After reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’ in high school, I pulled a Lisa Simpson and announced to my mother that I had decided to be a vegetarian. My mom was supportive, but also understandably wary. How was this going to work? Nobody else in our house was a vegetarian, and we were a family whose meals had always revolved around some aspect of meat or fish–so this posed a definite disruption into our routine. Also, without much vegetarian knowledge herself, I know that she felt unsure about how to ensure that I would continue to maintain a healthy diet.

The number of vegetarians in Canada is rising in consideration to subjects like animal welfare, climate change, and health, all of which are compelling and play on our emotions. Naturally, the number of kids coming home and announcing to their parents that they don’t want to eat meat anymore is also rising. But choosing to change the way you eat is not exactly the same as deciding that maybe the trumpet is not for you, and gymnastics seems more appealing. It’s a lifestyle switch with some health repercussions that can be good or bad depending on how they are managed.

So whether your child has just fallen in love with the baby cow at the petting zoo, has a favourite vegetarian character or celebrity, or is mortified by a fact they discovered about meat consumption; it’s important to take the time to map out how this switch will work. To ease the process, here are some tips to ensure that you’re covering some important bases.

Support their decision. As a starting point at least. The ol’ ‘when you cook for yourself, you can eat whatever you want’, is not exactly conducive to turning this into a learning experience. You may have concerns. But whether you reach a negotiation, you go ahead with the switch, or you don’t, it’s important to communicate to your child that you’re proud of them for wanting to make a big lifestyle decision such as this, and that it will require some serious research from both of you as a result of that.

Ask them how they came to this decision. Are they concerned about the mistreatment of animals and factory farming? Did they learn something about meat’s impact on global warming? Have they been inspired by a vegetarian public figure? Find out what’s sparked their interest. Then, take the opportunity to dive deeper into this topic together.

Find out how, or decide together, how they want to reduce their meat consumption. These days, ‘vegetarianism’ is a broad term. Is it just certain animals that they want to cut out? What about milk and eggs? Although we all know a few well-versed folks in the many types of vegetarianism, your child might not.

Educate yourself and your child on the nutritional disparities. Depending on what type of a switch your child is interested in making, these tips may differ. However, here are a few common nutritional disparities to consider among many vegetarians.

  • Protein. Protein is the big hot word that comes up when worrying about vegetarianism. One common mistake that is made when converting to vegetarianism is that parents worry they aren’t feeding enough protein and then overcompensate. This often results in a diet that is too high in saturated fat and calories. You can find protein in many vegetable sources including legumes (lentils and peas), beans, whole grains (quinoa, millet, oatmeal and brown rice), nuts and nut butters, and seeds.
  • Iron. Iron is important as it affects energy levels, blood health, and transfers oxygen through cells. Vegetarians can become iron deficient, as plant obtained iron is not as easily absorbed by the body as animal obtained iron. However, foods that contain Vitamin C help the body absorb iron. So make sure to serve up some decent helpings of Vitamin C-rich broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, and citrus fruits, with iron-rich vegetarian foods such as pumpkin seeds, cashews, lentils, kidney beans, oatmeal, barley, quinoa, spinach, and swiss chard.
  • Calcium. Calcium is needed for bones, heart, muscle, and nerve function. You can obtain this mineral from broccoli, squash, kale, sweet potatoes, legumes, whole grains, seeds, oranges, raisins and tofu.
  • Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 helps keep blood and nerve cells healthy.You can find Vitamin B12 in sea vegetables, or you can take them as supplements.
  • Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps to build bones and prevent disease. It can be obtained through sunlight, fish, eggs, and dairy, or as a supplement.
  • Omega-3 Essential Oils. Fatty acids reduce inflammation, and help prevent heart disease. It can be found in salmon, walnuts, ground chia, and flax seeds, or as a supplement.

Convert your family’s meals  vegetarian versions of the original. Although it may take some getting used to, eating a little less meat can benefit everyone–and the internet is absolutely full of inspiration. Swapping beans in for ground beef in your tacos, or frying up a tofu stir fry, are both simple adjustments to serve vegetarian versions of old favourites. However, I would definitely encourage you to use this time to get creative with your vegetarian cooking. We have a ton of recipes available here.

Consult a doctor or nutritionist. Consulting a nutritionist or a doctor is a thorough way of developing a meal plan that will ensure that your child is still receiving veggie alternatives to what you’re omitting.

Develop a meal plan. Now using all of the information you’ve collected, develop a meal plan with your child (and a nutritionist, if you’d like). Be realistic about what your child will and won’t eat, but work out something that will ensure that they are receiving all of the nutrients that they need.   

I am not a parent myself, but I feel incredibly lucky to have had parents who encouraged me to follow my passions. Being the only vegetarian in the family was not always 100% convenient, but to my family and I, the trade-off was worth it. My experience completely transformed the way I designed my meals, and had me and my family eating waaay more vegetables than we had been eating before. It also definitely created a dialogue in my house about meat consumption, which we are all better for.

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