals will have a vegetarian alternative. Switch out mince for quorn or soya mince. Replace chicken with vegetarian chicken pieces. Buy veggie pies, burgers, sausages or ready meals. Veggie alternatives are often a bit healthier than meat. So instead of making an issue of it and cooking different meals for everyone, why not switch up what the whole family is eating? If this isn’t possible, ask older children to help out by cooking the vegetarian part of the meal. Alternatively, batch cooking can work really well. Cook up a few batches of vegetarian alternatives to what you usually eat. Freeze them in individual portions and heat them up when you’re cooking the family meal.