|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
Your Vegetarian Child
By Dani Danzig, Mothering Magazine, Fall 1996
I should have seen it coming. A couple of months earlier Jesse had started calling his favourite chicken wings “nasty”, then he pushed away the baked flounder, and soon he was even rejecting the venerable cheeseburger. Now all Jesse would say was that he wasn’t going to eat animals anymore.
Our family’s menu had always included meat, chicken, and fish. Although I stopped eating red meat and chicken years ago, I cooked them regularly for Jesse and his dad, an unapologetic carnivore.
But now, with Jesse’s pronouncement, I hit a wall. I didn’t know how to make a truly vegetarian diet appealing for a child. What would the poor kid eat? Tofu and spinach? Broccoli and rice? I could always count on fish for my protein, but I didn’t have a clue about the nutritional needs of an 11-year-old vegetarian.
That evening we ordered cheese pizza, and Jesse and I sat down to make a list of the foods he liked that didn’t include any, as he put it, “dead animal parts” . The list wasn’t quite as short as I feared: after pizza came macaroni and cheese, ravioli, his father’s prizewinning spinach lasagne, grilled cheese sandwiches, and French toast.
It was a start, but I couldn’t give him grilled cheese and ravioli forever. And I didn’t want my son to give up on something he clearly felt to be important just because I didn’t know what I was doing. I also didn’t want him to feel that being a vegetarian meant eating only unappetizing “health foods”.
I called our health plan’s nutritionist and made an appointment. What does an active preadolescent need in the way of protein? Did she have some vegetarian menu ideas that would suit a child’s tastes?
Meanwhile I told Jesse that I would do everything I could to make his vegetarian meals as appetizing as possible. I also told him that it would be perfectly all right if for any reason he decided to change his mind. Sometimes, I explained, people try different eating approaches before they find what’s right for them.
We also talked about his decision might not always be an easy one. There might be time when nothing else but a meat-based meal would be available. He might be asked to explain why he was a vegetarian, perhaps even chided for it. He might occasionally covet a slice of his favourite Cajun meat loaf or his grandmother’s prized brisket. But I could tell from Jesse’s expression that he wouldn’t be picking up a hamburger or drumstick anytime soon.
The next few days, I riffled through my cookbooks, looking more closely at pasta dishes. I sat in the kitchen of a friend whose husband was a vegetarian and walked away with an armful of cookbooks and a dozen of her favourite recipes. I read through Mexican cookbooks, looking for a place where I could replace meat with refried beans. I stood in the aisles of a local bookstore reading dozens of Indian recipes, with their interesting sauces and rice dishes. I even turned to my computer and went on-line to search for vegetarian menus that might appeal to a child. By the time our appointment with the nutritionist rolled around, Jesse had tried and liked my homemade lentil soup, chile/cornbread pie, and salad burritos.
The nutritionist explained that Jesse could be assured of getting all the calories, protein and nutrients he needed by eating a well-rounded vegetarian diet (see “Getting Started as a Vegetarian Family”). At the end of the session, Jesse and I were confident that we could make his vegetarian diet work. And Jesse, who likes to cook, was eager to try some of the new recipes on his own.
Jesse continues to be steadfast in his decision. As a result of our successful cooking and eating experiences, I’m even considering dropping fish from my diet. My husband has been left to cook his own “dead animal parts” when he feels like eating meat. We’ve all learned more about nutrition and, as a result, are eating more healthy, balanced meals.
Mostly, I’m proud of Jesse’s courage, his willingness to take risks, his awareness of the value of all life. He’s pushed us to stretch, to reassess our eating habits, and to try new things. As the primary family cook, I’ve enjoyed experimenting with new dishes and menu combinations. And I know that I’m helping my son stick to his convictions – and that is more than worth the effort.
Dani Danzig is a technical writer and editor for software companies in the Boston area. She writes short stories in her spare time, has been published in the Boston Globe, and has received an award from Story magazine. She is the mother of two boys, Jake (25) and Jesse (12).