Cheryl Drewniak’s nine-year-old daughter, Hailey, never did like meat much. “My husband and I were constantly pleading with her to ‘take one more bite.’ This past spring, Hailey announced to us that she wanted to become vegetarian. Naturally, we were worried. We are not vegetarians and we were concerned about how she would get all her nutritional requirements.”
This is often the age when kids become aware of the vegetarian option and want to try it, says Montreal dietitian Louise Lambert-Lagacé.
Find out what’s prompting the change
How should parents react? It’s important to find out what’s prompting the change. Some kids, like Hailey, find the taste or texture of meat unpalatable. Others may be concerned about animal welfare or the environment. But the choice may also be hiding an eating disorder. “I see this over and over again in my practice,” says Lambert-Lagacé. “Girls especially may want to lose weight, and declaring themselves vegetarian is one way to avoid eating what the family is eating.” If an eating disorder is suspected, Lambert-Lagacé recommends regular visits with a nutritionist to make sure the diet is well balanced and not an excuse to lose weight.
If your child’s motivation is healthy, be supportive, advises Lambert-Lagacé. “I see parents who absolutely refuse, and want me to back them up. But that’s not going to help the child.”
Hailey, a gymnast, had learned from her coach that it’s possible to get good protein without eating meat.
A vegetarian diet can supply all the nutrients a preteen needs. But it’s not enough to prepare chicken, rice and salad for the family and allow your vegetarian to eat just rice and salad.
The need for protein and iron is at an all-time high at this age because of rapid growth and the imminent onset of puberty. Low intake can mean a drop in energy and, over time, a slowing of the growth curve.
Beans, lentils and tofu supply good protein and iron; one serving should be eaten every day. Peanuts and almonds, which contain some protein, are good snacks for vegetarian children. Dairy products and eggs provide protein as well, but are lower in iron.
“Calcium is not usually a concern as long as the child is getting three or four servings of milk a day,” says Lambert-Lagacé.
A vegetarian in the family doesn’t mean you need to cook two meals. Invest in a good vegetarian cookbook, and invite your child into the kitchen to help you create meatless dishes from Mexican, Indian and Asian cuisines. And think in terms of substitutions: A vegetarian lasagna is delicious with tofu replacing some of the cheese; a stir-fry can be divided before adding chicken to one portion and tofu to the other; soy “ground round” can stand in for meat in chili.
Drewniak says there has been an expected benefit to her daughter’s vegetarianism. “Her older brother, Dawson [who’s 11], a true meat-and- potatoes man, gets some exposure to new foods — and my husband and I pay closer attention to meal planning to ensure everyone is eating balanced, healthy meals.”
How much daily protein does your child need?
Kids aged one to three years need 1.1 g for every kg of body weight, so a 2½- year-old who weighs 12 kg (26 lb) would need 13 g. Kids aged four to 13 years need 0.95 g per kg, so a child who weighs 36 kg (79 lb) needs 34 g.
Grams of protein
1 cup cooked soybeans 28 g
1 cup cooked beans (black, kidney, white, navy, garbanzo) or lentils 14–18 g
½ cup peanuts or 4 tbsp peanut butter 16 g
1 cup cow’s milk or fortified soy drink 8 g
1 large egg 6 g
½ cup cooked rice or corn 2 g
The New Becoming Vegetarian, by Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis, contains nutritional guidelines for children and adults, as well as recipes.