Katie Bryson of Feeding Boys and a Firefighter discusses the trials and tribulations of a vegetarian child
My little boy Sam came home from school a few months ago and announced his vegetarianism aged just five years old. "I like animals mummy, so I've decided I'm not going to eat them anymore." And just like that he stopped eating meat.
"It's just a phase..."
That's what tutting relatives with raised eyebrows had to say on the matter, but deep down I knew this wouldn't be the case. Once Sam's made his mind up about something, that's kind of it.
Liz O'Neil from the Vegetarian Society was not surprised to hear that he had chosen to reject meat at such a young age: "It comes up a lot that children suddenly make the connection of where meat comes from, and some are horrified by the reality," she said.
Ultimately I want to respect my child's views, but my main concern was making sure Sam was eating the right kind of foods to help him grow and develop. He’s tall for his age and eternally ravenous.
Getting the right nutrition
Emily Fawell, a Nutritional Therapist specializing in children's health reassured me that vegetarians are often healthier than meat eaters and far less likely to become obese.
However, she emphasized the importance of including a high percentage of protein in children's diets to maintain good health, adequate energy and balanced blood sugar levels:
"It's essential that every meal and snack throughout the day contain protein.
Good sources of vegetable protein are soya, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and quinoa."
Meals like veggie chilli, lentil or chickpea curry and adding a tin of beans to vegetable soup are all ideal. For snacks try sesame seed bars, nut butter on toast, hummus with crudités, yoghurts, or home-made flapjacks packed with nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
Emily also advises against relying too heavily on cheese and processed vegetarian foods as they tend to be high in saturated fat.
Without care a veggie diet can be deficient in iron, zinc, vitamins B12 and D, but as Sam loves dairy products and takes multivitamin supplement we should have this covered.
Re-build your repertoire
If you've used meat in cooking your entire life, then losing it can be a bit of a shock. I've had to re-build my repertoire to find new family recipes that work.
I asked my vegetarian friends for their favourite recipes and it suddenly didn't seem as daunting. Classics like spag bol, lasagne and shepherd's pie can all be re-worked either using soya mince or even lentils. Here's my tasty veggie-take on Shepherd's pie.
It's also a great opportunity to give interesting new dishes a try, like comforting squash risotto and tomato, feta, almond and date baklava, or anything else from 4Food's vegetarian recipe section. Planning ahead can help too: veggie menu planner for mums.
The ready-made market
When you haven't got time to cook from scratch and need to bung something in the oven, the supermarkets have a pretty impressive array of meat-free options on the shelves.
Old faithful brand Linda McCartney still knock out a decent sausage which work well in a toad in the hole.
Quorn's mushroom-based product range is a total godsend with kid-friendly goujons, and their breaded fillets filled with gooey cheese and pesto, or use their mince or chunks to make one of these quorn recipes.
Sainsbury's have a growing own-brand line of vegetarian products that seems to outshine all the other supermarkets. Their frozen meat-free hotdogs which cook in 3 minutes flat are a sensation in our house.
Liz O'Neil from the Vegetarian Society said it's worth checking that Sam's school dinners meet his new dietary requirements, as she said it’s not uncommon for some catering services to consider fish a meat-free option.
She also suggested taking veggie sausages and gelatine-free jelly sweets to birthday parties, so Sam doesn't feel left out.
I've found UK restaurants to be superb at catering for young veggies - pasta and sauce is usually on most kids' menus. Head further into meat-loving Europe however and you'll have more of a challenge.
When we turned up at restaurants in rural France on holiday and asked the waiter if there were any vegetarian options, the reaction was one of shock and much puzzled mumbling on their exit to chat to the chef.
The supermarkets weren't much better, so if you're self-catering abroad then take a cool-bag of veggie food with you.
Ultimately I'm proud that my five-year-old thinks so deeply about the world and already has a strong set of values that blows mine out of the water. If it came down to it, if I had to slaughter my supper I would be veggie too.
"Do you love animals mummy?"
"Yes Sam, of course I do"
"So why do you eat them then?"
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