How My Family Cut Out Meat For Good: Tips For a Plant-Based Household
Nine years ago, my family and I were stuck indoors on a drizzly day in Woodstock, NY, where we had rented a house for a summer getaway. Our plans for riding bikes around the reservoir were put on hold, and I was scanning the internet for things to do with my daughters, who were then 7 and 9. It turned out, the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary was only a five-minute drive from the house, so we decided to pull on our rain boots and go slosh around in the mud and look at the animals.
We petted lambs and cows who had been saved from the slaughterhouse, met a horse with a prosthetic leg, and listened to volunteers explain how giving up meat would benefit not only our bodies but the entire planet. They didn’t do a hard-sell; they simply said, “Hey, if you decide to go veggie even one day a week, that’s a great start.”
As we drove back to our house that day, we made a spontaneous family decided to give up meat for one week, just as an experiment.
That one week has now stretched to nine years, and none of us can ever imagine eating chicken, steak, burgers, or lamb chops ever again. We have found the vegetarian life to be the easiest and most natural thing in the world, but when the girls were younger, I would often get bewildered looks from other parents when they discovered that my kids didn’t eat chicken fingers or hot dogs. Here are the most common questions I’ve heard over the years, and the answers:
But wait, is that healthy?
The answer to this is a resounding yes. As long as you make sure your child is eating a well-balanced diet, a plant-based diet has numerous health benefits, says Michelle Dern, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center in Encinitas, CA, who works with many vegetarian families. “The immediate benefit of children eating a vegetarian diet is that they can have a stronger immune system and a healthier weight,” she explains. “Plus, over the long-term, a plant-based diet can lead to the prevention of chronic illnesses.”
In fact, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine reports that children who eat a healthy vegan diet have a reduced risk for heart disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes, and have fewer problems with acne, allergies, and gastrointestinal problems than kids who regularly eat meat. (The acne factoid alone should have every teen in America switching to Impossible Burgers!)
Dr. Dern points out, though, that giving up meat is only half the equation of a healthy plant-based diet. “It’s possible for kids to eat all processed foods and pasta and cheese—and no fruits and vegetables—and claim they’re vegetarian.” To make sure your kids are getting the most out of their vegetarian diet, encourage them to hit all the food groups, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based proteins.
Can my kids get enough protein to grow?
There is a misconception that children and teens need to eat tons of animal-based protein in order to grow to a healthy size. But high-quality proteins can come from plant sources, too. Dr. Dern recommends that parents check out the vegetarian version of ChooseMyPlate.gov, which lists several filling proteins, including legumes, nut butters, tofu, and tempeh.
Will they need to take supplements?
That all depends, says Dr. Dern. If your kids are completely vegan, they will likely need to take B12 supplements—the nutrient, which is crucial for keeping blood and nerve cells healthy, is found primarily in animal products, including beef, poultry, fish, milk, and eggs, though many breads and cereals are fortified with B12. “Children are still developing neurologically, so they are at a greater risk for a B12 deficiency than adults are,” she explains. “If they eat vitamin-fortified products and take a supplement, that should be fine.”
You should also discuss with your pediatrician whether your kids are getting enough iron, calcium, and vitamin D, says Dr. Dern. “They can get iron and vitamin D from eating a lot of green vegetables and dairy,” she says. They should choose to drink a plant-based milk, like almond, oat or soy, that is fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
What do you do at birthday parties where all they have are hot dogs?
When you’re sending your child off to a party where you suspect the only food options will be hot dogs and chicken fingers, you have a couple of options. Your kid can always eat a big meal beforehand, and then just snack on potato chips, French fries, and birthday cake with the other kids (believe me, they won’t be the only kid feasting solely on the cake at the party). They can bring along a hummus wrap or another favorite veggie lunch to snack on while the other kids chow down on burgers. Or, if your kid is headed to a backyard barbeque, have her bring along some veggie hot dogs or veggie burgers and ask the grill master to cook ’em up.
Though other parents may disagree, I’ve told my kids that it is not the responsibility of the other parent to prepare something special just for them. But if your kid spends a lot of time with another family, the parents eventually figure this out and have a few veggie options in the fridge or freezer ready to go. Hey, I always had frozen “Rachel pizzas” ready in the freezer for my daughter’s best friend Rachel, who ate nothing but pizza from age 6 to 16, so how hard is it for another family to keep a stock of veggie burgers?
Can they still eat the school lunch?
The better question may be, do they want to eat the school lunch? With so many kids these days being allergic to nuts, or gluten-free, many school cafeterias have a variety of options. But honestly, most veggie parents I know find it easier for their kids to pack a fresh and healthy lunch (yogurt and fruit; hummus wraps; cold pasta with veggies) than to navigate the soggy salad bars and sad cheese sandwiches.
What do you feed a ravenous teenager?
A giant pot of veggie chili, veggie burritos and veggie tacos made from strips of grilled tempeh, a stir-fry filled with chunks of tofu and lots of crunchy cashews, eggplant parmigiana (with real or vegan cheese), sweet potatoes in any form, Beyond or Impossible Burgers loaded up with avocado, tomatoes and onions, rice and beans with veggie sausages… Getting full yet? Visit The Beet's Recipe tab for more plant-based ideas.
Don’t the other kids tease them?
When my kids were little, years before they gave up meat, I taught them a very useful saying: “Never yuck someone else’s yum.” This comes in very handy—and it works in both directions. I have made sure they never make negative comments about their friends’ meat-based meals, and in turn, if someone asked why they are eating that weird-looking tofu thing, they just smile and say, “Mmm, I think it’s delicious!”
Sure, there were a few moments when some mean kid said something rude, but come on, there will always be something other kids make fun of. And you know what? By the time my kids hit high school, many of those kids who couldn’t understand why my daughters preferred salad to chicken decided to try going veggie themselves.
When my older daughter was touring college campuses last year, she always asked about vegetarian and vegan options. And more often than not, the tour guide would say, “Oh, we have amazing vegetarian and vegan options in all the dining halls. They’re usually even better than the meat dishes!”
My daughter is now completely vegan. One week of "trying out the veggie lifestyle" turned into nearly a decade and we're still going strong.