When my son, Holden, was born I heard a collective gasp in the operating room. I didn’t find out what all the fuss was about until he was bundled up and passed to me. “He’s huge,” said my midwife. “10 pounds!”
I should preface this. My husband and I are not big people. We have been vegan for almost a decade, and I maintained a vegan diet throughout my pregnancy. Incidentally, my stepdaughter, who lives with us, is also vegan.
Now almost two, Holden is still above average height and weight for his age, and he’s been on a strict vegan diet, including breastmilk, since birth. Indeed, as the Dietitians of Canada have concluded, “Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life-cycle including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.”
Raising a vegan family isn’t for everyone, but it has been an empowering journey. Here are some of the incredible benefits and issues to look out for when following a vegan diet:
1. A healthy start
The old adage “health is wealth” is so true. When I see the bright faces of my children at the dinner table, I feel like the richest (and luckiest) person in the world. Studies have shown that vegan diets help prevent obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Even if Holden chooses not to be vegan later in life, I know I have given him a healthy start.
2. Whole foods are the best
Vegan cookies, fake meats and cheeses can be convenient, but growing children thrive on natural, whole foods. “Soy meats are B12 fortified, but they also contain many additives and chemicals,” says Simone Finkelstein, a pediatric nutritionist based in Toronto. “I always recommend trying to find nutrients through natural food sources first.” Because Holden needs sources of protein, B12, iron, Omega-3 fatty acids and calcium at every meal, we are careful about having a wide variety of whole foods on our plates. (Added bonus: When Holden started on solid foods, I began cooking like this for the whole family. As a result we’re all eating better than ever. Feeling healthier and actually losing some weight are unexpected benefits of raising a vegan child.)
3. Saving the planet one little belly at a time
According to a UN report, cattle rearing is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than driving cars. If more Canadian families choose to eat vegan meals even a few times a week, we can significantly reduce our country’s carbon footprint.
1. Dogma over health
People often ask me what I would do if Holden needed meat to survive. I tell them if he needed the last cow on earth, I would kill it with my bare hands. The health of my family is my utmost priority; my values about food come a distant second. Babies need breastmilk or formula for at least the first year of life. Staying well connected to a family doctor and a nutritionist to monitor your child’s growth is crucial, as well as taking annual blood tests to make sure you and your child have sufficient iron and B12.
2. We are too busy!
“Vegan parents need to be more aware that their child is getting enough nutrients,” says Finkelstein. “They also need to be aware of how much and of what foods the child has eaten at every sitting.” If you aren’t in a position to watch very carefully what your child has eaten, then veganism might not be the right fit for your family.
3. Exceptions have to be part of the rule
Birthday parties, pizza lunches, and Halloween candy! Food isn’t only what we use to nourish ourselves, it is an integral part of our culture. Most dishes can be veganized, but do you really want to be rummaging through your child’s Halloween candy for the lone vegan treat she can eat? Vegan parents have to make exceptions to avoid isolating their children.
5 things I always have in my vegan kitchen
Brown rice: Sushi, nori balls, fried rice, rice porridge…. It is hard to get sick of rice.
Unsweetened fortified soy milk: Always buy your non-dairy milks unsweetened (“original” doesn’t count). No child needs extra sugar in her sippy cup.
Tahini: It mixes in beautifully into oatmeal, creamy pasta sauces and rice, and gives your food an extra boost of protein and calcium.
Miso paste: See the recipe below — miso soup is the greatest.
Vegenaise: It is a source of omega-3 fatty acids, and I could eat it on anything. I don’t miss bacon, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, or scrambled eggs. But I miss mayonnaise. Go figure.
Vegan recipes for the whole family
Basic Miso Soup
Miso soup is fantastic for every family because it is very easy to make, and generally, even picky eaters will enjoy it. My son eats all of his kale in miso soup form. You can use any vegetable in this recipe (carrots, broccoli, peas, squash, collard greens). I often throw in fat noodles to make a hearty lunch for Holden. This recipe is mild, and you can add more miso to taste; but note that miso is quite salty, so make sure to add it after you have served your child.
You can put anything in the centre of these delicious treats: tofu, beans, nut butters or sauerkraut for the adults. Everyone in my family is crazy about nori balls.
Maple-Nut No-Bake Vegan Treats
I made up this super-fast, protein-and-Omega-3-packed treat when I was craving sweets but didn’t have the time to bake. It is ridiculously easy. Bonus: Holden loves it and it is a great little midday snack. I use almond butter because it is rich in calcium, but any nut butter or sunflower seed butter would work.