Welcome to a dear friend of Plenty Vegan and guest writer, Ellen, here to give you the low-down on raising vegan kids.
Ellen is an educator currently raising her two kiddos and working with her husband to develop the site Uncommon Dream. They reached financial independence in their early thirties, and are now taking advantage of the freedom to travel and spend more time with their young children. Ellen has been eating some version of a vegetarian diet since she was 18, but has been vegan for the past 12 years.
My husband and I had been vegetarian for many years, but made the official switch to a vegan diet right after reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. I remember very clearly the last meal with cheese I consumed. It was actually with the lovely creator of Plenty Vegan herself. We had some fancy cheese from the farmers market. And that was it. I haven’t looked back.
Raising Vegan Kids
We have two children, Leo (3.5) and Marcella (1.5), and we are raising them on a vegan diet as well. Of course we are. Following a plant-based diet is an educated decision we made for ourselves because we feel it is the best option for our health, the planet, and our fellow earthlings. They have been vegan since birth!
When it comes to our kids, I think we’re all aiming in the same direction. Most of us want our children to grow up to be healthy, happy, productive members of the community. Taking the vegan route by raising vegan kids doesn’t need to be any more difficult than it would otherwise be. It just requires a slightly different roadmap. Below is a summary of what I’d share with any parent embarking on this particular path with their children.
Do Your Research
As with anything, educate yourself as much as possible. If you’re reading an article like this, you’re probably on the right track. There are more vegan parenting resources out there than I could possibly list, but here are two that we truly trust:
- Nutrition Facts – Dr. Michael Greger has a team that combs through the most recent research on diet and nutrition from peer-reviewed studies. He then synthesizes the information into easy-to-digest (yep, that’s a good pun) videos on the site. He draws no salary and it’s run as a nonprofit funded by individual donors (no big business).
- The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) – This is also a nonprofit organization that provides advice on health based data not driven by industry.
After doing our own research, we try to ensure our kids get a few key nutrients from vitamins: B12, D3, and DHA/EPA. We get the B12 and D3 in a multivitamin we buy from Dr. Furhman called Pixie Vites. The kids love them and every. single. day we hear: “Is it vitamin time?!?” We get a vegan version of DHA/EPA drops and put it in the soy milk they typically drink at story time before bed.
After that, my goal each day is to ensure the kids eat a variety of different foods. I tend to think of things in terms of protein, starch, fruits, and vegetables. A little later in the article I’ll share more of what they typically eat in a day.
Explaining “Why” to the Kids
Our oldest, Leo, is only 3.5, so we haven’t yet had to have any great philosophical discussions about our dietary habits. I have, however, told him that our family doesn’t eat anything that comes from animals. I simply explain that we don’t like to hurt animals and we don’t think it’s good for our bodies. (Explaining the environmental implications of raising animals for meat is something that can come later.)
So far, that has worked just fine for him. Our daughter is only 21 months, so she’s not questioning why we eat what we eat. Admittedly, it’s probably not quite as simple for anyone who wants to switch their older children to a vegan diet. My take is that my kids are welcome to eat whatever they want when they start buying and preparing food on their own.
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Eating at other People’s Homes (Especially… EEEK… Birthday Parties!)
This is admittedly where a less conventional diet gets just a bit trickier. We spend a lot of time with other moms, and are often in situations where kids are eating food I just don’t want my kids to eat. Here are two key things I do:
- Mentally prepare them in advance. This has been huge for Leo. Whenever we’re on our way to a playdate or birthday party where I know there will be things I don’t want him to eat, I let him know ahead of time. I just tell him matter-of-factly that there will be some things there that were made with animals and that we won’t eat those things. I also assure him that there will be other things there he can eat.
- Bring something. This is sometimes a bit of a pain, but makes all the difference. It obviously applies in adult situations as well. If you know you’re headed to a house that won’t have vegan options available, bring something to share. In a kid situation, I usually accomplish this with fruit. In the case of a birthday party, I bring vegan treats to share. More often than not, though, I’ve found that people make sure there is something available for us. I always thank them and tell them I never expect them to provide something different for us.
At a friend’s recent birthday party, I came prepared with some raw vegan “cupcakes” that I knew my son would love. Turns out, though, my friend had picked up a couple vegan cupcakes for us from the local bakery. Although the other kids’ cake was vanilla, Leo was so thrilled about his chocolate cupcake that he could have cared less that his looked different.
If/when we get to a point when my son or daughter starts to notice and care that what they’re eating is a little different than their peers, I expect we’ll just talk about it.
And, I think it’s worth mentioning that I think it’s okay to be firm but flexible when raising vegan kids. There have definitely been times when my kids had things that had eggs or dairy in them. It usually happens when someone innocently offers them a treat before I’ve had a chance to intervene. I think taking it out of their mouths mid-bite is more likely to foster resentment. I choose instead to let them eat the cookie and explain later that they should check with me first.
What My Kids Typically Eat in a Day
We start most days with a bowl of oatmeal. Into that bowl goes some variation of flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, almonds, shredded coconut, cinnamon, turmeric, bananas, cherries, strawberries, blueberries and soy milk. My daughter devours hers. Leo doesn’t usually make it all the way to the bottom of his bowl, but will often finish it up if I present him with his remaining bites a little later.
We’ll also have things like toast with peanut butter or avocado, blueberry pancakes, or cereal. When I’m on my game, we have a robust green smoothie. But, the truth is, we’re usually trying to get out of the house for something in the morning, so the quicker/easier, the better.
We’re usually out and about in the morning, so this needs to be something that won’t make a huge mess. A banana, apple, bag of nuts, or bite-size cereal all work well.
For me, this is always the toughest meal of the day. I try to make enough food the night before so that my husband and I can have it as our lunch the next day. It’s hard to have enough to fill us both up for a second meal, and there’s rarely enough for the kids too. So, they often eat something different than us. Their most typical options:
- peanut butter sandwich
- crackers and hummus
- pasta marinara coated in nutritional yeast
- sautéed chickpeas, frozen peas (the kids prefer the peas frozen), and crackers
- “meatless tenders” – they’re the equivalent of chicken nuggets and somewhere along the way we just started calling all faux chicken nuggets the same thing. They’re super processed and definitely not the healthiest option, but what are you going to do? Sometimes you just give your kids “meatless tenders”.
If we need to be somewhere in the afternoon, this is usually similar to the morning snack. If we’re staying home and have more time, I often make them a green smoothie.
The kids eat what we eat. Sometimes, though, I’ll present it to them slightly less “mixed up.” This is more important for Leo, who is pretty picky about what he eats. Dinners typically look like:
- bean burritos with sweet potatoes
- lentil stew with big chunks of carrots and potatoes
- creamy pasta marinara (I just add cashew cream to a jar of sauce) with broccoli
- bowl… this is usually some combination of beans, rice, quinoa or soba noodles, carrots, sweet potato, avocado, greens, and sauce
- vegetable soup which always also includes some type of bean and starch like rice, barley, or quinoa
- mashed potatoes with baked tempeh and peas
Our kids always have some soy milk and some sort of snack during story time before bed. Sometimes it’s just the leftover dinner they didn’t eat. Often, though, I use it as a way to fill in any gaps in the variety of the food they’ve eaten throughout the day.
So, if they didn’t have much fruit, I’ll give them each a banana or some apple slices. If the day seemed low on protein, I’ll give them each a handful of nuts. When it’s been a while since they’ve had anything green, they might get a bowl of peas.
A Note on Picky Eaters
My kids are 3 and 1. They’re picky! It’s so normal for young kids to be finicky with what they’ll eat. I have to remind myself of this often. There are a few ways we tackle the challenge:
- Come to the table hungry. This is actually easier said than done. I’ve noticed, though, that they’ll both eat things I never thought they would when they sit down to the dinner table legitimately hungry. It’s a fine line, though… if they get too hungry, they turn into little monsters and those last 15-20 minutes before dinner can be a nightmare. I try not to let them eat a snack any closer than 1.5 – 2 hours before dinner.
- Don’t force them to eat. Not that you really can, anyway, but I try not to make a big deal about whether or not they eat something. I know they’ll have another chance to eat at the next meal or snack time.
- Feed them in stages. This sort of conflicts with #2, but I do sometimes leverage favorite foods to get Leo to eat things he would otherwise ignore. This usually looks like me leaving a loaf of bread or potatoes in the kitchen (the boy loves starches) and telling him he’s welcome to eat as much as he wants of those as soon as he’s eaten some of his beans. It usually works. I always feel a little guilty when I do it, but sometimes you just do what you do!
Greens are something we still struggle with. Even Marcella, the less picky of the two, will remove anything from her meal that looks like a leaf. Right now, the only green things they’ll reliably eat are broccoli and peas. I otherwise put in spinach and kale when I’m making them smoothies. We’ve come so far already that I’m optimistic we’ll get to salads someday.
Favorite Nutrient-Dense Foods
I have a few favorite go-to foods that my kids love and I know are good for them:
- Fresh or Frozen Fruit – We get a decent price on frozen organic strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and mango at Costco. They love them and will eat them until their little bodies shiver from the cold. I shop at a discount grocery story for fresh fruit.
- Smoothies – A typical one includes frozen fruit, soy milk, spinach, and sometimes I sweeten it up with a few dates. I also make more of a juice with an apple, frozen fruit, 1/2 lemon, celery, and kale blended with water. They really like that and I feel great about what they’re drinking. I use a Vitamix, which I think is key to making them smooth and tasty. I put them in these reusable squeeze packets with this awesome lid.
- “Snack balls” – This is what the kids and I call any version of nuts, dates, flax seeds, chia seeds, cocoa powder, coconut, etc. that I blend up in the food processor until it sticks together and can be rolled into small, bite-sized balls.
- Nuts – I’m really grateful my kids will happily snack on a handful of raw, unsalted nuts.
I’d like to note that I often feed my kids much more “fattening” foods than I give myself. While I try to limit the oil, nuts, and avocado in my own diet, I give more of it to them.
Be Cool, No One Likes to Feel Judged
Seriously. As much as we vegans don’t want to be judged for being vegan, non-vegans don’t want to be judged for not being vegan. We all think we know best. I try to field the occasional question about protein (where do you get it?!?) by simply stating it’s not difficult to do.
While I do wish more people adopted a plant-based diet because of the profound impact it would have on their health and the planet, I don’t think proselytizing is the way to accomplish that goal. Anyone who’s truly interested is going to ask.
A Few Favorite Resources
In addition to the two sites I listed above, here are a few of my favorite sites and cookbooks:
- Oh She Glows – in addition to her website, she has a couple of cookbooks (The Oh She Glows Cookbook & Oh She Glows Every Day) and an app. She has kids that are the same age as mine, so I particularly enjoy catching glimpses into her vegan mama life.
- Fat Free Vegan – I’ve been reading this blog for years. Although it’s not actually all “fat-free,” she really focuses on minimizing the added fats and oils.
- Plant-Powered Families by Dreena Burton – this is a great cookbook with ideas that are geared specifically towards a young and picky palate. She also has a website that has helpful tips for raising vegan kids.
- Forks Over Knives Family – this is another go-to cookbook on my shelf because it is focused on low-fat, plant-based whole foods with kids in mind.
I applaud any family that makes the conscious choice to switch to a vegan diet. It’s really not that weird or scary or hard to do! I argue that raising vegan kids isn’t any more difficult than it is to just raise kids. Good luck!
Are you raising vegan kids? What are your tricks and what do you struggle with? Comment below and connect with Plenty Vegan on Instagram.
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