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Teen Wants to be Vegetarian—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My thirteen-year-old daughter has announced she’s a vegetarian. That would be fine with me, except she is adding the careful reading of ingredients in everything she eats to my chore list. I’m concerned that once Social Distancing restrictions are lifted and she can spend more of her time away from home, she’ll need to know how to properly feed herself. She’s naturally shy, so I picture her just quietly going hungry among friends, or using food as an excuse to keep to herself. By the way, she’s an only child, living between her Dad’s house and mine, so she is quite used to being the center of my attention or her Dad’s.

I Have Enough Jobs

Dear IHEJ,

Certainly at thirteen she can take responsibility for reading lists of ingredients to find animal-free food products and to assure she is eating a nutritious diet. Simply avoiding obviously meat-based foods is easy. In vegetarianism, there are levels from “no meat” to “no animal involved” which is much trickier. If you don’t know what an ingredient is, say, rennet on a package of mozzarella cheese, you can look it up on the internet. A vegetarian who eats dairy products might not consider a cheese made with rennet (found in the lining of calves’ stomachs) as meeting their dietary guidelines. Processed foods may contain a myriad of ingredients, or may be processed with substances, that have an animal origin. Therefore, cooking from scratch is the best way to assure both the avoidance of anything that is derived from an animal and to be sure to include an adequate intake of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, water, and most importantly, protein.

Alternate Sources of Protein

A vegetarian can successfully derive protein from many non-meat sources. These include legumes (dried beans and peanuts), whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Lacto-vegetarians add dairy products, which can be good sources of calcium as well as protein. Lacto-ovo vegetarians additionally add eggs from poultry. Eggs are a versatile source of protein as well as of iron and vitamins B, D, and K . People who eat fish in addition to plant-based foods, but no other animals, are pescatarians. Fish is an excellent high protein, low fat food.

Quick Food not Junk Food

Due to the growth spurt concomitant with puberty, teens have been known to succumb to the allure of so-called “empty calorie” foods that are high in salt, sugar, fat, and harmful additives. Teens are constantly, and often frantically, hungry. Particularly in the absence of parental models and controls, and magnified in the exclusive presence of other teens, a teenager can develop a very unhealthy relationship with sodas, potato chips, candies, and baked goods made with white flour, high cholesterol fats, and tons of sugar. Age thirteen is the perfect time for your daughter to pay attention to ingredient lists so she can make good choices. Remind her, if you don’t know what an ingredient is, look it up.

Unlimited Recipes

Go online to find suggestions of vegetarian meals and snacks to prepare. Vegan Easy  features vegetarian dishes from around the world. The Vegetarian Society lets you choose dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, and gluten-free options as well as choose your skill level as a cook. The International Vegetarian Union has a lengthy list of recipes including a section just for soups.

Help your daughter stock the pantry and fridge with wise choices for meal preparation after choosing some recipes to try out. Find recipes for quick snacks that can be prepared in advance of appetite attacks – even cutting up cukes and carrots, and placing them in plastic containers, serves as a ready food. In less than ten minutes she can whip up some protein-rich hummus  in the food processor to go with them. Snacks can include raw veggies, fresh fruits, nuts, sunflower seeds, and whole grain crackers and chips, and other baked goods.


Blending Well

The pandemic has definitely added challenges to the social needs of young people. A shy child is extra challenged to mix with others with online school as the rule of the day. See if you can help your daughter find a network of vegetarian teens on Facebook. There are several to choose from. The Vegetarian Resource Group also includes connections to other teen vegetarians among their many lists. Online, your daughter may find another quiet soul with whom to exchange thoughts and feelings in addition to exchanging recipes. 

A compromise may be in order if your daughter is not ready to shoulder the bulk of the burden of maintaining a healthy vegetarian diet. If, for example, you generally have an animal protein at every meal, pick a specific number of meals each week for which she will choose, and help to prepare, a vegetarian main course. Then add more and more vegetarian meals to the week – as many as she, and you, want to commit to.

Just a Stage or For the Long Haul

Some young teens experiment with vegetarianism as their first “cause”, using their diet to act upon a newly discovered belief or value about the use of animals for human food. Other young teens focus on the health benefits of plant-based foods at a time in their lives when it is appropriate for them to take ownership of their own physical well-being. Others claim vegetarianism as a way to be independent of the family’s norms of behavior – especially in contrast to a diet heavily dependent on animal products. You can guide her to get started, perhaps involving her pediatrician, a dietician, or a practicing vegetarian in the family or among your friends, then see where this journey takes her.  

Whatever her motivation, there’s no harm in a vegetarian diet so long as proper nutrition is understood and followed.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist drdebbiewood.com and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum theccm.org

She is facilitating an online workshop “The Skin You Live In” for teachers, childcare professionals, and youth group leaders this Wednesday, October 21, 6-9 pm. Register with Arundel Childcare Connections arundelccc.org/.

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