Raising a Vegan Kid: Food Diary of a Plant-Based Six-Year-Old.
It’s day 11 of Winter Break. With a six-year-old. And I am running out of (vegan) food. Fast. I’m raising a hungry kid. She has always been hungry. I couldn’t make enough breast milk for her so we started on solids when she was just four-and-a-half months old (most kids start at six months). I remember it vividly -- giving her that first spoonful of pureed avocado. She grabbed onto it with a look on her face that said: “what took you so long?” She shoved it into her mouth and then dropped -- no, threw -- the spoon down onto the table like a seasoned MC. I stuttered.
Fast metabolism runs in our family, so our daughter would likely be hungry whether or not she ate meat. (Her dad was a very active Marine and distance runner while he was a meat-eater with a voracious appetite, and she’s built very much the same.) Plus, growing is just hard work.
I got a lot of parenting advice while pregnant. But how much kids tend to eat wasn’t top of the list. Some kids are just hungrier than others, of course. And six years later, not much has changed around here.
My daughter has been vegan her whole life. Even pre-life, if that’s a thing. She was cooked in a vegan womb, drank vegan breast milk for 18 months, and is now a regular at most of the vegan restaurants east of Western Avenue in Los Angeles.
Raising Vegan Kids: What the Docs Say
At first, I worried that a vegan diet wasn’t going to be adequate. But my doctor supported it during my pregnancy and our pediatrician assured me that raising a child on a vegan diet is absolutely safe as long as she eats a balanced diet. That’s the key for adults, too. Too many of us are falling short of balanced diets whether we’re vegan or not. If you’ve seen those horrible stories of parents accused of child abuse and neglect for feeding their children a vegan diet, this isn’t the norm. Those cases involve severe neglect and inadequate nutrition. A recent case involved parents feeding a child a “raw” diet of just fruits and vegetables that was lacking in vital nutrients.
The key to any diet is a healthy mix of fiber-rich fresh fruits and vegetables, protein, and healthy fats. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) standard American diets can be more detrimental to children than plant-based diets. “The reality is that the current standard American diet is failing our children, and the rate of childhood obesity has skyrocketed over the last half-century,” the group notes on its website. “On the other hand, plant-based diets have repeatedly proven to be an effective tool for weight loss.”
Getting Them to Eat Right is Never Easy
Nutrient deficiencies are extremely common on standard meat-heavy diets as well. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, type-2 diabetes is on the rise in kids because of unhealthy diets. One in three children in the U.S. born in the year 2000 or later is likely to develop the disease if they eat a standard diet high in animal products.
Still, stats on vegan kids are fuzzy, but some recent data show that as many as one in twelve families are now raising a vegan child. As plant-based options increase, that number is likely to also grow, especially considering the benefits of going plant-based for the environment as well as personal health. In the UK, the number of vegans has doubled in the last two years.
The Art of the Snack
Most parents learn The Art Of The Snack early on. It’s essential -- part nutrient delivery and part bribery. Some kids never fully adjust to proper meals, grazing their way from snack to snack. But not my daughter. Oh, she snacks all right. But even those often seem like full-on meals. She eats me under the table on most days.
Raising a vegan kid is the easy part these days. There are vegan options at every supermarket and most restaurants, especially here in Los Angeles. She brings her own cupcakes to birthday parties (but most parents offer a vegan option anyway). Keeping pace though? That’s a whole other matter. She loves to eat. And, she’s showing no sign of slowing down.
A Day in the Life of a Vegan Kid
Here’s just what she ate today:
7:15 am: 2 pieces of dry seeded whole-grain toast (“just plain, mommy, okay?”); 5 strips of Upton’s vegan bacon; ½ cup of organic blackberries; ½ glass of POM Wonderful pomegranate juice. I love this breakfast for a few reasons even though I prefer a little tahini or Miyoko’s vegan butter on my toast. First, we’re definitely not carb shy in our house. Whole grains are so healthy and protein-loaded. Vegan bacon is significantly healthier than pork bacon. It’s made from vital wheat gluten, which is also loaded with plant protein and no nitrites found in processed meat (the World Health Organization classifies them as carcinogens, by the way). And blackberries and pomegranates are chock full of healthy vitamins and antioxidants.
8:30 am: 2 dairy-free chocolates from her Advent calendar that we keep forgetting to eat. It’s made by Divine chocolate and there are some cute animal shapes. “We’re running out of break days,” I was reminded. “And it looks like this date is ripping open, so can I eat it now, Mommy?” Although I don’t usually eat my first bite of anything until after 12 or so, once the coffee is in full effect, I ate one, too. I’ll be honest, kids and chocolate isn’t my favorite combination. There is sugar, of course, and some kids are sensitive to the caffeine in chocolate. But by going dairy-free, we remove the risks associated with milk chocolate. And it’s the holidays. A little indulgence and rule-breaking is key with kids, I’ve found. They learn the reasons why we have rules and respect the lines more when they’re allowed to color outside of them every once in a while. Besides, we are running out of break days, after all.
12:30 pm: I’m honestly surprised we made it this far before anything else was eaten (that I was aware of!). There was a lot of trampoline jumping and then a few Christmas present distractions to fill the void. What can I say? Some days you just get lucky. But she did finally insist on a big lunch: One Tres vegan black bean pupusa (we are absolutely obsessed with these. You can find them at Whole Foods Markets in the freezer. Bonus: they come in a bright pink box and make great lunch box options.) They’re low in fat, high in fiber and rich in hardy plant protein. There are no additives or nasties. It’s almost like making them from scratch and then freezing them. She also ate: One cup of rice, black beans, and organic corn (more fiber and protein); 2 giant Bubbie’s pickles (her favorite food by far is pickles); about a cup’s worth of cucumber and carrot sticks dipped into Follow Your Heart’s Vegan High-Omega Ranch Dressing (I call it “the veggie whisperer”). This dressing is amazing. It’s loaded with healthy omega fats and I’ve yet to meet a kid -- vegan or not -- who isn’t absolutely obsessed with it.
12:59 pm: A My/Mo Mochi Cashew Salted Caramel frozen mochi, despite it being just 60 degrees in Los Angeles today. (“I really wanted the strawberry but then I remembered this caramel one is my favorite. Can I have two, actually?” “No.” “Okay, then just this one. Unless I can have two.”) Dairy-free ice cream is lower in saturated fat than dairy and reduces the risks of exposure to hormones and antibiotics common in milk. According to PCRM, dairy increases the risks of certain types of cancer. For women, it can increase the risk of breast cancer significantly.
4:30 pm: Blueberry Chamomile tea with agave. (We’re having a Princess Tea Party on New Year’s Day so we needed the practice.) Six Saltine crackers with organic peanut butter. We had a conversation about how eating a fresh mango right then would be nice but it’s not an option because of the two loose teeth in the front of her mouth. I think she stole another Advent chocolate while we were discussing this.
There are a lot of debates about whether or not honey is vegan. It’s made by bees and is essential to their hive function. It’s hard work -- one pound of honey requires about two million flower visits! That’s about 55,000 miles of flying for a hive. Bees use their honey to insulate and live off of in the winter months when flower nectar is scarce. So, we don’t eat honey in our house. But a little agave nectar does the same thing. Crackers topped with peanut butter are also a healthy choice as they’re loaded with protein and fats to (hopefully) keep my daughter feeling full for longer. It worked.
6:00 pm: A giant bowl of Whole Foods brand whole wheat spaghetti with Gardein meatballs and Rao’s Marinara sauce. If you haven’t tried those Gardein vegan meatballs yet, consider it a late Christmas present. They will make you weep. In a very good way. The meatballs are protein and fiber-rich. One serving boasts 11 percent of the RDI for fiber and 20 percent of protein. And a serving of whole grain pasta contains as much protein as an egg! And cooked tomatoes, like in pasta sauce, make the lycopene more available, according to science. This increases the cancer-fighting benefits of tomatoes. Rao’s also uses minimal ingredients and olive oil, which is heart healthy and also loaded with antioxidants.
Is that it? It seems like I’m missing something. There were at least two bottles of sparkling water dispersed throughout the day as well. Because dinner was late, there was no bedtime snack. In hindsight, it doesn’t actually seem like a massive food day. Maybe she’s saving space for tomorrow. But she better hurry up. We’re running out of break days.