What to Do If Your Child Wants to Eat Vegetarian
Rule number 1: Don't try to talk them out of it.
As a registered dietitian, I hear from many clients that their child has decided they want to eat vegetarian. As a parent, I’ve also had it happen in my own household with one of my own children. Parents want to ensure their children are properly nourished and this news can make you worry about the new food choices your child will make. Luckily, your child wanting to “go vegetarian” isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. We spoke to two vegetarian nutrition experts about what to do if your child makes the “I want to go vegetarian” announcement.
Don’t Talk Them Out of It
Both experts agree you don’t need to dissuade your child from being a vegetarian as your child can absolutely thrive on a vegetarian diet. “You can embrace their healthful, sustainable lifestyle, and support their new healthy habits,” says Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN The Plant-Powered Dietitian. “In fact, many parents join in with their children when they decide to go vegetarian, even if it’s just semi-vegetarian.”
Find Out What Kind of Vegetarian Diet They Want to Follow
Next, talk to your child to understand what type of vegetarian diet they would like to follow. Vegan is the strictest cutting out all animal products, while lacto-vegetarians include dairy, ovo-vegetarians include eggs, and pesco-vegetarians include fish. Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, plant-forward culinary nutritionist and author of The With or Without Meat Cookbook advises a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet that still includes dairy and eggs. “This can make it easier for kids to meet all of their nutrient needs and enjoy food outings with friends (hello pizza parties) … and easier for parents to cook for their child,” Newgent says. However, even if your child insists they want to follow a vegan diet, it can be done healthfully with proper planning.
Consider Eating Plant-Based as a Family
“There’s no need to make two dinners because you have a vegetarian child,” says Palmer. You can make healthful and delicious plant-forward meals the whole family will enjoy like chickpea curry with brown rice, veggie lasagna, and tofu stir-fry. You can also take some of your favorite family recipes and make them plant-based for starters such as black bean tacos instead of ground beef tacos.
Make Meat an Add-On
What if you still want to eat meat and your child does not? “When you want meat, poultry, or fish, go flexitarian and serve it most often simply as an add-on, not the entrée,” says Newgent. “For example, serve that spaghetti marinara with an option to top with meatballs or plant-based meatballs.” And when you want a meaty dish for the family like steak, Newgent says to “plan a “matching” plant-based alternative, like cauliflower or eggplant “steak.” And keep in mind some vegetarian options may be lower in protein, so also consider serving another plant protein-packed item with these meals, like a hummus or edamame appetizer.
How to Help Your Kid Navigate Nutrition on a Vegetarian Diet
Eating healthfully as a vegetarian is about more than just avoiding meat, and it’s important to ensure your child understands that. “It’s about eating balanced meals filled with whole plant foods, like pulses, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds,” says Palmer. Depending on their diet, this can also include dairy, fish and eggs. It’s important to make sure your child’s plate is a balance of protein sources, whole grains and fruits and vegetables, just as you would if they were eating meat. Here are some more tips to ensure your child is eating a balanced vegetarian diet.
- Have your child help plan meals: This way your child can eat the foods they want and you don’t feel like you’re figuring it all out on your own.
- Choose your plant proteins: Ideally, make sure you have a good source of plant protein at each meal and snack, like tofu, tempeh, edamame, beans, chickpeas (including hummus), lentils, pistachios, peanuts and peanut butter, or plant-based alternatives, such as meatless burgers.
- Plan for calcium: If your child doesn’t plan to do dairy, plan alternative sources of calcium into their eating routine, like calcium-fortified plant milk or yogurt, tofu, cooked leafy green veggies, sesame seeds, and dried figs.
- See a registered dietitian nutritionist: Consider scheduling an appointment with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RD or RDN) to help personalize a vegetarian diet for your child – and make sure they’re meeting your nutrient needs. You can find a RD or RDN in your area by going to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.
Newgent was kind enough to share a recipe from her cookbook The With or Without Meat Cookbook which can be made with tofu, chicken or both.
Hot Madras Curried Tofu Salad
Makes 4 servings
Serving size: 2/3 cup each
- 1/3 cup plain fat-free Greek yogurt
- 1/4 cup Major Grey’s mango chutney
- 1 1/2 tablespoons hot Madras curry powder
- 1 tablespoon mayonnaise or vegan mayonnaise
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated gingerroot, or to taste
- 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon + 1/8 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
- 1/2 cup finely diced fennel bulb or jicama
- 1 scallion, green and white parts, minced
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 (14-ounce) package extra-firm tofu, drained and squeezed of excess liquid, diced
- Stir together the yogurt, chutney, curry powder, mayonnaise, ginger, vinegar, and salt in a medium bowl until well combined. Stir in the fennel, scallion, and cilantro until combined. Stir in the tofu until well combined.
- Adjust seasoning, and serve.
How to Add Chicken:
One serving: Before adding the tofu, transfer 1/4 cup of the curry mixture to a small bowl. Dice 2 1/4 ounces rotisserie, or roasted, chilled chicken breast and stir into the mixture in the small bowl. Stir 10 1/2 ounces instead of 14 ounces diced tofu into the curry mixture in the medium bowl.
Full recipe: Dice 9 ounces rotisserie, or roasted, chilled chicken breast. Stir into the salad instead of the 14 ounces tofu.
Recipe adapted from The With or Without Meat Cookbook by Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN.
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.