I’ll admit, as a dietitian and fairly decent cook, I figured it would be no big deal when my 12-year old daughter decided to become vegetarian this year. She’d been on the fence about it for a while, so my husband and I knew it was coming. She voiced being “grossed out” when we cooked a full chicken and would only eat half of a small hamburger because she claimed to be too full every time. When she was little and disliked a food, she’d say it was, “Too spicy”. Now she was able to clearly communicate, “I just don’t want to eat meat”.
Initially, it was a breeze. We are well stocked with natural peanut butter, cheese and black beans- a handful of Maria’s favorites. We make pizza once a week every Friday but now leave off the turkey pepperoni. But after a few weeks, I realized she wasn’t really getting much variety in her diet. I made vegetarian chili, but she didn’t like the kidney beans. We smeared hummus on a tortilla for something different, but she complained it tasted “weird”. I’ll admit, I grew frustrated with her particularly picky palate. It led to lots of food fights at the table, which I knew had to end. I didn’t want her to end up with an eating disorder over not eating chicken.
I had a conversation with her about nutrition and why it’s important to eat a variety of foods. We talked about protein and vegetables, vitamins and minerals. Oh my! This was like talking to a kid about the mechanics of a car. But she listened and voiced a few things she’d be willing to try (lentils, tuna salad, 3-bean salad). We talked about being strong and eating foods we enjoyed and felt good about. I even admitted how I was frustrated trying to find new recipes for her. Me. A dietitian. That loves to create food! If you find yourself in this situation, here are a few suggestions.
- Don’t fight it. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make them drink. We’re all entitled to what we like and don’t like to eat. Forcing foods that your child considers “gross” will not excite them to eat them and may only make them control or restrict food further.
- Provide easy alternatives. No one wants to be a short order cook. Make a few dishes that can easily have the meat left behind such as Thai peanut noodles, bean soup or spaghetti.
- Give them a multi-vitamin. While my motto has always been “forks first”, in the case of my 12-year going through puberty, I know iron and zinc are essential. If nothing else, it may prevent deficiencies and put your mind at ease.
- Encourage and teach your child to cook for themselves. This is a life skill ANY child will benefit from. My daughter can make simple omelets, grilled cheese sandwiches and microwaved veggies. The more involved they get, the more control they’ll feel they have.
- Include some vegetarian meals yourself! Consuming less meat is not only better for our bodies, but also our wallets and the planet. Stock up on eggs, beans, lentils, low fat cheese and nut butter. Make meatless Monday the norm. You probably won’t even miss that chicken carcass.