I’m Vegetarian. So Is My Kid.

Jayna Gavieres

I’ll be the first to admit going vegetarian was difficult. After being a carnivore for 29 years, I couldn’t imagine cutting meat out of my diet cold turkey (pun intended). But the more I learned about the health impacts of eating meat—not to mention the environmental impacts of the meat production industry—leaving my carnivore lifestyle behind became imperative.

As a mother, I’ve encouraged my 7-year-old daughter to take up vegetarianism as well, because ultimately being mindful of what she’s eating can dramatically impact her physical health and the environment she lives in, long after I’m gone.

Changing your own diet is difficult, but altering a kid’s is a bigger challenge. It took me more than a year to become fully vegetarian: I started by slowly transitioning from meat-eater to pescatarian before shunning meat products for good. But for my daughter going vegetarian is still a work in progress.

While I transitioned slowly, dietary changes are never easy. One of the biggest challenges vegetarians, myself included, face is getting enough protein. So, I did what some newbies do: I substituted the meat in my meals with a lot of dairy. I’m sure this works for some people, but I had a history of lactose intolerance, and it wasn’t long before I was having stomach and digestion issues. Since much of my diet had changed, I scheduled an appointment with my doctor to rule out any other problems.

But my well-meaning visit didn’t go as planned. When I told my doctor I had become vegetarian, she laughed before launching into a series of questions that felt more aggressive than helpful to me. “Why don’t you like meat?” “Is this a moral or religious choice?” When I answered, her facial expression and tone made me feel ashamed. Though I understand being a medical doctor requires a certain level of skepticism with patients, I still didn’t expect to feel patronized.

Once the life choices lightening round had ended, my doctor did give me a quick physical examination and ordered blood work before reminding me that it was essential to increase my protein intake. She recommended more beans and legumes, iron from spinach or supplements, and vitamin D from milk, especially for my daughter. Then she shrugged off my original stomach concerns—the reason for my visit—saying it was “probably just your body getting used to the diet changes” and showed me the door. It was the first time I felt like I was being judged for my life choices—but certainly not the last.

Thankfully, my blood work came back normal with no signs of any deficiencies. I still have some stomach issues, but things have mostly settled.

My doctor wasn’t the only one to shame me for my choice. When I first told my mother I was trying to change my daughter’s diet to vegetarian she laughed and said she felt bad for my daughter. Thanks, Mom.

I can understand—at least somewhat—where my mother is coming from. Many people don’t believe a vegetarian diet is healthy for kids, but the truth is that both kids and adults can miss out on nutrients no matter what diet they follow. According to The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegetarians can miss out on iron, zinc, vitamin B-12, and for some, calcium and vitamin D. But a well-balanced diet can solve this. While there are supplements and multivitamins your doctor can recommend for a deficiency, proper meal planning can make up for that and a registered dietitian or nutritionist can also help.

“I think health and nutrition are very individual, so I don’t know if we can make blanket statements that vegetarian diets are healthy or unhealthy for children,” said Nicole DiBona, a registered dietitian at UCLA Santa Monica Hospital. “I think each child or adult’s nutrient values needs to be looked at individually to see if something is low.”

And while running your nutritional intakes past a doctor is important for anyone, it is even more critical for a developing child—but that doesn’t mean meat-free parents automatically have to rely on supplements. “I don’t necessarily think you would need to rely on a supplement with a child following this diet, but it would be good to get lab data that your doctor or dietitian could interpret for you and then give you suggestions for ways to increase certain nutrients in your diet,” says DiBona.

Personally, I felt like both myself and my child were getting the nutrition we needed, but maintaining a balanced vegetarian diet while also building good eating habits my daughter won’t eventually come to resent isn’t easy. The first thing I had to do was let go of expectations that all my homemade vegetarian meals were going to be hitters. The second: meal planning to get the right nutrients was going to take a lot of time, effort, and patience.

As most parents can understand, meal planning is time consuming. Coming up with creative dishes that are also health was hard—mostly because it required planning and researching ideas on top of an already busy schedule. To save my time (and sanity) I quickly learned to simply swap the meat in our favorite recipes with a different protein option rather than look for a new vegetarian-based recipe. One dish we love from my Filipino heritage is Arroz Caldo: chicken rice porridge. Traditionally made with chicken and chicken broth, I substitute the chicken broth for veggie broth and add tofu as a topping instead of chicken. Meal planning this way cut down on the time I spend researching ideas and I feel like we’re getting a balanced diet since I’m able to work protein in as a major component for most meals.

But perhaps more difficult than the cooking itself was accepting that my daughter was going to crave meat and foods I didn’t serve–and then being OK with it. At home, I encourage my daughter to make her own choices. She can eat what she wants within the vegetarian options in our fridge and pantry. But my daughter also enjoys purchasing lunch at school, and most of her lunch options aren’t vegetarian. We pick out the lunches together so I know what she’s choosing—even if it’s meat—so I can balance out those meals with what she’s given at home, but I leave the final choice up to her.

Now, I know my daughter isn’t vegetarian like myself, but she and I both have a mutual respect for each other’s choices. By easing her way into vegetarianism she’s gaining knowledge on mindfulness and conscious eating, and I hope that by practicing this lifestyle and by showing her how it’ll impact her health, she’ll eventually learn values that will help her change her future.