MEAT-ing a Vegan Halfway
Q: Our 13-year-old daughter has just informed us she has become a vegan. I don’t know if this is a test of me and my commitment to support her, a challenge or what. Life seems hard enough without having to think about new menus and pleasing all the picky eaters in my house without this. How do I keep my sanity? Could this really be healthy for a growing teen?
A: Great question! Many parents are figuring out how to handle differing dietary likes and health needs within one household. Your question has many dimensions to it. There are your issues regarding your daughter’s choice, her issues, and dealing with meal planning and preparation for the family. Many moms often feel like short order cooks. When they find a way to meet everyone’s needs, they get overwhelmed and exhausted. Sometimes dinner can become a “fend for yourself” meal for this reason. Family meal time is really special, so opting out of it is not the best answer.
If this choice is important to your daughter, then she will have the desire to do the research, find recipes, and learn about the healthy way to be a vegan. Up to this point, you might have been teaching your daughter how to cook; now she gets to show you how she is able to make becoming a vegan work. It sounds like you will not only have a new companion planning meals (in fact it might get you started on this path) but you will have someone to go shopping with you and cook with you at night. By being interested in her choice and in supporting her, you may find a real food companion in the kitchen.
Just as you watch your food budget, this will provide your daughter with an opportunity to be thoughtful about food and costs as well. Many families make this shift by having at least half of the dinner items fit a vegan diet, (no animal products, butter, eggs, cheese, or animal fat or broth used) and other items such as bread and a protein main dish for the rest of the family. Your daughter could fill in the protein (beans, nuts etc.) for herself.
You ask if this can be healthy for a growing teen. Many specialists have taken differing positions on vegan diets over the years. Dr. Benjamin Spock encouraged vegan diets, while T. Berry Brazelton felt meat eating was critical for a growing child. However, the American Dietetic Association has said there is nothing wrong with vegan diets for growing children. Nutritionists often suggest that a daily multi-vitamin be added along with yearly testing for iron deficiencies.
It seems, as with everything in life, as long as there is balance and moderation, this can be a very healthy style of living when the food groups are well represented and vegetable proteins are consumed. The food pyramid exists for vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters alike! The key will be if your daughter is willing to learn about it and make it work. She might want to try out the MyPyramid.gov Web site to learn exactly what balance is for her. She can design a nutrition plan based on her age and height.
Your daughter’s choice affects the whole family and, for that reason, it is always useful to understand how she came to make this choice. She might have gotten to this decision from a belief about animal cruelty. It may extend beyond what she eats to what she wears and what products she uses.
Some youth today see big corporations not only making money from exploiting animals for consumption, but also polluting our waterways with their waste products. Some tenderhearted kids read books such as Charlotte’s Web or watch the movie Babe and can’t shake the feeling that it is cruel to raise animals for slaughter. Some just find they feel better eating lighter foods. As she explores her thinking behind this choice, you all can learn more about the person your daughter is becoming, whether it is only a stage or lasts a lifetime.
Understanding her reasoning will help you coach her about how to help others be respectful of her choice. Some extended family members (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) might struggle with respecting her decision. Being prepared for those objections and even being proactive might make all the difference in her comfort around family members. Some vegans do this by bringing food or preparing a dish they know they can eat for family gatherings. Others may choose never to say a word and only eat the things that appear to meet their diet. Some have found the books by John Robbins, Diet for a New Nation, Diet for a New America and The Food Revolution, to help them both articulate their thinking and invite others to consider eating as a political and ethical
The most important thing to remember is that this is her issue not your issue. Since she made this choice, it is not your responsibility to take it on. You may suggest that you keep a supply of rice cakes, apples, nuts, vegetable and bean soups, peanut butter, frozen edamame beans or tofu on hand as a back up, but remember, this is her choice and not your task to make it work.
Many families start this path with their teens, letting them take on menu planning for the whole family in the early stages as they learn what is healthy. Letting her know that you are all curious and interested without trying to talk her out of becoming a vegan may give her the space she needs to explore and even change her mind, again, and again. Good luck!