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Feeding A Vegetarian Kid When You're A Carnivore

Feeding A Vegetarian Kid When You’re A Carnivore

By Mir Kamin

I don’t know how it happened. Actually, that’s not true. I do know how it happened, it’s just that it still confuses me. Our family is most definitely composed of omnivores, with a heavy carnivore bent when it comes to cheeseburgers. Sure, I served the kids salads… with their chicken. We eat everything. But meat always figured prominently. And then one day, my daughter looked at some crocodile print boots I was ogling online and—concerned—asked, “Those aren’t really made of crocodiles, are they?”

I laughed, and answered, “No, of course not. They’re made of cows.”

She was horrified. Horrified. Somehow she’d made it nigh unto middle school without realizing that leather came from animals. I foolishly tried to (in retrospect, I don’t even know what I was thinking) make it better (ha!) by pointing out that cheeseburgers came from cows, too! And that was it. Her horror grew, and she sputtered about how wrong it was to eat animals or kill them for their hides. She never ate meat again. (She does, occasionally, comment that something “smells so good” or “looks yummy,” but she never partakes.) You can find my daughter’s picture next to “conviction” in the dictionary.

It’s been four years, and I am still baffled to have this vegetarian living in a household full of people who would cheerfully stab each other with a fork to get at the last slice of bacon. On the other hand, I admire her stance, and I figured it was my parental duty to both support her and look at how the rest of us could maybe make some healthy changes as well. If you’ve got a kiddo who’s decided to give up meat (or make some other dietary change), your smartest first move should be to have a discussion with your child and her doctor to go over any potential medical concerns. (For example, my daughter was slightly anemic before she gave up meat. She now takes a daily iron supplement and we actively seek out iron-rich foods for her.) Assuming there’s no issues, you can survive your kid’s decision.

Here’s how we make it work:

Research nutrition, particularly complete proteins.

Oh, in the olden days you probably would’ve had to visit a nutritionist, but thanks to Dr. Google, most of the information you could possibly want or need about how to make sure you get adequate protein as a vegetarian is just a few clicks away. Meat is “easy protein,” but if you eschew it, it takes a little more planning to get what you need. Find yourself a good reference guide and then talk with your child about what she’s willing to eat. You don’t need to be charting intake, or anything, but at least in the beginning you do need to pay some attention to protein while you figure out these new eating habits.

Start planning meals, even if you didn’t used to.

Before my daughter went vegetarian, I was much more likely to do a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach to family dinners. That’s fine for plunking a roast in the crock pot in the morning or tossing some chicken breasts on the grill at night, but cooking things like dried beans actually takes some planning and lead time. It turns out that weekly menu planning cuts down on the grocery bill and weekday stress, so it’s a win all around.

Resist the urge to rely on fake meat.

A lot of vegetarians (especially kids) go for the old, familiar foods in processed, veggie-derived form. I’m not saying you can’t ever go for the preformed veggie burger or fake chicken nuggets, but they’re not good diet staples. For one thing, they tend to be just as (or even more) unhealthy as their fast-food, meat-derived counterparts. For another, they’re expensive. Finally, they tend to be loaded with soy, which contains phytoestrogens, and is therefore something growing bodies should consume only in moderation. You’ll probably find that continuing to prepare meat-centric meals and then popping out a frozen fauxburger as your vegetarian’s “main” is an easy short-term solution, but it’s kind of a crutch. (Confession: we tend to keep an “emergency box” of faux-something in the freezer.)

Cook together!

If your kid is old enough to assume agency over her food choices, she’s old enough to help you plan and cook meals. All of those frozen additive-filled convenience foods can be made from scratch, in a healthier way, in vegetarian form. Yeah, you’ll need to do some experimenting, and yes, it takes longer than cooking burgers or cutlets, but the result will be healthier options that most likely your whole family will enjoy. (P.S. Hello, sneaky quality time with the kid who’s usually too busy texting friends to bother with you….)

Build a new arsenal of family meal favorites that work for everyone.

Our family eats fewer meat-centric meals now than we used to; it’s just easier when everyone can have the same meal, together. (Did I mention that Mother Nature gifted me with a gluten intolerance to celebrate mid-life? She did. Coming up with family meals that are both vegetarian and gluten-free can be challenging, but we manage it.) It turns out that we all really like homemade falafel, and even the vegetarian’s picky little brother agrees that lentil tacos are just as good as ground beef. We do an eggplant casserole that’s sort of like parmigiana without the breading, and hey, quinoa is versatile and delicious. When I do make a roast or we have burgers or chicken or whatever, we have options; I make sure there are plenty of sides, plus leftovers from a veggie meal my daughter can have that night, or she can grab a frozen veggie patty and nuke that, instead. Every so often I’ll do a meal separated into components where everyone can fix what they like on their own plates, too. (There’s a spinach/garlic/lemon/shrimp pasta thing I do when I feel like dirtying every pot in the house, apparently: Regular pasta for them, gluten-free for me, and shrimp cooked separately so the vegetarian’s plate is never touched by anything with a face.) (I once tried to convince her that shrimp don’t really have faces so much as just… you know… front ends, but I lost that argument.)

For whatever it’s worth, plenty of people assured me that my child was “just going through a phase” when this first started. It’s the longest phase I’ve ever seen, if that’s true, but even if it had been, I feel like she’s helped our whole family to expand our palates and make healthier food choices. It’s been good for all of us.

I still eat meat… just, you know, not as often as I used to. (I’m pretty sure that means I deserve extra bacon. Just saying.)

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • […] I dropped it somewhere yesterday), feel free to head on over to Alphamom to read all about how we carnivores found mealtime happiness with the rogue vegetarian in the house. Not gonna lie; it helps that said vegetarian is very […]

  • js

    April 23, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and was briefly vegetarian 😉 I am also intrigued by how you handle discipline with teenagers and a blended family.

    • Mir Kamin

      April 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      I will definitely be writing about that in in a future piece, js, don’t worry! 🙂

  • Juli Ward

    April 23, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    I have two very easy go-to recipes: (1) Baked potatoes served with an array of lettuce, chopped vegetables, cheese, butter, etc. I can come home from work and pop those potatoes in the oven and have very little to worry about after that. (2) Taco salad with refried beans substituted as the meat. I always load the salad up with red peppers, green pepper, yellow, peppers, lettuce, jalapenos, onions, any other cut up vegetable I can find, etc. Even when my stepchildren were tots, they all would eat these meals.

    • Mir Kamin

      April 23, 2013 at 4:42 pm

      We do baked potato night with sweet potatoes (more nutrition, less guilt) and usually black beans and fixings. Now I want a potato. 😉

  • Karen P

    April 23, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    My 30 year old daughter has been a vegetarian since she was 12. She gave up fish a few years later, but has added that back into her diet. She is now pregnant and was so happy her doctor didn’t blink an eye when she said she was vegetarian. (Helped that her Dr. is from India.) Today she had an appointment with the nurse only and she saw she was a vegetarian and asked “but where do you get your protein?” My daughter’s answer was I just don’t eat meat I eat other things.

  • Oscar's mom

    April 23, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    I gave up meat in grade 9, and so glad for so many reasons that I did. The reasons have only grown as the years have gone by, the more I’ve learned about environmental and health issues with food. After a while, your daughter isn’t likely to find meat smells yummy anymore.

    Frankly, I am surprised Americans still eat as much meat as they do, and use it as such a meal crutch.

    I’m grateful my mom supported my choice 25 years ago. She chooses to eat less meat frequently these days herself.

  • Grace

    April 23, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    My friend Lisa’s been a vegetarian since she was about 9, but even before that she couldn’t eat seafood (allergies). All of us tend to eat less meat when she’s with us even though she saysour carnivorous cravings don’t bother her.

  • Aimee

    April 23, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    I became a vegetarian at age 11, when I could no longer separate the meat from the animal and it pained me to think that animals died so that I could eat them. This was back in the mid-80s when vegetarianism was not terribly mainstream. To my parents’ credit, at a point in time when we couldn’t agree on much they respected my decision, saying that I could try it for 3 months but that if they felt my health was suffering we’d have to review it. My dad cooked two meals every night until I moved out of home 10 years later!

    • Mir Kamin

      April 26, 2013 at 9:23 am

      That’s incredible, Aimee!! I’m not that nice, I guess. 😉

  • Nancy

    April 26, 2013 at 10:53 am

    My 3.5 year old thinks she is a vegetarian. That’s a bit harder to work with for school lunches. any suggestions especially anything that can be made into a sandwich or isn’t really messy?

    • Mir Kamin

      April 28, 2013 at 1:35 pm

      Nancy, here’s some things my vegetarian likes in her lunch (though some may be too messy for your little one):
      Sunbutter/jelly sandwich
      Bagel + cream cheese
      Cheese/pickle sandwich (maybe not the most nutritive choice, but we use hearty, multigrain bread)
      Assorted raw veggies with hummus to dip ’em in
      Pita bread stuffed with egg salad or smashed chickpea salad
      Cold pizza
      Frittata muffins (here’s a recipe that uses ham, but it’s easy to adjust to your liking—we favor spinach and cheese)
      Veggie fried rice in a thermos
      Broccoli slaw with cranberries and pumpkin seeds

      I think the key, really, is to think about what she likes to eat and not get locked into whether it’s a “suitable” lunch food. You can wrap almost anything in a tortilla and most kids will be delighted with it as cut-up pinwheels, y’know? Start with what she likes and repurpose or don’t, but if that means scrambled eggs in a tortilla or a “trail mix” heavy in almonds (great protein source) alongside a bunch of fruit, whatever. Experiment! 🙂

  • Ashley

    August 14, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    I am so glad that you mentioned staying away from all the ‘looks like chicken’ prepared patties/nuggets/etc. Too much soy is not good for anyone, children, adults, etc. I am a vegetarian and have been since I moved out of home at 17 and through a lot of trial and error I find my diet is cleaner and healthier. That is great that you supported your daughter – I have a lot of friends whose parents were not as accomodating or understanding.

  • Rasselas

    January 22, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    The bit about people telling you “it’s just a phase” is upsetting to me. When I went off to college, I realized with great relief that I didn’t have to eat meat anymore. It was such a liberating feeling that I never looked back. On my first visit home after telling my mother this, she prepared chicken. Especially for me. And was surprised and dismayed when I wouldn’t eat it. “But it’s chicken,” she insisted with a dismal expression. She wanted me to make a compromise, to guilt-trip me into going back to what was familiar to her. It was disrespectful and upsetting. It showed that she didn’t know me or want to know who I was becoming. Too much change, too fast, too many fears.

    “It’s just a phase” is a similarly disrespectful response. It assumes that the choice isn’t a valid one, that it’s not substantial, but just a silly, immature whim.

    Many years later, my mother herself has chosen to eschew most meat from her diet. If only she’d listened and been more open to me before, it would’ve meant more years spent in mutual understanding.

    (Just as a disclaimer, I don’t think everyone should be a vegetarian, it’s a personal choice. This was just a point of deep misunderstanding that I wanted to illustrate.)

    • Mir Kamin

      January 23, 2014 at 10:51 am

      Thanks for sharing this, Rasselas. I agree completely. 5+ years later, I don’t ever see my daughter going back to eating meat, and I try really hard to respect her choice. 🙂

  • Breanna

    June 9, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    You certainly handled this much better than my parents ever did. I went vegetarian at 15 and have been one ever since (I’m now 28). My parents knew me well enough to know it wasn’t a phase but didn’t do much to make sure I ate healthy. Until I got to college and learned to cook, my part of the family dinner consisted of 3 different kinds of canned vegetables loaded with butter and some mashed potatoes (meanwhile everyone else ate steak…).

    So yay for you and your family embracing your daughter’s choice. I’m sure she really appreciates it. 🙂

  • Jill

    July 20, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    Our gluten free daughter has recently decided to be vegetarian would you have a suggestion for a cookbook that could get her and her beef ranch raised father to cook together. It maybe the way to help him “get it” that her choice will provide her with healthy outcomes.

    • Mir Kamin

      July 21, 2015 at 5:31 pm

      I don’t have a book recommendation off the top of my head, Jill, but I can tell you that in general I find it easier to start with a vegetarian recipe and substitute for any gluten than to start looking for animal substitutes. 😉 I recently discovered Tolerant Red Lentil Pasta and it has become a staple in our house—it has 20 grams of protein per serving and my gluten-eaters say it tastes just like regular pasta.

      Tell them to treat it like a research project! I own a ton of cookbooks but honestly most of my experiments come from recipes online.