Lately I seem to be getting the same question over and over: "What do I do when my child wants to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle?" For most, it begins with powerful feelings about animals. I can relate: I refused to eat meat at the age of 6 when I discovered the cows on a neighboring New Jersey farm were my dinner. Those feelings of outrage and empathy are real, so if your child feels strongly, it is safe to support her; just ensure her vegetarian diet is nutrient-rich.
In fact, the American Dietetic Association says that "well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes."
How you react to your child's vegetarian declaration is key. Although the thought of making a separate meal for one child feels overwhelming, responding to your child with a frustrated "when you start cooking for yourself, you can eat anything you want" is probably not the best idea, however tempting it might be.
Studies show that kids often use food as a point of control with their parents, because what they put in their mouths is one of the few things they can influence while under a parent's roof. But don't transform this newfound interest in vegetarianism into a battle. Instead show your child you respect her and are interested in her reasoning. Take this opportunity to set an example of how to respect other people's choices, especially if they are different from your own.
Where do you begin if your child comes to you asking to forgo meat? Ask her questions about how she came to this decision. Not only will you learn something about your child — perhaps she has a future as an environmentalist or a veterinarian — but you might also find that eggs are still on the docket, or even fish and chicken. Perhaps it is just the red meat she is upset about.
Then educate yourself and your child about the nutrient disparities between omnivorous and vegetarian diets. That way she can make educated decisions when away from home.
Are you wondering how to get a vegetarian dinner on the table if your family is used to eating meat every night? Convert your family's favorite meals into vegetarian versions of the original. A chicken stir-fry works with vegetables and brown rice. A taco doesn't need steak, chicken or fish; beans and vegetables make ideal fillings. Name a soup, and I bet it can be made without meat. And who says a burger has to be ground beef? Bean and quinoa burgers are pleasing variations. There are millions of recipes online.
Consider asking your child to help you do some of the cooking. Letting your child take some of the responsibility for this decision is smart: Kids should learn to cook and should understand how their demands impact their family.
Three important nutrients
Make sure your child's diet includes enough of these three critical nutrients, often found in the meat you're about to replace.
• Protein: It makes up about 20 percent of a healthy body, including bones, hair, skin, nails, enzymes and neurotransmitters, and provides 10 percent of our energy. Vegetarian protein sources include: legumes (lentils, peas); beans (Great Northern, black, pinto); whole grains (quinoa, millet, oatmeal, brown rice); nuts and nut butters; seeds.
• Iron: A lack of iron affects energy levels, blood health and the transfer of oxygen through cells. Vegetarian iron (non-heme iron) is absorbed less easily than iron from animal products (heme iron). Try: pumpkin seeds, cashews; lentils, kidney beans; oatmeal, barley, quinoa; spinach, Swiss chard.
• Calcium: Calcium is important for bones, heart, muscle and nerve function. Try: broccoli, squash, kale, sweet potatoes; legumes (navy beans, kidney beans, Great Northern beans); whole grains and seeds; fruit (oranges, raisins); tofu.
Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a nutrition education company.