Is a Vegetarian Diet Right for Your Family?

More and more Americans are putting fruits and veggies front-and-center on every menu. But is a meatless diet safe for growing kids? Find out!

Ask parents what are the keys to a healthy diet, and chances are you’ll get the same answer every time – lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Given these numbers, you’d think fruits and vegetables were passé. You’d be wrong, however. Now more than ever, vegetarian families or vegetarian children are bringing this once-alternative dining choice to the attention of mainstream America. Evidence of their progress is everywhere: Burger behemoth McDonalds™ now offers an array of meatless salads; school lunch programs now offer vegetarian entrees; and meat alternatives, such as tofu, are sold in most supermarkets.     

Why Go Vegetarian?

Health benefits are just one of the many reasons why vegetarians are putting fruits and veggies front-and-center on every menu. Religious and philosophical beliefs, as well as concerns about the environmental impact of meat production are other reasons for opting for a vegetarian or vegan (no animal products, including eggs and dairy) lifestyle.

Growing Up Vegetarian

Whether it's the way they've grown up or the child's preference, it’s a decision that has led to an estimated one million school-age vegetarians – about 2 percent of the total age group – according to a 2000 Vegetarian Resource Group poll.

Jennie Glenn and her husband, Jeffrey, are raising their 1-year-old son, Dalton, on a diet based on their own flexible approach to vegetarianism. They have gone back and forth between vegan and vegetarian, and they do eat small amounts of fish, especially if they are dining out or entertaining. Glenn chooses vegetarianism largely because of “the possibility of antibiotics and hormones in meat,” she says. “And because of that, I guess I feel, for us, fish is the best choice out of everything.”

Among these veggie kids are the 7- and 10-year-old daughters of nutrition advisor Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D. “My husband and I were both vegan, so we weren’t going to do anything different for the kids,” says Mangels, a frequent contributor to the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit group working to educate people about vegetarianism and related issues.

Mangels and her husband tend to be “a little loose in social situations,” she says, telling her daughters when something is likely to contain eggs and allowing them to decide whether to eat it. But, so far, the girls aren’t interested in eating meat. What they do eat are beans – veggie baked beans, bean burritos, beans and rice – and hot dogs and hamburgers made with tofu or other meat substitutes, for protein. Fortified juices, soy milk and supplements provide calcium, plus one daughter also gets calcium from collards, kale and broccoli, which the other daughter doesn’t like.

“These are real-life kids,” Mangels says with a laugh.