Kids and Nutrition: Raising a Vegetarian

Jeff McCallister
AnnMarie and Jeff McCallister with their daughter, Ana

My daughter was 5 years old when she discovered that the chicken nuggets she and her brother were eating had been living, breathing birds (with faces and everything!), in the not-too-distant past. She quickly connected the dots to hamburgers and cows, pulled pork and pigs—all the way down the carnivorous line.

There was no hesitation: Ana announced that very minute that she was becoming a vegetarian: No more chickens, cows, pigs, fish, shrimp or anything else that could look her in the eyes would ever again pass her lips.

It was a decree issued with every bit of force a 5-year-old can muster, a laying-down of the law that carried an overwhelming, unbending finality. Naturally, my wife and I figured she would forget about it by dinner the next night.

So even though we went with it, starting her off with some vegetarian fare and telling her what little we knew about being a vegetarian, it didn't occur to us that this might be much more than a phase. It turns out, we had good reason to be skeptical.

“Most of my patients that age who are vegetarians, it's because their parents are vegetarians and that's how they've decided to raise their child,” said Dr. Lindsay Wylie, my daughter's pediatrician at Riverside Pediatric Associates on Olentangy River Road. “I have had a handful of younger patients like that who decided on their own, and I would say that most don't stick with it.”

But our precocious little thing, as it turns out, was in it for the long haul. She recently turned 12, and—with the exception of that one time she found shrimp packed into a supposed “vegetable” spring roll after she had finished half of it (she remains suspicious of them to this day)—she's been true to her passionate self.

I can't say it's always been easy, especially in the beginning, when the realization set in that this was more than a whim and we had to start doing some frantic research to figure out what she needed in her diet. Dr. Wylie and her predecessor, Dr. Robert Forsythe (before his retirement), were invaluable. Both brought a calm, matter-of-fact attitude to our conversations that not only kept my wife, AnnMarie, and I from panicking, they convinced us that having a vegetarian in the house probably wouldn't complicate our lives as much as we feared.

“Vegetarians do have to be more careful than non-vegetarians about their diet,” Wylie said. “There are certain essential nutrients that most people get from eating meat that you have to make sure you are getting elsewhere. Parents just have to educate themselves, and make sure they educate their children, about where those nutrients will come from.”

Wylie said vegetarians tend to have healthier diets overall because, well, they tend to eat more fruits and vegetables. My daughter isn't vegan, so that helps keep complications to a minimum since she can get some of those key nutrients from dairy products and eggs, and she has no problem eating tofu, nuts and beans to get all the protein she needs.

The first dietary concern at checkups is still anemia, since vegetarians tend to lack both iron and vitamin B12 in their diets, and both are essential to the production of red blood cells; Dr. Wylie recommended a supplement to make sure Ana gets all she needs. She also recommended meeting with a registered dietitian to go over some of the specific dietary issues a vegetarian is likely to encounter.

Once we got comfortable navigating the nutritional byways of vegetarianism, we were able to get to the fun of meal planning. Aside from my daughter, none of us are vegetarians, and no one wants to be a short-order cook, preparing something different for every member of the family at every meal (though a certain amount of that is inevitable).

We include our daughter in all of our weekly meal-planning discussions, and she helps with grocery shopping so that she stays aware of different choices that might be available.

Also, she loves to cook, and we have compiled a pretty decent collection of vegetarian cookbooks—some specifically for kids, others not—that have produced some go-to meals over the years. (See sidebar)

Of course, we don't always have time to put together every meal from scratch. Since there are many meatless main courses, from a dozen or so brands, in the freezer section of most grocery stores, we've found we're OK just sticking to a theme sometimes. If we roast a chicken for dinner one night, my daughter might have “chick'n nuggets” from Morningstar Farms. While the rest of us have salmon, she can have a “golden fishless filet” from Gardein. Even the carnivores in our family can't distinguish taco filling made with Lightlife's Smart Ground from ground beef once you add in the seasoning and toppings, so we don't even have meat tacos anymore.

Being vegetarian has become a part of who my daughter is. She says it's the only course she can ever see for her life, and I have no reason, after seven years, to doubt that. I'm confident that she's gained enough knowledge and experience that she can make that happen and stay healthy, and that's really all that matters.

Our Favorite Cookbooks

“Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home,” by Moosewood Collective

“How to Cook Everything Vegetarian,” by Mark Bittman

“The Forest Feast,” by Erin Gleeson

“Cooking Class,” by Deanna F. Cook (This is not a vegetarian cookbook, but it has lots of vegetarian recipes that are easy for kids to make for themselves.)

“Thug Kitchen” (the official cookbook of the website dedicated to verbally abusing you into a healthier diet; the language is NOT kid-friendly)