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Is it OK for Kids to Go Vegetarian?

Decades ago, vegetarianism was considered something of a fringe lifestyle, reserved for hippies and Buddhist monks. Those days are long gone. As more Americans focus on green living and conscious consumerism, vegetarianism is becoming a widely accepted and even celebrated way of life for people of all ages.

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If your young daughter has suddenly started pushing the chicken around on her plate or your pre-teen son is turning his nose up at the hamburgers you serve at the family picnic, it's natural to feel a bit of alarm. After all, the American dinner plate has traditionally centered around meat, with vegetables and grains playing second fiddle to steak and ham. Messing with that formula poses a lot of questions for concerned parents who are wondering if it's OK for kids to go vegetarian:

  • Will she get enough iron?
  • Will he get enough protein?
  • Is this going to inhibit their growth?

The most important thing to know is that, yes - it is safe for a child to follow a vegetarian diet. Thousands and thousands of children in the U.S. and around the world healthfully subscribe to meat-free diets. In fact, a family that takes the time to educate themselves about the critical tenets of a balanced vegetarian diet is likely to reap some serious health benefits.


In 2009, the American Dietetic Association sang the praises of vegetarian diets, saying they are "associated with a number of health advantages," including: {relatedarticles}
  • Lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels;
  • Lower risk of heart disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes;
  • Lower body mass index; and
  • Lower overall cancer rates.

These may seem like issues that only adults need concern themselves with, but keep in mind that diabetes and obesity are quickly becoming issues for our younger generations and it's never too early to establish healthy eating habits.

The Basics of a Vegetarian Diet

Though a vegetarian is literally defined as a person who doesn't eat any meat-including poultry or seafood-many people play fast and loose with their definition of vegetarianism until they find a niche that works for them. A vegan is someone who shuns animal products in all forms, including milk, cheese, eggs, honey, leather and wool.


Talking to Your Child About Going Vegetarian

The first thing you should do when your child mentions that they want to be a vegetarian-besides not freaking out-is conduct some research. There are thousands of Web resources dedicated to providing comprehensive nutrition information for vegetarians and meat-free recipes; many of which specifically address the needs of vegetarian children.

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Next, start a dialogue with your child about their newfound dietary interest. Instead of panicking about their health and shutting down their ideas, ask a few questions so that you can better understand why they want to make this significant lifestyle change.

For some young children, the decision to go vegetarian is based on ethics. For others, it's simply a matter of taste. And for others still, it's a passing phase, or an assertion of independence. And as far as pre-teen rebellion is concerned, they could do a lot worse. By showing respect for your child's wishes and autonomy and calmly working together to establish healthy dietary habits, you can ensure that a vegetarian diet provides everything a growing child needs.


Meat-free Sources of Protein

Without a doubt, parents' concerns about vegetarian diets for kids are usually centered around protein consumption. Americans tend to grossly overestimate the amount of protein that is required each day while conversely underestimating the amount of protein available in non-meat sources. According to The Institutes of Medicine, a child who is 9 to 13 years old needs about 34 grams of protein each day. That amount can easily be reached through a balanced diet that includes:

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  • Whole grains (including hearty, protein-rich breads);
  • Legumes (lentils and beans);
  • Vegetables;
  • Tofu and other soy products;
  • Nuts; and
  • Eggs, low-fat cheese and milk.
Other Nutrients to Include in a Kid-Friendly Vegetarian Diet

Protein isn't the only factor that you and your child need to address with a new-found vegetarian diet. Listed below are a few other dietary essentials for any child:

  • Calcium - Milk, low-fat cheese and yogurt are great sources, as are leafy green vegetables (broccoli, collards, kale and bok choy), beans and fortified orange juice and cereals.
  • Vitamin B12 - Found naturally in eggs and dairy, as well as fortified cereals, fortified soymilk and multivitamins.
  • Iron - Leafy green vegetables (like fresh spinach) and legumes. Talk to your child's pediatrician if you are concerned about anemia and whether a daily supplement is in order.

Avoiding the Common Pitfalls of Vegetarian Diets

While it is important to allow your child the freedom to make this choice, you have full parental rights to exercise some strict guidelines! Don't be afraid to tell your child that while they can pursue this diet, they have to follow a few ground rules. These guidelines will help them to avoid the common pitfalls of a vegetarian diet:

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  • A vegetarian diet MUST not rely solely on French fries, pizza, boxed macaroni and cheese, iceberg lettuce salads and chips.
  • Make cooking together and experimenting with new recipes a family affair.
  • While it's helpful if you are supportive and voluntarily offer meat-free options at meal times, it's perfectly reasonable to ask the new vegetarian to contribute to creating meals. This will also teach them how to determine what goes into a balanced diet.
  • Meat substitutes shouldn't be an everyday thing, as they have high sodium content. Instead, make your own veggie patties with canned beans and oats; it's cheaper and much healthier.

Exercise patience with your fledging vegetarian. She may initially choose to avoid all red meat, seafood and leather products, but still consume chicken and dairy. A few months down the line, she may give up poultry altogether, only to forgo the vegetarian diet entirely a few years later. Vegetarianism can be a fluid process for some, especially young people who are just starting to establish their tastes and value systems.

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This is also a great time to teach the art of mutual respect to your child. Demonstrate that you can accept their new lifestyle, but that they must also show respect for others' eating habits. Stress that while it's OK to talk openly with others about their meat-free diet, it is poor form to make rude comments or to judge meat-eaters for their choices.

With communication, education and openness, you and your child can find a way to make it a healthy choice for a child to go vegetarian.