Deconstructed burritos

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I was at the grocery store with my son yesterday and I asked him which vegetables we should buy. Brussels sprouts, zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli? I asked. He chose all of them. Plus asparagus, cherry tomatoes, peppers and avocado. It wasn’t along ago that he didn’t eat much aside from cucumber but I’m glad to report he’s broadened his taste.

So how did I get my picky eater to eat more than just cucumbers and white rice? Obviously there were many factors and it helped to have a big sister who loves vegetables. But there are two things that I credit the most with his transformation to a little rabbit.

My vegetable garden

I have a vegetable garden. And the kids help me choose what to plant and they’re welcome to eat anything from the garden at any time (as long as I get the first ripe tomato). There was a year that (thanks to my daughter) we planted purple varieties of everything: peas, broccoli, carrots, beans. And that was the year my son decided he would only eat orange carrots. I guess a guy’s got to draw the line somewhere! So the next year I bought orange carrot seeds and planted more traditional varieties of vegetables. Goodbye lemon cucumbers!

My kids get really excited about the veggies growing in the garden. They graze on whatever they find. They eat pea shoots, berries, and they love parsley stems. One year I thought I had a regular rabbit visitor but it turned out my daughter thought the carrot tops were parsley.

I try to get them to help in the garden as much as I can but if all they’re doing is eating from the garden, that’s great too. And when we pull a nice orange carrot from the ground, it’s something everyone is excited about. I think being involved and eating from the garden has made my son appreciate fresh vegetables.

Setting a good example

The other thing that I think we’ve done to encourage him to eat a bigger variety of vegetables is to eat them ourselves. The three of us love all kinds of vegetables and we eat them all the time. When my son turned his nose up at most vegetables, we always made sure we had his favourite vegetables at every meal but we also fit in the zucchini, beets and squash. We enjoy them – and he sees us enjoy them. And I think if he tries them a few times, he warms up to them.

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You’ll notice a few ingredients in my bowl that I don’t put in his. Onions, mushrooms, salsa, cashew cream and even orange vegan cheese are on his list of things he won’t touch at the moment. But that list is shrinking every day and I’m proud of him for following our example and being adventurous at the dinner table.

Prepping for the week

vegan meals ready to cook

This week, things are going to be different around here. I’m starting a new job and will be focused on learning everything I can about a new industry so I can write about it with authenticity. For the next few weeks, I’ll be making a longer commute to my new office – as I learn as much as I can from my new colleagues.

I’m not going to abandon this blog – but my posts may be more of a weekly or bi-weekly nature rather than a daily one. Since I won’t be the first one through the door, I won’t be making dinner.

My husband is going to be shouldering most of the family work until I can find some balance between work and home. He’s a great cook and we’re in good hands. We’re very lucky.

I’m doing my best to support him by stocking the freezer with supplies, helping with the meal planning and making fail-safe back up meals for those days when starting dinner from scratch is just too much to ask.

Some days, everything is not okay. The kids are feeling battered and bruised emotionally from something that happened at school (these are often little things to us but feel huge to my sensitive little ones – like someone saying my son’s tuque looks like an acorn or squabbles between friends). On these days, the littlest thing triggers tears or an argument.

Of course, we may have come home from challenging days as well. What’s left of our energy is spent restoring calm between siblings or soothing raw emotions. In the midst of this chaos, it’s nice to have dinner in the can (so to speak).

We’ll be meal planning throughout the week but these act as super simple back ups for when we need them. These meals are “just add water” or very simple steps.

Lentil and pasta soup – just dump the jar in boiling water and cook 12 minutes or until the lentils are done.

Lentils masala – this is one of my favourite meals but the list of ingredients is daunting. I’ve premixed the spices in a bag in the jar. Cook the lentils and at the same time, make a savoury sauce. The only actual prep is chopping an onion and opening a can of tomatoes.

TVP taco meat – one of our most relied-upon mid-week meals is tacos. The kids like them with black beans, avocado and whatever else we have on hand. But us parents want something different. Just pour boiling water over the TVP and wait 10 minutes and it’s good to go. Not gourmet but quick and sometimes that’s good enough.

These are also great to have on hand for babysitters. You can find plenty of options for these kinds of meals inĀ Vegan Food Gifts: More Than 100 Inspired Recipes for Homemade Baked Goods, Preserves, and Other Edible Gifts Everyone Will Love.

How do you prep for busy weeks?

Easy, unprocessed plant-based meals for kids and adults

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Here’s my secret to getting lots of vegetables on the table that the kids will eat. I’m often asked by people who are shifting to more plant-based meals – what do I make for dinner? We all know that we should be eating more whole grains, legumes (beans and lentils), fruit and vegetables but the question is how to get started.

When you go to restaurants and look at the kids’ menus, usually the options are limited. There may be burgers and fries, hot dogs and fries, pizza, chicken fingers and fries and grilled cheese sandwiches. You’d be lucky to get a carrot or celery stick on the side of the plate.

If this is what our kids are used to eating, they’re not getting the fruits and vegetables their bodies need to grow strong and healthy.

Some kids genuinely don’t like vegetables. I get it. I find it hard to imagine anyone turning down a fresh cut mango but I guess some kids aren’t fans of fruit either. But I’m an optimist and I think they may not have tasted the fruit and vegetables that they like yet.

When my son was in Kindergarten, his class had Fruity Fridays. One of his teachers would bring in a different kind of fruit each Friday for the kids to try. She cut them all up and had huge garbage cans in the middle of the room. The rule was they had to try it. They didn’t have to like it and they could spit it out but they had to taste a new fruit each week.

That teacher did those kids a huge favour by teaching them to experiment and try new foods. The strides that were made on Fruity Fridays were noticeable at home too. He applied the same rule to dinner as he did to tasting fruit – that he had to give it a try.

My son would be excited in the grocery store produce aisle pointing out fruit we’d never tried but he knew them. At the end of the year, he brought home a book that he had made to chronicle all the different fruit he tried. And for each fruit, he circled a happy face, straight face or sad face.

I like the spirit of discovery and adventure that was fostered in Kindergarten. Try it at home. Encourage your kids to eat more vegetables and try new ones without putting a lot of pressure on them and turning meals into nightmares.

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Here’s my method. Make a whole grain – something your kids will eat (I have used brown rice but it doesn’t matter what you use). While your rice is cooking, slice some vegetables into thick slices or chunks (I’ve sliced eggplant, sweet potato, broccoli, onion, mushrooms and carrots).

Make sure you’ve included vegetables you know your kids will eat and include some they may not eat. Toss them in olive oil and bake them at 425 until they’re done, flipping once. It takes about 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the slices and chunks. They’ll probably be done at the same time.

Spoon the rice in a bowl for each person and arrange the vegetables on a large platter in the middle of the table. Make sure you have a few vegetables you know your kids will eat. Cucumbers are often an easy win. The point is to have a variety on display. My kids like olives so they’re included.

Open a can of chickpeas or other beans and rinse them. Add them to the platter. When the kids come to the table, let them choose what they want. Encourage them to try a bite of anything new.

Have something on the table for them to sprinkle over their meal – if I put seeds on the table, the kids will use them. Hemp seeds, for example, don’t have much noticeable flavour but they’re another source of vitamins, minerals, protein and healthy fats. Nutritional yeast is another flavour enhancer that my kids love.

For the grown ups, it helps to have a nice sauce or two. I topped my meal with a tahini sauce and hot sauce and it was delicious.

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Tahini sauce

  • 1/2 cup tahini
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend well. It will keep in the fridge for a few days.

If you’re always eating delicious vegetables in front of your kids, they’ll see you enjoying nutritious food. It might take time for them to become interested in their vegetables but don’t give up. Keep eating them in front of your kids.

Tell them about the benefits of eating nutritious foods. Talk to them about eating a rainbow. Teach them about the importance of eating well-balanced meals. Give them the opportunity to surprise you – they will.

That’s my secret. I eat delicious, nutritious meals in front of my kids every day. They see me enjoy my vegetables. And they know it makes me really happy to see them enjoy theirs.

Switching to a vegan diet with kids

It is now widely recognized that a well-balanced vegan diet is healthy for adults. But can we say the same for kids? Kids have specialized needs since they’re growing and using so much more energy on an average day than adults (if only I had a fraction of that energy!). So there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re transitioning to a vegan diet with kids.

Can it be a healthy lifestyle for kids?

Absolutely. I think it’s quite natural for kids to have vegetarian tendencies. They tend to be quite empathetic towards animals. The idea of killing and eating animals can be a hard one for kids to learn to accept. There’s a mental leap between seeing a cute cow at the petting zoo and eating a burger that vegan kids don’t have to make. And I think being compassionate towards animals and other people is a healthy and positive worldview to teach our children.

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For the kids: veggies, a couple of each of the balls and a slice of bread.

But will they be healthy?

Absolutely. Meal planning for kids (vegan or non-vegan) follow specific conventions to ensure they’re getting balanced meals. Non-vegan meals in Canada are based on the four food groups: fruit and vegetables, grains, dairy and alternative and meat and alternatives. Vegans can follow this same example using the alternatives to easily substitute familiar meals with vegan versions of family favourites.

But you can do better than that. If you really want to ensure your kids are getting healthy meals, don’t rely on convenience or processed food even if they are vegan. Serve them whole grain, plant-based meals with ingredients they’ll recognize. And don’t be sneaky. Kids are smart and their tastebuds rat you out (no offence meant to rats, who are apparently very smart and sweet creatures once you get to know them).

Sneaking spinach into a milkshake may seem like an ingenious way to eat more greens but kids won’t fall for it – they just won’t drink your milkshake and miss out on the banana and nutrient-dense berries you’ve included. At least, that’s my experience.

Are they getting enough calories?

This is important. As a pregnant vegan who was nauseous at the thought of most food but starving all the time, all I could stomach was carrots. Among the words that would trigger my gag reflex were bacon, beef, any meat, soy sauce or meat alternatives. I remember thinking that it didn’t matter how many carrots I ate, the baby inside wasn’t getting the calories she needed.

Luckily, I could stomach peanut butter, which has plenty of fat and calories. Nuts can provide a great source of energy and so can seeds. Sunflower seed butter is really tasty and I can send it to school with my kids.

Orzo, vegetables and beans

When I make meals with beans and lentils, I’ll fry up onion, garlic and spices in oil and add the mix to the meals I make for the grown ups – which increases the calorie count for my meal but the kids like things plain. So I make sure I pour some high quality olive oil over the kids’ food too. I have a canister full of mixed nuts that the kids know to go to whenever they’re hungry between meals. Avocado is a favourite source of healthy fat too.

But the best way to ensure the kids are getting the nutrients, calories and fat they need, is to ensure the ingredients I use are nutrient-dense and I’m including good fats in our meals. This means swapping all-purpose flour for whole wheat (at least partially) and adding seeds and other grains like quinoa to my homemade bread. It means choosing the whole wheat bread and tortillas at the grocery store and getting the kids used to eating them.

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I remember when my son was quite young, he decided he didn’t like brown rice but would only eat jasmine or basmati rice. I didn’t fight him over it – I switched to other grains for a little while and reintroduced brown rice again later. He ate it.

The same thing happened with quinoa and barley. We went a few weeks without eating those grains – not that I was feeding him white rice and couscous at every meal but we had other whole grains. Whole wheat bread (both store bought and homemade) whole wheat pasta and oatmeal are all safe bets.

What’s the easiest way to enrich kids’ meals?

If baking everything from scratch is asking too much or your kids refuse to touch whole grains, give your meals a nutritional boost with the right meal topper. Asian meals get a sprinkling of sesame seeds on top. Pasta dishes get a dash of nutritional yeast or a pre made vegan parmesan made from nuts.

Soup with rice noodles and tofu

What about milk?

Here’s another important decision to consider. From birth, milk plays a very important role in kids’ development. Even at age six, when my son is feeling overwhelmed, tired or sad, a glass of milk provides emotional comfort. A snuggle and a glass of milk will give him the fortitude he needs to finish the day in a good mood. That’s powerful stuff.

I believe breast milk is best for babies. A vegan mom who eats a well-balanced diet is best suited to provide the nutritional needs of her baby – if she is able to produce enough milk. Sometimes moms can’t breastfeed and that’s okay. There are vegan formulas that are an excellent replacement. They’re formulated to be calorie-rich unlike other milks.

Look at the labels (of everything you buy). Almond milk is great for adults who are watching their weight. Not great for kids. When you’re choosing the milk you’ll feed your young kids once they’re finished with formula, choose something that is fortified (check for B12), with plenty of protein and a source of healthy fat.

IMG_4740Comparing the labels of the milks I currently have in the fridge, one glass of soy milk provides 7 grams of protein while almond provides only one and coconut has none. They’re all low fat but soy has 3.5 to almond’s and coconut’s 2.5 grams. The soy and almond have been fortified but my Holiday Nog Coconut Seasonal Beverage (yum) is not. My seasonal beverage is primarily sugar (it’s a treat). It has 15 grams of sugar while my vanilla soy milk has 8 grams and the almond milk has none at all (the kids won’t touch it).

It would be preferable to give my kids unsweetened or original soy milk that has less sugar than the vanilla version but my son very stubbornly put his foot down at a young age and refused to drink anything but the Silk soy milk in a blue carton. We call it blue milk to this day because from the day he learned to express his opinion (and it was early), he refused to drink anything that didn’t come from a blue carton.

And yes, we tried putting less sweet milk in the blue carton to trick him. He’s too smart to trick like that! But it’s okay because generally, we don’t eat a lot of sweets and this milk checks off the other, more important boxes (providing protein, fat and enriched with the vitamins he needs).

Be patient

Take it easy – and give yourself a break, give your child a break and take a deep breath. Sometimes kids turn their noses up at anything unfamiliar. So you can ease them into a vegan diet by feeding them convenience food versions of their favourites. Most grocery stores have vegan chicken fingers, fake-beef strips for stir fries and veggie burgers. Be prepared to try lots of different kinds before you find something your kids will eat.

My kids love veggie dogs. And that’s okay. When we go camping, they eat a lot of veggie dogs and we eat a lot of spicy vegan sausages. Because packing a cooler for a week with enough food to feed a vegan family of four isn’t easy. And I know we don’t always eat like that, which gives us a pass.

So start off gradually – introducing new foods slowly. But don’t give up. Sometimes it takes a few tries before a kid will like a new food. My rule is that my son has to taste everything but if he thinks the dressing on my slaw is too sour, he doesn’t have to eat it. I know one day he’ll learn to appreciate lime juice. But we’ll never know when that day has arrived if we don’t push him to taste it at every opportunity.

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Plain version with lentils, potatoes, vegan sausage and slaw.

Set a good example

Don’t limit yourself to the fruits and vegetables that you know and love. Bring home a kohlrabi and let everyone taste it. My kids love kohlrabi (I even grow it in my garden) – it’s mild and easy to like.

Try a new way of cooking. Have you ever roasted cauliflower? Broccoli? Beets? It changes their flavour completely. Trust me – roast your brussels sprouts.

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Pick your veggies

Give them choice

Cook a bunch of different veggies and lay them out on a platter to let them make up their own plates. This is my low-stress way of allowing my son to avoid the swiss chard completely. And he can choose the unbroken cherry tomatoes and (as long as he saves some for the rest of us) fill his bowl with green beans.

Good luck and let me know how it goes!