Just when you thought you were past the picky eaters stage, your tween announces that she wants to be a vegetarian.
Suddenly your tried-and-true standby meals of meatloaf and chicken casserole are no longer “on the menu” in her eyes.
What would you do if your tween decided that she would no longer eat animal products? Tweens (and teens) jump on the vegetarian bandwagon due to a number of reasons — caring about animals and how they are treated is a common one. Planning meals for the whole family is already a challenge, but throw in a growing tween who needs proper nutrition and suddenly mealtime feels overwhelming.
Tweens and teens are attracted to a vegetarian diet for a number of reasons. Many become more aware of the mistreatment of animals raised for food, and become interested in a vegetarian diet. Others may change due to religious beliefs, food preferences or in an attempt to live a healthier lifestyle.
While following a vegetarian diet has not been shown to lead to disordered eating, The California Department of Public Health warns medical personnel to be aware that in some cases, tweens and teens can be using vegetarianism to disguise a problem with disordered eating. If your child wants to consider becoming a vegetarian, it is important for you as a parent to understand her motivation and help her maintain a balanced diet.
We spoke with Suzanne Wolfe, registered dietitian and blogger at The Daily Bite, about her personal experience with a daughter interested in becoming a vegetarian. “When my 15-year-old told me out of the blue that she wanted to try a vegetarian diet for a week, she was hesitant to tell me why,” says Wolfe. “Turns out, she met a young vegetarian at a horse ranch who talked to her about the mistreatment of animals. She’s always thought that animals were adorable, but a light switch must have flicked on that pigs (and other animals) are too cute to eat,” she adds.
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What’s the concern?
Switching to a vegetarian diet takes planning and research in order to ensure that your tween is getting the proper nutrients needed to continue to grow and thrive. “Five nutrients that parents and tweens need to be concerned about with a vegetarian diet are calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc and vitamin B12,” says Wolfe. Depending on which type of vegetarian diet your tween decides to follow, she will have different challenges.
- A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet includes both dairy products and eggs, and carries the least concern of nutritional deficiencies
- A lacto vegetarian diet includes dairy products, but excludes eggs
- A vegan diet, which excludes all meat or animal products — including milk and eggs — puts your tween at a higher risk for nutritional deficiencies, especially for vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
Change it up to get what you need
“In general, a lacto-ovo vegetarian eating a wide variety of nuts, beans, low-fat dairy, eggs, fortified bread and cereal, enriched soy products, and fruits and vegetables can meet his or her dietary needs,” says Wolfe. Even with a varied diet, it makes sense to supplement with a multivitamin that has calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc and B12.
“B12 is prevalent in animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and milk,” says Wolfe. “The only other source would be fortified foods such as cereals, since B12 is not found in most plant foods.” Low B12 levels can cause symptoms such as numbness, weakness, fatigue and depression — as well as anemia and mood disturbances — so getting enough is key.
Consuming foods high in vitamin C — like orange juice, citrus fruits and tomatoes — along with iron-containing foods (beans, leafy greens, nuts and nut butters, fortified cereals and breads as well as dried fruit) helps your tween absorb more of the iron she needs.
Enriched soy products such as soy milk, tofu and meat substitutes can provide not only protein, but zinc, iron, calcium and vitamin D. “Although the isoflavones in soy have been studied for negative effects on testosterone levels in men and breast cancer risk in older women, it is safe to consume up to 3 servings of soy foods per day,” says Wolfe.
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Bring it to the table
How do you incorporate vegetarian meals with what the rest of your family is eating? Involve your tween in searching for family-friendly recipes and shopping for ingredients. Wolfe has a few suggestions that she will be trying at home.
- Try a taco/fajita bar with vegetarian refried beans, shredded cheese, sliced olives, lettuce, tomato, avocado, light sour cream or plain low-fat yogurt, salsa, whole grain tortillas and beef, chicken, pork or fish for those that prefer meat
- For spaghetti, make ground turkey or lean ground beef meatballs separately for the non-vegetarians
- Try a whole grain pita or pocket thin with hummus, sliced cheese and avocado for lunch
Advantages of a vegetarian diet
“The good news is that vegetarian tweens tend to have diets higher in fiber, folate and vitamin A because they consume more fruits and vegetables — and less sweets, fast food and salty snacks — than non-vegetarian teens,” says Wolfe. “Also, a vegetarian diet may help in the prevention or treatment of diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cancer,” she adds.