Are you a vegetarian, and considering the same for your children? Aunt Ilana muses about the subject.
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When vegetarianism was not so common, parents like me used to be accused of imposing an unconventional diet on their children, sometimes to the extent that it was believed to be a form of neglect. But don’t most parents impose some sort of belief system on their children, and don't usually let them decide for themselves when it comes to religion, culture, diet or other lifestyle choices?
In my own case, I could not fulfill my desire to be vegetarian (which dates from the age of about 12) until I left the parental home and could cater for myself. While no one has ever accused me straight up of imposing a cranky belief on my child by bringing him up vegetarian, I have been on the receiving end of some skeptical looks.
Most health and nutrition experts now concur that a vegetarian diet is OK for children, provided the diet is varied and balanced.
“The majority of pediatric experts say that a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is a healthy choice for most children, including infants. Feeding young children a diet filled with a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains helps them to learn healthy eating habits that may last for a lifetime. A vegetarian diet may help to reduce the risk of developing medical conditions such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes”. (From KidsHealth.org).
In the same vein, just because you are being given meat as part of an omnivorous diet it does not automatically follow that you are getting adequate nutrition. Many parents in both vegetarian and meat-eating households complain that their children will only eat pizza or chips. Certainly, if your child is failing to thrive, it is time to examine the quality of the diet, vegetarian or otherwise.
I try to ensure that my son gets all the essential nutrients, especially protein. His diet includes milk, cheese and yogurt on a daily basis, eggs a couple of times a week, tofu once in a while, fish about once a week (we’re not real vegetarians - he also very occasionally eats free-range meat like gallina criolla and chivo when we are in the campo) and pulses almost every day: lentils, chickpeas, red, black and white beans. Vitamin B12 is one of the essential nutrients that are deficient in a vegetarian diet, and that’s why we have Marmite.
We have never taken him for tests to establish whether or not he is suffering from any deficiencies because the evidence seems to speak for itself: he has tons of energy and is growing fast. He also has bright eyes, glossy hair, and a cold wet nose. Well, maybe not that last bit, but you get the picture.
A friend told me this week that ideally, one should raise a child vegetarian till the age of three, and then let them decide. I've followed that way of thinking beyond vegetarianism by ‘depriving’ him of most unhealthy things until about the age of three, on the assumption that what he doesn't know about, he doesn't miss. After that it becomes more difficult. We try to maintain a degree of moderation rather than a blanket ban, and don't have fizzy drinks, crisps or sweets in the house as a general rule.
I am inclined to say ‘let him decide for himself’ when it comes to vegetarianism, because I am aware that there will be peer pressure which could lead to total rejection. My only condition is that I will not start cooking meat in my kitchen. One of the several reasons I gave up meat is because I could not face buying it, handling it or cooking it. The rule will be ‘at home we are vegetarian, but at people’s houses or in restaurants if you want to have meat, go ahead’. We will discuss the pros and cons of each option: I hope that will provide a balance that will enable him to decide.
I know two families where vegetarianism was more or less imposed on the children from birth. I've always been curious to know how each family handled this, because in one case the two daughters grew up to be strict vegetarians while the two sons in the other family became meat-eaters as soon as they were able to choose. It might be connected to the difference in gender, because vegetarianism could be associated with weakness, making it less attractive to the boys.
The funny thing is that the girls now criticize their parents for not being vegetarian enough. “They eat FISH when they go out to restaurants!” (Uttered in a tone of disgust).
Parents. You can’t take them anywhere.
Please consult your child's doctor before considering a change of diet, he/she is the best source of information on how to keep your child healthy.