Bringing children up vegetarian

Benefits of raising a vegetarian.
Benefits of raising a vegetarian. Photo: Getty Images

As parents it’s only natural that we want what is best for our children and, as far as diet and nutrition goes, there are definitely no exceptions. The positive impacts of a balanced and healthy diet speak for themselves, and there is no doubting the important role that eating the right foods plays in terms of the growth and development of our kids. 

But, for most of us, getting our children to eat a good healthy dose of vegetables and fruit on a daily basis in place of a favoured sausage or meat is not always easy. Our best efforts are often met with resistance and the requirement of much cajoling on our behalf, with favourite phrases such as ‘Eat up all your vegetables if you want to grow big and strong’, and ‘Peppa Pig LOVES carrots’ resonating in households throughout the country.

However, for a number of Australian parents who choose to bring up their children as vegetarians, this is not something that can really become an issue, and this is certainly the case for Meghan Street. 

As a Mum to a boy, aged 13, being raised as a vegetarian and as a vegan herself, Street explains “When children are young, they really don't understand or even know there is a difference, and we were clever about finding substitutes so he never went without. He doesn't seem to have any problems with eating vegetarian. To be honest he's kind of oblivious to it. Food is food to him” 

And this is very much a sentiment that is echoed by Una Harkin, a Mum to two boys, aged 3 and 5, who is raising her sons as vegans, which is a variation of vegetarianism whereby people eat no animal products at all. 

“Our sons have never experienced anything else, so they don’t know any different,” says Harkin, “although, even at this young age, they know to ask if things are vegan in cafes and at parties, and they do understand where meat comes from.”

As far as both women are concerned, eating this way is a lifestyle choice and the immediate benefits speak for themselves in that their children are healthy and happy. Although, according to Street, there are definitely other benefits to be had as well, “For someone his age, my son has quite an in depth knowledge about where food comes from, and the connection between our health and the food we eat. This is a wonderful foundation to set him up for healthy eating later in life. I also feel like it may have made him think about things like kindness and compassion more.” 

With such strong views and allegiance to the vegetarian lifestyle therefore, it would be easy enough to assume that these parents may have an issue if their children choose to eat or try meat as they get older. But it’s definitely not the case. Both Mums agree that when their children have the capacity to make their own decisions they will be free to do so, and it will not be something that is discouraged.

“There would be no way to stop it if my son wanted to eat meat,” says Street. “In the same way we all try to raise our children with what we see are the best values, the best we can do is hope that we have given them the mental tools to think about their choices and make sensible ones. I would love for him to continue to be vegetarian, but he will make those types of choices for himself.”

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Whilst raising their children as vegetarian and vegan accordingly was a decision that was natural to both Street and Harkin based on their own beliefs about not killing animals, where food comes from, and the impact it has on global distribution to other human beings, it was certainly not done without extensive research on both of their behalves. In fact, in the case of Harkin, it involved a visit to two Dieticians, one vegan and one not, in order to ensure she was well educated on meeting the dietary needs of her children.

And education is something that is strongly recommended by Dr Yasmine Probst, an Accredited Practising Dietician and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong’s School of Medicine and Health.

“Given the importance of key nutrients such as iron and calcium for the growth of children I believe that parents who bring their children up on a vegetarian diet should firstly educate themselves about the many considerations of such an eating pattern, and should really seek the assistance of an Accredited Practising Dietitian who can ensure that the child is receiving an appropriate balance of foods to support their growth and development,” says Probst.

Whilst Probst also acknowledges that there are a number of variances on vegetarianism, she highlights the fact that it remains consistent that protein is a vital component in all diets for the purposes of growth and repair of the body and therefore, in the absence of meat, other sources of this must be found.  This is also the case with iron.  “Nuts and legumes for example are good sources of protein and dark green leafy vegetables can help to provide needed iron, though in a different form to that found in meat.”

Whilst, for the most part, with careful planning and monitoring, a vegetarian diet can provide children with a nutritious alternative to a diet that includes meat, Probst is quick to note that special care must be taken to ensure that balance is maintained.  “Imbalance of the overall food intake is likely to be the greatest risk, as the removal of an entire food group can lead to a greater likelihood of insufficient nutrients being consumed.”

For more information about adopting a balanced vegetarian diet for yourself or your family, visit the Dieticians Association of Australia website. 

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