An inquiry by one reader prompted Family Eats to seek out advice on how to deal with a child who recently decided that she wanted to become a vegetarian. Here we speak with Maureen Bligh who offers up some great advice on the topic. Bligh is a registered dietitian and project manager for the Dairy Council of California. She manages online communication and social media efforts, an internal Nutrition Trends Team and develops online continuing education courses for health professionals. She is also a mother of teenagers.
FE: Any thoughts on why/when children decide to become a vegetarian?
Children become vegetarian for many different reasons; it could be their love for animals or a strategy for losing weight. It could be as simple as their best friend decided to be a vegetarian and they want to try it too. Changing eating habits can also be a means for a young person to exert independence and/or control in their life. Sometimes, this desire for control can become extreme, but more on this later.
On the other hand, I have also known children whose parents hoped to raise their children to be vegetarians and they rebelled and chose to include meat in their diet. If parents have too strong of a dietary agenda, kids will find a way to push back.
FE: How should you discuss this with your child—and determine why they are making this choice?
It is important to find out why they are making this decision. It may be a true conviction or it could be a way to get more parental attention. If it is just a means to get more attention, then downplay the dietary issues and focus on providing some needed TLC.
If they truly are interested in the vegetarian eating pattern, then it is important to respect their decision and do some probing to find out what type of vegetarian they intend to be. Go through all the foods your family typically eats and find out if those foods are still a part of this new eating pattern. The term “vegetarian” is often used by teens very loosely…many still want to eat fish, chicken, eggs, and occasional hamburgers or pepperoni pizza! This discussion allows the teen to see all of the foods they may still want to enjoy as a part of their new eating pattern.
However, it is important at the outset to make it clear thatparents have rights too and that separate meals will not be made-to-order for them. They will need to help with the meal planning and food preparation.
FE: What are the key nutrition points to stress to your child when they become a vegetarian?
It is important for all children to eat a balanced diet with foods from all five food groups. Vegetarians can easily achieve this because there are many non-meat items in the Meat, Beans and Nuts food group. If your child’s vegetarian eating pattern becomes overly-restrictive or if you’re concerned they’re missing out on important nutrients, then you should sit down with their pediatrician and a registered dietitian.
Often teenagers will become “health conscious” and believe that vegetarian diets are healthier. Unfortunately, they may lack the information about the nutritional importance of all the food groups. When they learn about the positive nutrients found in foods like lean meats, poultry, fish, and eggs and the important role they play for optimal growth, muscle strength, and maximum energy they may reconsider eliminating them. Education can be a powerful tool for teens.
FE: What should parents keep an eye out for? (I have heard that often kids who become vegetarian compensate by eating more processed foods and those with lots of sugar.)
I have seen this, too!! A boy we know attended Boy Scout camp for a week and claimed to be vegetarian. He basically just skipped most of the food at the mess hall and ate tons of candy from the camp store. In his case, it was an example of needing attention and a way to avoid eating the camp food that was perhaps unfamiliar to him. Again a conversation about eating from all five food groups is the secret to handling this issue.
Controlling food is often the simplest thing to focus on when kids feel like their life is out of control. If a child becomes vegetarian and begins restricting their food intake, keep an eye out for any drastic weight changes, personality changes (extroverted teen becoming more secluded), and an uncharacteristic obsession with food, as all of these behaviors may signal an underlying eating disorder.
FE: Do you have any specific recipes/foods that are tasty and exciting for the children – and the family?
Serving meals with in a “dinner bar” style allows all family members to select the foods that they want to eat. Including foods from all five food groups in the dinner bar allows for maximum choice and good nutrition. By planning “dinner bar” menus like salad bar and taco bar and offering a wide variety of ingredients, everyone can come away from the meal satisfied and happy.
Maureen’s career in dietetics spans over 30 years and began in clinical dietetics and out-patient education at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, California. She provided nutrition education to people of all ages, especially diabetes education for children, pregnant women and adults.
She has passion for providing reality-based, nutrition education to help people enjoy a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods to lead a healthy life. She was delighted to recently discover that her commitment to family meals helped shape healthy attitudes and habits for her two teenage sons.