My mother always had a passion for healthy eating and tried to share those values with me and my siblings. However, I was not interested in being the only kid to eat whole-grain wheat bread when everyone else seemed to be living in a Wonder Bread world. What persuaded me to eat healthier, and ultimately vegan, was some insights from my older sister who taught me about factory farming—the practice of raising livestock in high-density confinement to produce meat, milk, and eggs for human consumption. After understanding what she had learned, I immediately became a vegetarian. It took another year before my mother and I went completely vegan—having her full support made the transition much easier.
While it hasn’t been too difficult to teach my own children to eat vegan—since they generally eat what my husband and I eat—I was much older when I became a vegan. Learning how to choose the right foods and change many of my eating habits was much harder, especially without a lot of support from my peers. Today it’s much more likely your kids will have friends eating the same vegan or vegetarian diet, especially with recent support from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics for “well-planned vegetarian and vegan eating patterns” for young children.
Teaching kids to choose the right foods
Once your children are able to read, they can see on a food’s ingredient list whether it includes animal products. Until then, you need to be the one to let them know and choose the ingredients for them. Make sure you talk about the ingredients they should stay away from, so they will recognize them when they can read.
Along with reading comes asking questions. When we’re at the home of family or friends, or dining at a restaurant my oldest two children (3 and 2 years old) have already learned to ask: “Does this have animal in it?” If it does, they know not to eat it.
It’s important to stay positive and validate their food choices. So when your kids don’t seem excited about a food, try new ways to serve it. For example, our children don’t like onions (not a rare phenomenon), but if they are scrambled with tofu and substitute cheese, they’ll even help us put them in!
Offering a variety of healthy foods to children at an early age will help ensure they get all the nutrients they need and allow them to get used to trying different foods. It will then be easier for them to learn to eat new vegan foods.
Teaching your children to differentiate vegan from non-vegan food can be difficult when you use a lot of substitutes like soy cheese, almond milk, and soy sausage, but it does give them more choices. If your child is older when they make the commitment to go vegan, they can learn to make vegan versions of their favorite foods. Every recipe has a vegan alternative, including favorites like fettuccine alfredo, hamburgers, and lasagna.
Of course every recipe starts with gathering ingredients, and involving your children in shopping and food preparation makes the entire healthy eating process more inviting. My kids love to help grow sprouts and create new green smoothie recipes with their choice of fruits and veggies nearly every day with their dad. Let them pick out new vegetables or fruits to try.
There will come a time when your young ones will begin to observe others’ eating habits, especially at school or at birthday parties, where most treats offered won’t be vegan. This can pose a problem, but you can prepare for it. If you don’t bring a substitute treat for your child to enjoy while the others are eating their non-vegan treats or cheeses, you can promise them a special treat after the party. They just need to be a little patient!
Giving your child a deeper understanding
We always tell our children why we don’t eat certain things, and they understand. In most cases, I think children are especially receptive to embracing a vegan diet because they love animals. The first thing babies learn is to make animal noises and then to identify animals. We take them to zoos, they have pets, and they pretend to be animals themselves. When they find out that animals die so humans can eat them, most of them are pretty shocked. Mine were.
Still, we try to teach our children to not judge others’ food choices, and it seems to be working. When playing with her toys, our three-year-old will often make a vegan cake for some of her stuffed toys and an animal cake for the other ones. She doesn’t mind either way if they are vegan or not, and this attitude will help her stay committed when she’s old enough for school.
As our children grow, we plan on giving them the choice of what they want to eat, and for the most part we already do. As a result, when they start school and have more options to choose from, we are confident they will still want to eat the same way. For those who are starting later in life, you’ll likely need to be more creative. But with your support, your children will hopefully see the health and compassion a vegan lifestyle brings—and make every effort to embrace it.
Kaitlin Jones is the president/CEO of Living Whole Foods (online at wheatgrasskits.com), a vegan, and a mother of three children under four.
Coconut Flax Oat Cookies
1 cup coconut oil
1 cup sugar
1 cup raw sugar
3 tablespoons flaxseed meal combined with 6 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups oats
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
3 tablespoons rice milk
Combine sugar, oil, flax mix, and vanilla. Mix together. Combine the rest and mix, then mix the two together. Scoop balls onto cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes.
1 cup raw almonds
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 teaspoon agave
Dash of salt
In a high-powered blender, process almonds until they are finely blended. Add oil, sweetener, and salt, and blend until smooth.