When Eli Faith was four years old, his parents dabbled in vegetarian eating, and the change sparked something in the preschooler.
“He asked, ‘Is that even allowed?’” says his mom, Laurie. “When we said yes, he gave up meat, too.”
Now six, Eli doesn’t eat beef, pork, chicken or seafood. For protein, he fills up on nuts, tofu, beans and edamame, and takes fish oil daily to get his omega-3s. Much to Eli’s dismay, his parents have gone back to eating beef, chicken and fish about once a week, and his nine-year-old brother revels in the taste of steak, drumsticks and salmon.
“He’s a vegetarian because he loves animals so much. He would never want to hurt them to make food,” says Faith, who lives in Toronto. “He just came hard-wired for this.”
According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, a US-based non-profit organization promoting public awareness about vegetarianism, three percent of children aged eight to 18 are vegetarians.
Rachel Meltzer Warren, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author of the book The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian, says the percentage is likely higher if you take into account kids in the “grey area” who are experimenting with a vegetarian diet. She has encountered many reasons why kids trade in steak for salad. The most common? Knowledge. Little kids make the connection that hamburgers come from cows or that bacon used to be a pig.
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“Almost all the kids I interviewed had an aha! moment when they made the connection. They’d eaten chicken their whole lives and never thought about it, then one day they went out for dim sum or something, and saw the chickens hanging in the window,” says Meltzer Warren. A child might also choose to eschew meat if he has parents or friends who are vegetarians, or if he sees media images of slaughterhouses or chicken farms. Or it might just be personal preference — some kids don’t like the taste of meat.
That’s the reality for eight-year-old Fergus McCaig. If he’s served a hamburger, he’ll take out the patty and eat only the bun and condiments. “He doesn’t like the texture or consistency,” says his meat-eating mother Racheal (older sister Molly, 10, is also a carnivore). The Toronto mom worries Fergus isn’t getting enough protein in his diet, so she sometimes sneaks in meat the way other parents sneak in veggies; for example, she’ll add ground beef or chicken into pasta sauce. “There’s a fine line between respecting his choices and worrying about his health,” she says.
Though it’s easy to find protein replacements and have kids take omega-3 supplements, it’s much trickier to make sure they’re getting enough iron. “Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in kids, and in vegetarians in particular. Make sure your paediatrician is checking their iron levels regularly,” says Meltzer Warren.
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Parents can use the new diet as an opportunity to get kids excited about healthy food and making good choices, and help their little vegetarians look for protein replacements and explain its importance in growth and development; if they’re not getting protein from meat, they’ll need to eat it in the form of beans, eggs, nuts, tofu and seeds.
Rather than going whole hog over vegetarian eating after your child’s initial request, Meltzer Warren suggests you have a conversation to assess that your child is giving up meat for the right reasons — not as a ruse to eat carbs, like pasta, in place of protein. “If they’re serious about the reasons, I think the best thing you can do as a parent is respect that,” she says.
Laurie Faith has no concerns about Eli’s convictions, or the state of his health. “He’s an active, healthy boy, and his vegetarianism is such a principled belief,” she says. “We’re so proud of him.”
A version of this article appeared in our January 2014 issue with the headline “Meat-free kids,” p. 50.