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.

vegan dinner for kids
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.

vegan sausage with mashed potatoes, lentils and slaw
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.

kid choosing vegetables
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!

Raising vegan kids

People often wonder what I feed my kids. We don’t eat meat, dairy or eggs. So what does a plant-based diet look like when you have kids who won’t touch a salad? Stick around and I’ll show you.

We eat a lot of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. We make sure we have something satisfying like lentils, beans, tofu or nuts every day. And we avoid processed foods. Sure, I have a weakness for french fries and my kids love candy and sweets but as long as we’re eating our rainbow of fruits and vegetables, it’s okay for us to indulge on junk every once and a while.

chopped vegetables
Ready to roast my rainbow

Dinner tonight will be an easy win for me. I’ve made basmati rice and chopped a variety of vegetables from our local farm (cauliflower, sweet potato, carrots, purple potato, brussels sprouts and orange bell pepper) to roast along with cubes of tofu.

Tofu?

Yes, tofu. It picks up the flavour of the marinade and the result is delicious. I drained and cubed the tofu and tossed it in 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of maple syrup and a minced clove of garlic. I let it sit in the marinade for about 5 minutes before spreading it on a cookie sheet. It only needs about 20 minutes in a hot oven (425) to get crispy (turning once) – I roasted it with the orange pepper that didn’t fit on the vegetable roasting pan.

roasted tofu and bell pepper

Did I burn the cauliflower?

Yes, I did. We love the burnt bits of cauliflower. We like our brussels sprouts crispy too – though I’ll admit these are bit crispier than usual… at 425, these were in for about 45 minutes with a couple of stirrings. The carrots could have used a bit more time since I chopped them in big chunks but they disappeared with the rest of dinner.

roasted vegetables - cauliflower, sweet potato, carrots, potato and brussels sprouts

Dinner’s ready

Everyone has rice and tofu in their bowls. There’s soy sauce and Sriracha for the adults. Leftovers will be packed in their lunches.

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The kids heaped their bowls with roasted vegetables – with a little squabble over the purple potatoes. This meal is typical for our dinners since it’s easy to throw together and it goes over well.

My picky eater recently decided he likes brussels sprouts when they’re roasted – so I guess I can’t call him a picky eater anymore! My daughter did say that she likes her carrots crunchy (raw) but overall, dinner was a success.

Thanks for visiting. Leave a comment – let me know how you get your kids to eat their vegetables.