RAISING VEGETARIAN KIDS
SHOULDN'T BE SO DIFFICULT
It seems that nearly all parents, vegetarian and omnivore, worry about what their kids are or are not eating. How confident parents feel about what they are feeding their children, how much they are consuming and whether their needs are being met nutritionally are directly related to their own experiences with food. For American parents, these experiences are overwhelmingly dominated by a meat-eating, fast food society. So vegetarian parents, though confident in the decision they've made for their own lives, may find themselves questioning the idea of raising vegetarian children. Parents new to vegetarianism themselves often feel especially lost when trying to put together a balanced menu for their little ones. At issue here are two things: basic familiarity with the wide variety of vegetarian options to meat (and egg and dairy products for vegans) and knowledge of vegetarian cooking. Once families familiarize themselves with all the products available and learn to cook delicious vegetarian food, thinking changes from "what we cannot eat" to "what we can eat" and, eventually, to "what we choose to eat".
Populations the world over have been raising healthy vegetarian children for hundreds of years. Yet when we mention the idea in the Western world, it is often received negatively, or at least with some doubt. Even longtime vegetarians and vegans who know quite a bit about maintaining a good nutritional balance for themselves, begin to doubt their ability to raise healthy vegetarian or vegan children. Why is this?
Lack of support, knowledge and experience are the major factors. If you have never been around vegetarian children, you may wonder if it is even possible to raise healthy children on a meatless diet. In light of this, one can hardly blame family and friends-- who no doubt know even less about vegetarian nutrition than you do--for worrying. In addition, many health professionals are ill-informed about vegetarian diets, fueling the fire of doubt. And there are a lot of questions and concerns generated by this doubt from those who care about the children of vegetarian parents. In the face of all this adversity, one would do well to remember that even the American Dietetic Association approves a vegetarian diet for all ages. In their paper Feeding Your Baby the Vegetarian Way, they state that "when their diet is appropriately planned, babies can get all the nutrients they need to grow and be healthy within a vegetarian eating style."
Pediatrics, the well-respected medical journal, reported on a landmark study in 1989. Researchers studied 404 children at the Farm, a Tennessee community that encourages a vegan diet for all and found no significant differences in growth between the vegetarian children who lived there and non-vegetarian children. The vegetarian kids were slightly smaller than the average American child from ages one to three, but by age ten had caught up. This is not to say, however, that all vegetarian or vegan children are thin or small. Still, if caregivers are not convinced of the safety and healthfulness of a meat, egg and/or dairy-free diet, parents may face opposition regardless of the obvious health of the child.
Many who have disapproving families have to deal with others giving their child forbidden foods, sometimes secretly. Friends and acquaintances may inquire as to whether vegetarianism is safe for kids, when they wouldn't think to grill parents feeding their children sodas or candy. Even doctors may question the decision and often routinely order tests, furthering the notion that nutritional deficiencies are common among vegetarian children. Some parents choose to have these tests done (regular iron checks, for example) just for their own peace of mind, but it isn't necessary across the board. Note that the concern that is expressed by members of the medical community does not always stem from a disbelief in the positive properties of a vegetarian diet, but in a distrust of the vegetarian parents' knowledge of nutrition and willingness to show diligence in maintaining a healthy diet for their children.
Raising healthy vegetarian children is possible and is not difficult once a parent has done some simple research. It is research that each person who chooses to become a vegetarian should do for him or herself as well. Take your standard food chart and simply substitute vegetarian or vegan alternatives making sure your child gets the recommended number of servings. When looked at in this way, it becomes clear that the task at hand is really no more difficult than feeding your average picky eater. Resources exist in many forms available to anyone willing to peruse the magazine or nutrition/cookbook section of the local bookstore, spend an evening surfing the 'net, or contact a local or national vegetarian organization for information. A vegetarian diet for children can not only be adequate but abundantly healthful.
Written by: Melanie Wilson,
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