Photo: Jessica Scott-Reid
My 19-month-old’s current obsession is birds: the finches in our yard, the ducks at a nearby pond, chickens at the animal sanctuary outside of town. She calls them “tatas” and squeals with glee every time she sees one and, of course, her joy brings me joy. But in all honesty, what I really feel is relief—relief that I won’t have to explain to her one day how she eats her feathered friends.
I am vegan, and that’s how I’m raising my daughter—which, according to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), is perfectly safe. One day, when she is old enough to understand, I’ll tell her the truth about where meat and dairy come from and allow her to decide what she eats. Until then, it only feels fair that she not be forced to unknowingly eat animals and contribute to their suffering, especially since all of our nutritional needs can be met with a plant-based diet. As the ADA states, well-planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian and vegan diets, are “appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes.”
But just because it’s safe doesn’t mean that it’s simple. As with any lifestyle choice that goes against the cultural grain, raising a child vegan comes with a bushel of challenges. Sure, my husband and I believe that it’s unethical and unnecessary to eat and wear animal products, but we still live in a very omnivorous world. We have many meat-eating and leather-wearing friends and family. And, although veganism is becoming increasingly popular, my daughter is still unlikely to be in the majority by the time she starts school.
So how do I raise her to be a healthy, happy and compassionate little person in a world where her best friend might bring the wing of a chicken for lunch? And how can I ensure that she will keep getting all the nutrients she needs as she continues to grow?
While it’s all good to experiment on yourself—testing out tofu and seitan—learning to fulfill the nutritional needs of a growing child without the convenience of animal protein admittedly takes some effort and education. Before taking on the huge task of making food choices on behalf of my child, I enlisted the aid of my family doctor, a plant-based dietitian and some veteran vegan parents. I learned the importance of foods that are rich in iron, protein, fats and calcium for rapidly developing babies. Spinach, banana and chickpea “Hulk” muffins quickly became a huge hit in our house, and ground flax, chia, hemp and sesame seeds now top just about everything we eat. Thankfully, since starting solids at six months, my daughter has loved foods like hummus, avocado, falafel and nut butters.
Of course, as my veggie-loving baby quickly evolves into a picky toddler, it’s growing harder to get all the necessary kale and lentils into her belly. Like many parents, we occasionally rely on things like nuggets, burgers and hot dogs—only ours are made with protein-rich plants. We also supplement some nutrients, including vitamins B12 and D, along with calcium, iron and omega-3s. It’s an easy one-teaspoon insurance plan that brings me no shame and, so far, our adorable vegan toddler is happy and healthy, with the blood work to prove it.
But the nutritional aspects of raising a child vegan are only part of the learning curve for parents who are new to a plant-based diet. Soon, I will have to consider the mental, emotional and social implications of this choice. How and when will I discuss the truth about where meat, eggs and dairy come from with her? How will I explain why we don’t eat animals while others do and teach her to be respectful of other people’s choices?
Kate Aubrey, a clinical psychologist in Kelowna, BC, who has a practice in child and adolescent mental health, says that parents should begin discussing with their kids where food comes from between the ages of three and five years old, when they are naturally becoming more curious. “Be sure to keep the narrative straightforward and non-graphic,” she says, “and allow your child to ask questions.” A long-time vegetarian herself, Aubrey says to keep the focus on family values rather than details that may be age inappropriate or even traumatizing. She suggests using value statements like “Mommy doesn’t like how animals are raised on farms, so that is why we don’t eat meat.” “As your child matures, so will her understanding of your values,” she says.
Establishing vegan family values isn’t very different from the other value choices that most parents make, like religion, gender roles within the home and methods of discipline. It’s not uncommon for one family to do things differently from their neighbours, and I plan to teach my child to be tolerant of those whose values are different.
Of course, whenever a child stands out as different from her peers, there is a risk of social challenges, and raising a child vegan is certainly asking her to take a step outside of social norms. As Aubrey points out, though, this isn’t an issue exclusive to vegans: “As children age, they all struggle to be true to themselves while fitting in.” I take comfort in knowing that kids today attend school with peers of various cultures, religions and lifestyles and share different allergies and dietary restrictions, so they are learning from a young age to be accepting of different eating habits, clothing choices and personal perspectives.
In fact, one Harvard study that focused on vegetarian children ages six to 10 found that kids, whether they were raised vegetarian or came to the decision on their own, didn’t actually judge others who ate meat as morally wrong but rather saw it as a personal choice.
So far, it has been easy to keep my at-home baby in a relative bubble, but soon she will start daycare and attend birthday parties and I will have to tell her “No, you can’t eat what all the other children are eating.” I don’t have all the answers yet, but I’m thankful to be part of a rapidly growing group of parents who follow plant-based diets and are navigating this trip together. In social media groups, we help one another with different scenarios, sharing ways to cope with intolerant grandparents, meat-centred events and rigid school-lunch policies.
Going forward, my personal plan is to hold firm in my beliefs, be informative and kind and always have a good stash of vegan snacks and treats in my purse. What most people think will be my greatest challenge as a vegan parent, though, is when and if my child decides that she wants to eat meat and/or dairy one day. I’m often asked how this might make me feel, and most people are surprised to hear that I think I’d feel OK.
As I see it, as long as she is an appropriate age to make such a decision, I’ll be confident knowing that she is doing so with all the necessary facts rather than with false notions of animal farming and meat eating that are commonly portrayed in children’s books, movies and marketing. I have also been warned by friends who were raised vegetarian that rebelling with McDonald’s cheeseburgers as a teen is not uncommon, so I’m prepared. (Today, most of those friends are vegan.)
I still have years to worry about the hurdles that may lie before me as I raise my vegan child. In that time, though, I am hopeful that there will be change. The world is progressing, and old ideas regarding animal exploitation and meat eating are evolving. But for today, I’ll just enjoy watching my baby squeal at ducks and take comfort in knowing that my husband and I are raising her in a way that feels true and right to us. In that way, vegan parents are really just like all parents, trying to do their best.