A spit. A spat. A look of disgust. A loud scream, “Noooooo!”, followed by a hard shove that sends the plate of peas flying across the kitchen floor. If you are getting any of these responses whenever you introduce food remotely resembling anything veggie-like to your munchkin, you are definitely not alone. Getting kids to eat their greens is almost impossible in some households and exasperating enough to claim a top spot in the list of parents’ frustrations.
But, in some families, like those of Amanda Jacob and Priscilla Soligo, meat and other processed foods almost never find their way onto the dining table. Instead, the sound of the blender whipping up a green smoothie or a plate of crunchy kale chips are the stuff that bring about smiles and excitement for their kids who have been brought up on a vegetarian diet. So just how do some mums cultivate healthy eating habits in their children while others struggle with the guilt of serving up yet another round of processed and nuked nuggets?
Amanda, mother of two-year-old Kieran, says, “Children are clean slates. How can they crave awful processed food unless you give it to them? Even if your children are not vegetarian, it’s important that you nourish them with whole foods in order for them to grow optimally and develop good eating habits for the rest of their lives.”
Sausages, fries, fried chicken … most societies are gradually wolfing down more and more highly processed, chemical-laden, genetically modified, factory-farmed “frankenfoods”. The percentage of obese kids has increased dramatically throughout the developed world and diet-related diseases are more common than ever. Alarming statistics call for a newfound awareness, especially for parents, who have the opportunity to provide healthier options for their children.
Once a certified meat and potatoes girl who devoured an eight-ounce filet mignon on her first date with her husband, Amanda turned vegetarian unexpectedly five years ago after reading 101 Reasons Why I’m A Vegetarian by Pamela Rice. It changed her life and inspired her to cut meat out of her diet.
Later, when Amanda was thinking about how she would raise Kieran in terms of food, she thought about all the reasons she’d switched to being vegetarian: at the top of her list was health. “If I’m choosing not to eat animals for my health, how could I possibly feed them to my baby? And that started me on a research journey that confirmed, for me, that a vegetarian diet is simply better for children.”
Another mum, Priscilla, who grew up eating standard Australian fare including chicken, meat, potatoes and seafood, initiated the diet transition for herself and her family because of her three-year-old son, Luca.
“I have always lived with mild asthmatic symptoms and knew that milk products exacerbated this problem. At four months, my son was diagnosed with asthma – far too early in my honest opinion. I distinctly remember looking at the eight medications that had been prescribed to him and instinctively knew there had to be a better way,” Priscilla says.
She continues, “As he approached the transition to solids, I became very interested in learning about making the best food choices for him to optimise his health and development. This led me to research exactly where my food came from and I quickly realised that our food supply has changed more in the last 100 years than it had in the last 1,000.”
Startled by her discovery, Priscilla decided on a new path of consciousness: raw foods and a plant-based lifestyle – fresh and organic vegetables (especially leafy greens), sea vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, superfoods, cultured foods and more that have not been “denatured” by heating or otherwise compromised through excessive processing. Real food the way Mother Nature intended it to be.
They may have kicked “frankenfoods” out of their dining rooms, but these mums confess that their lifestyle choice and decision to raise their kids on a vegetarian diet have conjured responses as unpleasant as most of us find feeding vegetables to a kid.
Amanda shares, “My friends’ reactions have been all over the place; some are supportive of my lifestyle, and others think it’s akin to a tragedy. The rest of my family thinks I’m strange. My brother is a huge advocate of the paleo lifestyle so you can imagine we don’t see eye to eye. My husband is still a carnivore, but we both agree that our house is strictly vegetarian.
“Since Kieran has been vegetarian from birth, he doesn’t know any different. But sometimes I face challenges with him, too. Even though he is a vegetarian, he is not fond of green things even if he likes the taste,” she says.
In a society where eating animals and frequenting fast food joints are the norm, raising a vegetarian child comes with its own trials and tribulations. With friends and strangers having no qualms about dishing out their unsolicited opinions on how one is depriving a vegetarian child of “good food” or fun, the experience can be a tedious and daunting one.
“To avoid uncomfortable situations, I usually prepare snacks and food for Kieran and definitely bring snacks for myself. Nutritionally speaking, some of the vegetarian options on restaurant menus are really unhealthy, which poses its own set of challenges. But I figure as long as Kieran and I are eating nutritionally soundly at home, then a few unhealthy things that I have no control over shouldn’t be too harmful,” says Amanda.
Doing their best
Popular Western opinion is that we need the nutrients found in meat. Growing kids, therefore, need that same nutrition and more. So you might be thinking: how can veggies alone possibly provide enough nutrients? And, even if they do, my child is so resistant to eating them that a vegetarian lifestyle would never work in our home.
It’s true that children have different developmental needs than we do. In Priscilla’s case, in addition to fresh, whole plant-based foods and superfoods, she also feeds her son wild salmon and free-range organic eggs for vitamin K2, which is essential for early-childhood bone and teeth development. She also supplements his diet with vitamin B12, among others, and ensures amino acid requirements are being met by giving him highly bioavailable protein and omega-3-rich sources such as chia seeds, hemp seeds and blue green algae.
As much as these mums believe in the benefits of the food they’re giving to their children, Priscilla is aware that being flexible is also important. “I’m not dogmatic in my approach and I don’t try to live up to ‘ideals’. By giving my son plenty of raw, plant-based foods, it allows his body to concentrate on not just digestion, but also healing. That said, in some cases, just because it’s raw doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better for him. Lightly steamed vegetables, lentil soup, or a cooked sweet potato are going to be much healthier options for a child than a heavily nut-laden, high-glycaemic sweet raw dessert.”
For babies and toddlers, feeding is a bit easier since they pretty much eat whatever’s brought to their lips. But it becomes more challenging as the kids get older and start getting fussy about their food – especially when everyone else around them is chomping away on cookies and ice-cream.
Priscilla says, “I used to get pretty uptight when we went to other children’s birthday parties, chasing my child with a banana! But now I’m more relaxed and usually bring a plate of something from home to share. People can’t believe that something that tastes so good and naughty is actually good for them! That’s the best part about this clever lifestyle: I can get greens into kids without them knowing it, or if they do know it – like in a green smoothie, for example – they love it! When I do talks at schools, I love the looks on the parents’ faces when they watch their children consume raw, enzyme-rich nutritional powerhouse greens such as spinach or kale for the first time, disguised in a deliciously sweet, fruity smoothie, and ask for more! Green smoothies are a fantastic way of getting all the fruits and vegetable servings into your child in one go. My son and his friends also love it when I make a batch of kale chips in the dehydrator, and the older children have told me they like them more than the store-bought potato crisps.”
Eating is very personal. The key is to do what feels right for you and your child, as there is no one path to optimum health. Creating rigidity around a diet or lifestyle tends to isolate and lead to high chances of failure. As Priscilla puts it so aptly: “Just do what you can when you can and if you fall off the wagon, get back on again at the next opportunity. Remember that optimal health is not solely obtained through food, but is also a state of mind. How we treat each other, our children, our planet and all that inhabit it is just as important as, if not even more than, the food we eat!”