Taking the step to become a vegan family can seem like a huge undertaking. And it may be a big adjustment for your family, especially if you are used to eating animal-based proteins at every meal. But the payoff is pretty great: your family can be healthier and have more energy, and you will all be playing an important role in saving the environment and its natural resources.
And remember, becoming vegan (or vegetarian) does not have to be an all-or-nothing deal. It doesn't mean you need to go from burgers and fries to steamed kale and quinoa overnight. Delicious vegan recipes are everywhere these days. Bring some to a family function, or try them out for dinner with the kids. You will be amazed at how tasty and healthy a vegan diet can be -- and how a gradual transition will make the process much more doable. If you're interested in switching to a vegan diet as a family, but you don't know where to begin, read on for answers to some of the most common questions about going vegan with your kids.
Where do you get your protein and calcium?
Vegans get asked this so often it’s actually become a bit of a joke. The truth is, all plant-based foods have protein, although some are definitely higher in it than others. Kids can get their protein from tofu, edamame, beans (chickpeas are especially kid-friendly), quinoa, and nuts. Veggies like spinach and kale also pack a protein punch.
Drinking milk has long been touted as the magic calcium source for all ages, but studies have actually shown that too much milk can leach calcium from the body. Vegan sources include calcium-fortified orange juice, cooked beans, nuts and seeds (especially sesame seeds), dark leafy greens, and sea vegetables. Instead of drinking cow’s milk, my kids drink a combination of soy, almond, rice, flax, and hemp milk. The tastes of these milk substitutes vary wildly from brand to brand so definitely try out a few.
My kids are cheese addicts. Help!
Most vegans will agree that cheese is one of the hardest things to give up (ice cream is usually the other). Luckily for everyone, there are growing numbers of yummy vegan cheeses on the market today. We love Daiya for making pizzas and quesadillas. Other popular brands include Teese, Sheese, and Follow Your Heart. We also like to make our own cashew and macadamia nut cheeses.
Nutritional yeast is another popular cheese substitute. You can make a cheesy sauce with it or simply sprinkle it on top of pastas or popcorn. Look for brands fortified with B12.
My kids don’t really like veggies. What do I do now?
Well, there’s never a better time to make veggies a part of their life than now! I truly believe that all kids will eat SOME veggies. Very few will eat every kind that you eat, and if they do, consider yourself lucky. But most kids will have to develop a few favorites over time. Some veggies are more kid-friendly than others: carrots have a sweet taste and can be prepared a million ways from pureed soups to crunchy dipping sticks, and spinach is easily added into smoothies or sauces without changing the taste.
But don’t limit yourself to what you think they might like — have them try everything, even veggies you aren’t that familiar with. They may surprise you! My son doesn’t care much for sweet potatoes, another kid-friendly vegetable, but he will literally gnaw on a raw head of broccoli if he sees it in the fridge. I’ve also found that serving my kids food from different cultures is a great way for them to try new things. The novelty of the spices and cooking methods helps! Kids also like to be part of the process. Have them help with gardening and harvesting veggies or by preparing the meal alongside you. Doing so is a great way to get them interested in trying new veggies.
Some great resources for recipes and vegan nutrition in general include the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website, vegan cookbooks such as The Kind Diet and Veganomicon, and even searching vegan and non-vegan bloggers’ sites for veggie recipes. You will quickly become adept at “veganizing” recipes, such as swapping tofu for a favorite chicken recipe or using vegan butter or cream substitutes to make your favorite cake.
What do we do about parties/family gatherings/school functions/etc.?
Vegan families are often divided about this. My point of view is that the vegan police are not going to come and arrest your family if your child eats non-vegan birthday cake at his classmate’s party, so it’s really up to you. We have a fairly relaxed view on allowing our kids to eat vegetarian food at parties (although not on meat consumption). Some parents adopt a freegan point of view in these scenarios: parents purchased an entire cake for celebrating their child’s birthday so no less milk or butter or fewer eggs would have been used whether or not your child eats the cake. That being said, it can be confusing for some kids if they are allowed to eat certain foods when out, but not at home.
If you want to take your vegan lifestyle on the road, the easiest way is to bring some goodies with you. For potlucks, tote along a delicious vegan lasagna or vegan cookies and you may win some converts. For birthday parties, you can bring a separate vegan treat for your child. In these days of allergies, gluten intolerance, etc., it’s no longer uncommon for kids to be eating different things at a party or school function.
What if my child decides not to be a vegan?
It depends on their age. Obviously, you are the parent, and you decide what to serve at family meals. My 4 year-old loves veggies and tofu, and vegan cupcakes, but he is becoming very curious about the (non-vegan and non-vegetarian) foods that many of his classmates are bringing in their lunch. At a certain point in the not too distant future, he will likely try out his omnivorous side. Of course, he will not be served meat or cheese in my house, which is where he consumes the majority of his meals, but at a certain age he will be old enough to make his own independent decisions. While I hope he chooses a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle in the long run, I want him to have a healthy relationship with food and not see certain ingredients as “forbidden.” By explaining to him why we eat what we do and why we choose not to eat certain animal-based foods, we hope he will choose compassion for animals and the planet.
If you have an older child or a teenager whose habits are already more entrenched, the transition may be more difficult. But on the bright side, he or she is able to understand more about the effects of meat consumption on the environment, how the conditions for most livestock are brutally unfair, and he or she may even be able to help with the cooking process.
Any other vegan lifestyle tips?
Yes! When people become vegan (whether they have kids of not), they often eat a lot of fake meats, processed vegan cheeses, etc. These are great transition foods, especially for kids, but it is important to continue serving and eating whole, plant-based foods as much as possible. There are so many, admittedly very delicious, highly-refined and processed vegan substitutes on the market. It’s okay to include them in your family’s vegan diet occasionally, but some families eat them all the time and then their supposedly healthy vegan diet becomes nothing more than vegan junk food. Think of it this way: by serving your family and yourself healthy vegan food, you are setting them up to reap double the benefits in the future. You all will be eating a compassionate diet that benefits the earth and you all will be nourishing your body with foods that provide good, clean energy and nutrition.
Also, vegans can have a holier-than-thou, know-it-all reputation. Try to respect the fact that other parents and families may find the vegan lifestyle strange and even ridiculous. If I had a dollar for every time someone said, “Well, people have been eating meat for millions of years, so why is it wrong?”, I would be quite wealthy. Know that becoming vegan could be the right decision for your family, but not necessarily for everyone else’s. And trust me: the most convincing evidence that a vegan lifestyle is a great one is happy, healthy and compassionate kids and parents who thrive on a diverse and delicious diet!