Raising a Vegetarian Kid in a Meat-Eating Family
The best and the worst of raising a vegetarian, plus tips and advice.
By: Leah Maxwell
All parents are familiar with kids who won’t eat certain things because they look yucky or smell weird or have intimidating names like lasagna Bolognese con Parmigiano-Reggiano. (It’s pasta with meat sauce and cheese, dudes – you’ll like it, I promise!) What some parents might not be prepared for, however, are kids who were raised in meat-eating households suddenly declaring themselves vegetarians. We asked experts and been-there-done-that parents to share their insights on how families can accommodate their surprise vegetarians in ways that are healthy and helpful for everyone involved.
“My daughter was 10 when she saw me ordering a pair of alligator-skin boots online and demanded that I reassure her they were not made of alligators,” says Mir Kamin, whose daughter is now 16. “Telling her they were made of cows didn’t make her feel any better, and that’s how my vegetarian dropped all meat from her diet.” Kamin says it never occurred to her to try to talk her daughter out of the decision, in part because she thought it would be a phase. Now, nearly six years later, she says the dietary shift has been good -- both physically and emotionally -- for the whole family, even those who remain “dedicated omnivores.”
Like Kamin, Russell Wilson thought his youngest daughter’s stint as a vegetarian would also be a phase. “She started to be vegetarian after she did a paper for her grade 10 class on the treatment of chickens,” he says. “She had always liked meat prior to that, [and] we chose not to make any judgments or to try to persuade her to stop being a vegetarian.” His daughter is now 25 and still a vegetarian, and Wilson says, “Overall, this has been a very healthy experience for our family.”
Both Kamin and Wilson said the hardest part of raising a vegetarian has been making sure they get enough protein in their diet, a concern experts say is valid but easily managed. Dr. David DeRose, MD, MPH, the president of CompassHealth Consulting, Inc., says that although most of us were raised to believe meat and animal products are vital parts of a healthy diet, “today even mainstream groups like the American Dietetic Association are testifying to the adequacy of vegetarian eating practices” -- if done in the right way. Sociologist Dina Rose, author of It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating, says parents in this position should make sure their vegetarian children become “healthy-habits vegetarians” rather than “pasta-and-cheese vegetarians,” the latter of whom tend to focus on processed foods rather than vegetables and non-meat sources of protein.
Kamin says part of allowing her daughter to become a vegetarian involved requiring her to research vegetarian diets and complete proteins, to participate in meal planning, and to help prepare food when asked, all of which she has done. Kamin says one major positive side effect of raising a vegetarian child is that she has become more thoughtful about what she feeds the entire family. “It’s very easy to plan a meal around meat and not give a lot of thought to the rest of it, [but] since [my daughter’s] conversion[...]we eat a lot of legumes and a lot more veggies in general, and even when I do make a roast or a chicken, I pay a lot more attention to the rest of the food.” She goes on to say, “I’m much more thoughtful about the meat we buy, too,” explaining that while she’s unwilling to go full vegetarian herself, she’ll pay more for free range/organic meat, “in part out of guilt and in part because we can afford to because we eat a lot less of it than we used to.”
More from P&G everyday: 5 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids
Rose supports the idea that parents should make inclusive family meals with vegetarian components rather than cooking a completely separate meal that singles out the lone vegetarian. Part of this, she says, is to emphasize the importance of respecting the child’s decision while still teaching him or her the realities of living in a meat-eating world. That said, she also recommends everyone in the family be accommodating and flexible, which might mean serving a full vegetarian meal one or more nights a week. “This isn’t just good family manners/politics but is good for the family’s health and for the health of the planet,” she says. (DeRose specifically advises against parents trying to sneak meat into their vegetarian children’s food -- something his own mother once did, to the detriment of their relationship, which has since been repaired.)
The parents interviewed said supporting their children’s choices has been an integral part of the experience, and a positive one. For Kamin, raising a vegetarian has meant much more than adapting to a new way of eating. “At this point, my daughter has a stated ethical objection to eating animals, and I feel like that’s her right. She doesn’t heckle us at the dinner table and we don’t wave bacon in her face. It’s fine. I admire her conviction.”
Rose agrees that part of teaching our children to respect and honor others happens when children themselves feel respected and honored at home, and she says this will help the child feel more comfortable and confident with his or her decision outside the home as well. “The important point here from a parenting perspective is to teach the child how to deal with difference [because] being comfortable with difference is a very valuable life skill,” she says.
Wilson says that although the rest of his family continues to eat meat, as a group they’ve made it a family value to emphasize the importance of individuals making their own choices while not attempting to force those choices upon others. Wilson has taught all three of his kids that family members can have differing opinions yet still support one another, and he says the best part of having a vegetarian in the family is “having a passionate and informed child who expands our family horizons with her knowledge.”
How would you feel if your child decided to become a vegetarian?
Leah Maxwell is a book editor, freelance writer, cereal addict, wife, and mom to two young boys. She has been blogging at A Girl and a Boy since 2003.
More articles you may like: