Parents often have to tackle a temporary picky-eating stage with kids, but what if your child wants to make his limited eating habits a permanent lifestyle change?
Mom Erika W., for instance, is concerned that her daughter proclaimed she wants to be vegetarian. Especially because the entire family eats meat, Erika questions the motivation behind her daughter's desire to change her diet. "She is very mature for her age, but I still don't feel she is old enough to make a decision affecting her health," Erika says of her 10-year-old. "My husband tells me we should just ride it out and try to support her, but I am not sure how to when I don't agree with the choice."
Similarly, Sharon B. thinks her 3-year-old might be turning vegetarian, as she refuses to eat most forms of meat and has requested only vegetables. Sharon asks the Circle of Moms community, "How can I ensure that she still gets the right balance of food in her diet without forcing her to eat meat?"
If your child declares he no longer wants to eat meat, then consider these four tips, all suggested by experienced Circle of Moms members who been through the same thing before.
Keep reading to see what they had to say.
1. Find Out What's Prompting the Change
When your child makes any diet decision, Circle of Moms members suggest first finding out the reason why. In particular, parents should find out if the desire to stop eating meat is prompted by moral or ethical concerns, or simply because meat doesn't agree with their child's taste buds.
"Children go through a lot of food changes. They discover different textures and flavor likes and dislikes as their tongue muscle grows. Just like any other muscle, it needs to be exercised," Jane G. explains. "Also their bodies have different needs as they grow. Remember that becoming a vegetarian is a choice and isn't just not eating meat."
Small children especially might just be picky rather than having "a conscious thought about vegetarianism," Suzan B. adds. In such cases, she recommends focusing on offering healthy options: "Just keep offering good foods from the food pyramid, lots of milk and cheese and yogurt, and a little of the foods she currently dislikes. Don't fuss about which foods she eats. Just ensure the food she does eat is healthy, and she will usually pick up her appetite."
If the desire to be vegetarian is because your child doesn't like the preparation or presentation of meat, then the eating habit is likely just a phase, Kim K. says. "Proteins are difficult to digest, and if she has linked meat to an upset tummy, you'll just have to work around it," she says, recommending parents require their children to try at least one to two bites of everything they are offered to eat.
On the other hand, if your child has moral, ethical, or religious reasons for wanting to be vegetarian, then Cathie H. recommends having your child research the different types of vegetarians to find out what that lifestyle change involves, and also what nutrients the human body needs, before making a decision. Cathie says her daughter had many reasons for wanting to become vegetarian. "By letting her try, she realized the commitment it takes to live that way."
2. Support the Decision
Once your child has given justification for a diet change and done the research on what it takes to remain healthy, Cathie wholeheartedly suggests supporting your child. "If she still wishes to try, I would recommend supporting her. While it may not be your first choice . . . if she feels that strongly about eating meat, you may find that she eventually refuses to eat the protein that you are serving, and this would only cause problems later on," she says.
Josselyn M. has similar advice, emphasizing that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a vegetarian. Offering advice to Erika and her daughter, she says, "Let her try out [being a vegetarian]. She shouldn't be forced to eat meat if she doesn't want to."
Mom Heather C. agrees that parents should support their child's eating decisions — a long as it is a healthy choice — and notes that if her 10-year-old daughter decided she wanted to become vegetarian, she would "sit her down and tell her that I was very proud of her for making such a big decision . . . and that is a sign that she is starting to grow up. I would then explain that part of making big, life-changing decisions like the one she is interested in making is taking the time to educate herself completely on all of the pros and cons of such a decision — like health, financial, social, etc."
"I think the biggest thing that I would emphasis is the health aspect and ask her if she is really interested if she could do some research and come back to you with a vegetarian food plan that sufficiently replaces the protein that she will miss from not eating meat (and any of the other nutrients that come from meat)," Heather continues. "This will encourage her to do some research, and if she is really serious, she will stick with it."
3. Consult a Doctor
Being vegetarian requires commitment to ensure that your child still digests the right amount of protein and iron for a growing body, Circle of Moms members caution. So if you allow your child to become vegetarian, then work with your child's pediatrician to ensure they are getting the correct amount of nutrients, mom Bobbi J. recommends. When her daughter became a vegan, the doctor recommended about 60 grams of protein per day, eight or nine servings of fruits and vegetables, and four or five of whole grains, she says.
"In her case, it actually turned out to be a good choice," Bobbi adds. "She had pre-cervical cancerous cells at 16! [The] doctor said the balanced diet was very much in her favor. (Also a good argument for teaching teenage girls about all the things they need to do to keep healthy!) She is 31 now — very healthy and still vegetarian."
4. Develop a Meal Plan
Once you know which nutrients your child needs, then you can work with your child on developing a healthy meal plan, Bobbi recommends. She sat down with her daughter to come up with a "workable solution" and "bone[d]-up on foods which make complete proteins" when her daughter made the decision to become a vegetarian. "My daughter decided to go vegan — no meat, fish, or eggs. She could not have milk or milk products due to an allergy. It took some planning to average about 20 grams of protein a meal," she says.
"There are plenty of people who raise their children as vegans, and they are perfectly healthy," Roxanne W. agrees. So once you know what your child needs to help your child maintain a healthy vegetarian diet, "get some books from the library about being vegan, maybe a cookbook, and try to help him with his decision," she says.
Making a change in diet may take a little extra planning, a Circle of Moms member named "CL" agrees, especially if it's different from the rest of the family. As with everything else about parenting, she notes, it's "not always easy," but it's still rewarding.