Ethical fashion designer Stella McCartney counts four in her veg brood. Bethany Frankel announced that her toddler daughter is a vegetarian. And anyone could have guessed that Alicia Silverstone, who blogged throughout her pregnancy on vegan health issues would pass her commitment to vegan living on to her son. Yet these announcements were all met with a combination of curiosity, support, disdain, and outright criticism. Which is something any of us non-celebrities who are raising veg kids can relate to. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 10, and I have eaten a primarily vegan diet since I was 24. So I never considered that I would raise my children as anything other than vegetarian. My son is in good company: a 2010 Vegetarian Resource Group Poll reported that 3% of kids in the U.S. are vegetarian. But is raising vegetarian or vegan kids a no-brainer? I spoke to several vegan and vegetarian parents, read on to discover their theories and challenges behind how they feed their children.

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Vegetarian Families & Vegan Moms Serving Meat

For some, like Jonathan Safran Foer who examines dietary decisions in Eating Animals, having a child can be the catalyst for inspecting one’s own diet and for making changes for the whole family. But for others, especially those in “mixed-marriages” of vegans or vegetarians with omnivores, the decision might not be quite as simple.

When children are smaller (as most of the children whose parents I spoke to are), it’s easier to have a veg household. Killeen, a mom in New Hampshire explains, “Our daughter, Zinnia, is not quite 3, so we are still in a position to make all of her food choices for her. When she is old enough to make her own, informed decisions, we will support her choices. Regardless of the diet she chooses, we will continue to strongly encourage a healthy, vegetarian diet. Family meals will always be vegetarian; I will never spend a dime on meat products.”

I personally have a very difficult time imagining what I would do if my son decided in a few years to eat meat. I’d like to be supportive, but I also cannot imagine putting meat on our table. Yet, some veg parents find themselves in a situation where the decision makes itself.

Cat, a vegan for nineteen years and mother of a 1-year-old girl, recalls how after initial difficulties nursing her newborn daughter, she and her husband turned in desperation to a non-vegan formula, “just to get her to eat something.” Once they got their daughter’s health and feeding under control, they quickly found a vegan option, and their daughter has maintained a vegan diet ever since.

Tara, who was a vegetarian for numerous years before marrying a non-veg and who still likes to make and eat vegan food whenever possible, has four sons, one of whom has kidney endocrine issues. She says, “There are certain vegetables he can’t eat at all, and you can imagine my horror when I found out that some of the things I insisted he eat for his health were actually what was making him sick. He gets anemic and lethargic and starts having urinary tract problems when he eats too many legumes and not enough meat. For the most part we stick to whole grains, fresh, local produce and either wild game or local meat, where we can actually go see the conditions in which the animals are raised and processed.”

For certain parents, vegetarian or otherwise, finding the most humane and local non-vegetarian options for their young children is the best temporary solution. Julie and her husband have made several health and lifestyle related changes in the past few years. The latest is their transition to being raw vegans. However, their four-year-old son’s dinner plate looks slightly different. Julie explains, “Our son loves meat, and our naturopath told us to continue offering him a well-balanced meat option until he is 8 years old and old enough to decide on his own. Stephen will be a vegetarian-raised child, with the option of consuming meat, when found drug-free, local and sustainable.”

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A Healthy Diet?

Whatever dietary decision veg parents make, there are bound to be comments from the peanut gallery. From family members, friends, even total strangers who are suspicious of the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle, the question we most often get is: “Is having children on a vegetarian/vegan diet healthy?” Sarah, the vegan Maryland mother of a toddler laughs, “He eats a much healthier diet than we ever did when we were [non-vegan] children!”

Yet even educated, well-meaning people wonder if there is a true cause for concern. And in some cases, there is. We’ve all read about vegan parents who let their kids get malnourished from eating a raw and/or vegan diet, and there are even some children who have died as a result. But these illnesses and deaths are not the result of a vegetarian, vegan, or raw diet, but rather a poorly planned veg diet. Millions of kids suffer from health ailments related to or caused by the Standard American Diet, yet their meal options are more accepted. Regardless of whether your child is vegetarian, vegan, or omnivorous, it’s always a good idea to keep expanding our ideas of good nutrition. Challenge yourself to try some of our tips for raising adventurous eaters.

I think it’s worth noting that very few of my vegan or vegetarian friends have a problem with a picky eater. We generally don’t have children who subsist only on chicken fingers or even a veg version of it. Some may chalk it up to luck, but I think it has to do more with the fact that these kids are likely exposed to all sorts of different fruits, vegetables, and grains. I believe the decision to become vegetarian or vegan is often a result of closer examination of our diets and nutrition in general (as well as a love for all things veggie), so it makes sense that we are careful that our kids are experiencing a large number of different types of produce. Cat agrees, “My daughter is getting a huge variety. I’m really dialed in to what she is eating because I am concerned about her nutrition.”

That’s not to say that I never wonder if certain random health issues (such as cavities) in my child’s otherwise healthy baby and toddler years are a result of his largely vegan diet. But these instances have simply made me more committed to providing the healthiest, most varied plant-based diet possible for him and to continue researching his nutritional needs. Fortunately, for this generation of babies, there is actual science to show the benefits and advantages of being raised veg. After all, in his last edition, Dr. Spock recommended a vegan diet for children over the ages of 2. We are lucky to have plenty of resources from reputable health experts, such as those at Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to offer guidelines and advice.

While some veg parents spoke about extended family members, usually those of an older generation, having concerns, in general, most had a strong veg support system.  Killeen, whose husband became a vegetarian around the time that they started dating, said, “When we had our first child, it was an unspoken decision to raise her within our shared lifestyle choice”.

Cat says about her husband, who is not vegan or vegetarian, but who focuses heavily on local and fresh foods, “He’s stoked that our daughter’s eating this way. And my family is really supportive. They got over their concerns when I had a vegan pregnancy and then had my baby at home.”

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Veggie Kids in Social Settings

One of the muddier areas of veg parenting are social gatherings. A veg kid eating vegan pizza and coconut milk ice cream in a veg family is one thing. Having to explain to a two year old that he can’t eat, well, anything at a birthday party is another. As Cat says, “Do I want my kid to be that kid that can’t have pizza at a party?” For me, it’s not something I stress about. Elijah eats so well and healthfully at home, I am unconcerned at his occasional dip into products made with dairy or eggs. And call me lazy, but I don’t want to have to whip up a personal portable vegan party box for him whenever someone in his preschool class has a birthday. From a consumption standpoint, I don’t believe that anyone would have made one less cupcake or ordered one less slice of pizza because of his vegan diet, so we adopt a freegan attitude at these times (which we never extend to any actual meat products). The vegan pizza, cake, and ice cream we served at his own birthday was a hit, and even converted several parents to expand their veg repertoire.

Julie has another great solution, reasoning, “We never want to be “that” family at gatherings where it’s uncomfortable or putting anyone out to feed us. So, we always opt to bring a hearty salad to share with all, and our son is learning great values of sharing, thinking ahead for your friends, and planning to eat.”

For others, like Sarah, social gatherings aren’t a problem at all: “Thanks to all the vegan options available in restaurants and grocery stores these days, our son hasn’t been “left out” of anything. In other words, he has plenty of opportunities to indulge in typical kids’ favorites like ice cream, pizza, cupcakes, etc.!”

Choosing a veg lifestyle goes beyond what we put on our kids’ dinner plates: everyone I spoke with clearly felt that passing on their vegetarian and vegan ideals was part of a much bigger picture. Killeen, who has been vegetarian for 22 years, says, “When I became a vegetarian, it was solely about not wanting to eat animals. Now, it’s become so much more for me.” For our family, we chose to raise our kids veg because we feel it is the responsible and ethical thing to do for the planet, the animals themselves, and the food supply for future generations. Sarah, puts it this way: “We are raising our son vegan because being vegan is a huge part of our values. As parents, we make many decisions for our son every day, including what food he will eat. It’s all part of a bigger picture regarding how we can reduce the amount of suffering and environmental damage in this world.”

Lead Image © flickr user benklocek