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Your Child Just Became A Vegetarian. Now What?

by SmartyPants Staff

Two years ago this month, we were sitting down to piping hot plates of my homemade, low-sodium orange chicken. I remember the occasion well: it was a weeknight, homework had been finished, and steam was still billowing out of the narrow hall bathroom after mandatory showers had washed away the pervasive stench of elementary school. In the middle of this, her favorite meal, my oldest child, then 9 years of age, said she was going to become a vegetarian.

Ack! Had I been too heavy-handed with the orange rind? Not enough sesame oil?

What did I do wrong?

Nothing, it turns out. Many kids, upon realizing where their burgers, chicken nuggets, and bacon are sourced, go through a “vegetarian phase.” I didn’t want to be dismissive, so I immediately pledged my support, and promised to do my best to provide her with healthy and fun meat alternatives from that moment on. She didn’t even have to finish her plate.

After the dishes were cleaned and dried, I did some research and poked the vegetarians I knew to discover what kinds of grub I would need to produce so she’d get the nutrients needed to grow up strong, and so that the rest of us might decrease our consumption of meat in the process.

It takes a certain kind of child to successfully transition, on a dime, into a vegetarian diet. Ideally, she’d be willing and, dare I say, excited, to try new foods, flavors, and textures, and it would help if she were open to the idea of a long-term relationship with beans. A solid candidate for vegetarianism will also have a strong affinity for fruit and veggies.

In short, switching to a steady diet of pizza, chips, and cookies, while technically vegetarian, isn’t terribly healthy.

Fortunately, my oldest child met these criteria. Recently, I have discovered that Barilla makes a veggie and a protein pasta (in yellow boxes, not their typical blue), and Flatout has a Red Pepper Hummus ProteinUP flatbread. Each provides double-digit grams of protein (from chickpeas and, in the case of the pasta, also from lentils) in each serving. In moderation, these pastas and flatbreads can help provide key nutrients to those no longer getting protein from meat and chicken. Here are some of the tasty vegetarian delights that roll out of my kitchen these days (recipes available upon request):
  • Warm edamame salad with white beans, roasted red peppers, garlic, and grape tomatoes.
  • Homemade egg salad
  • Long-grain rice and quinoa with a sautéed veggie medley.
  • Cold (protein) pasta salad with fresh mozzarella, asparagus, and roasted red peppers.
  • Hummus and pita platters with feta, roasted red peppers, and cucumbers.
  • Grilled 4-cheese sandwiches on homemade bread, with tomato soup and carrot sticks.
  • Design-your-own ProteinUP Red Pepper Hummus flatbreads with caprese salad, scrambled eggs, caramelized onions, gruyere, etc.

Hundreds of vegetarian meals and snacks later, I’m still searching for new and clever ways to expand my oldest daughter’s already large culinary palate. This journey she has taken us on is still very much a work in progress.

Yet I remain focused on protein, and confident that her insatiable appetite for fruits and veggies will carry her a long way in life. If your child decides to give up meat and become a vegetarian – for whatever reason – do support their decision, but explain that they are going to have to tweak their diet and get more adventurous at the kitchen table to ensure they are a healthy vegetarian.

Start with my #1 tip for children who want to become vegetarians: roasted red pepper hummus, a crudité of crunchy, farm-fresh veggies, triangles of soft pita, and go from there!

  Know anyone who's kids have gone veggie? Share this with them! Are any of your kids meat-free? We'd love to hear your recipe ideas and other tips on vegetarian living in the comments below!
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