Eating well


Embrace your child's inner vegetarian :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

Bev Bennett

Maybe it surfaces after a trip through the Lincoln Park Zoo farm where the animals are particularly winsome, or maybe a friend's lifestyle triggers a thought-provoking experience. Whatever the cause, your child suddenly announces, "I'm a vegetarian."

As a parent, you're concerned your child won't get adequate nutrition if he or she excludes flesh foods. You may be irritated as well. Getting one meal on the table is difficult enough; now you have to create something different for your vegetarian child.

You needn't worry on either count, say food experts.

"A vegetarian diet can be healthy. It tends to be lower in fat and higher in [dietary] fiber," says Sue Cowen, a registered dietitian and manager of clinical nutrition at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

As for becoming a slave to a two-meal family, you don't have to let it happen, says Rebecca Roach, a registered dietitian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Becoming a short-order cook and making a separate dish for the vegetarian isn't the way to go," Roach says. "It's bad business for the cook and the vegetarian. The message you send out isn't a good one."

Giving your vegetarian child a completely different meal suggests her choices aren't acceptable to the rest of the family. It makes the child feel apart. Instead, you can use your child's enthusiasm as an opportunity for everyone in the family to make smarter food choices, says Roach, nutrition education coordinator for the McKinley Health Center.

Roach suggests you offer an array of foods including nourishing non-meat dishes, so everyone can help themselves.

Before you turn mealtime around, ask your child to define vegetarian. For some it means eating no animal products, including eggs and dairy; for others it may mean no red meat.

Starting at age 8 or 9, children first express interest in vegetarian eating, says Roach. These children probably have a different definition of vegetarian than a teen. For example, teens may enjoy veggie burgers, but younger children may not appreciate the soy and vegetable combinations but prefer potatoes and plain noodles.

Make sure your child isn't embracing vegetarianism to diet.

"If children are eliminating a food group--animal products--to lose weight, it's not healthy," says Roach.

It's your responsibility to teach your child about healthy vegetarian eating and provide nourishing food choices. If you're a vegetarian, you're most likely showing your children healthful food choices by example.

Of the nutrients, vitamin B12, iron and zinc, found in meat, could be a problem for vegetarian children, according to Cowen. Your child can get iron and zinc from fortified cereals or enriched grains, and B12 from some cereals and vegetarian processed foods designed to look and taste like meat.

Cowen suggests paying more attention to young children who are vegetarians. "Vegetarian foods are high in fiber and lower in calories. Children fill up on less and may not get the calories they need. You may have to see that children eat enough," she says.

Of course, those very qualities-fewer calories and more filling--are winning words for most adults. Perhaps your child's vegetarian embrace will influence your meals as well.

"Maybe children can encourage their parents to buy and try more fruits and vegetables," says Roach. For more information, the Vegetarian Resource Group at is an excellent resource. Cowen recommends shopping with your vegetarian to encourage your child to try new foods and get involved in the cooking.

But even though this may put a kink in your culinary style, don't make your child's vegetarian diet a battleground.

"I don't think you'd win," says Cowen.

Kiwi Salad with Walnut Vinaigrette For a refreshing salad that's high in vitamin C and dietary fiber, prepare this recipe from Stealth Heath by Evelyn Tribole (Penguin Putnam, 1999).

6 cups baby spinach leaves 6 kiwifruit, peeled and sliced 4 (10-ounce) cans mandarin oranges, drained 1 avocado, peeled and diced 1 tablespoon honey 2 teaspoons walnut oil 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice 1/4 cup orange juice

Combine the spinach, kiwifruit, oranges and avocado in a large salad bowl. Stir the honey, oil, lime juice and orange juice together in a bowl. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well. Serves 6.


Bev Bennett is the mother of two and the author of 30 Minute Meals for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2003.

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