Is it okay for my child to be a vegetarian?

Many health experts say this type of diet is fine as long as kids have a balanced diet and are eating other sources of protein

Healthy vegetarian meal that consists of a bowl of salad and a plate of quinoa with tomatoes and basil

Many kids try new foods when they go to residential camps, but Amy Fish  had a good chuckle over the letter her son Benji sent home this summer: “Dear Mom, I am now a pescetarian.”

In between swimming, archery and basketball, her 11-year-old son made the leap to vegetarianism (pescetarians eat fish, eggs and dairy products, but no other animal-based products). His mom took it all in stride; Benji had been talking about becoming a vegetarian for some time.

“I’d asked her about it before, but my mom kept saying ‘Don’t start now, don’t start now, there’s a barbeque this weekend,’” Benji said. “So I figured, why not just start at camp?”

Benji, who just started sixth grade at Willingdon Elementary School in N.D.G., says it was a moral decision. “It’s pretty cruel to kill animals; also, I feel pretty weird putting something that was alive inside me.”

He joins a growing group of kids and teens who have made the conscious choice to become vegetarian. The U.S.-based Vegetarian Resource Group says that three per cent of American youth under 18 practice some form of vegetarianism, up from two per cent a decade earlier.

Fish didn’t see any reason not to be supportive. A former vegetarian herself, she only prepares one or two meat-based meals for her family each week, anyway. “All my kids eat tofu and fish,” she said. “Since I was a vegetarian myself for so long, that’s how I cook anyway. My go-to is Moosewood (a popular vegetarian cookbook).”

Both the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) and the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AAND) reassure parents who may be concerned about this type of diet.

They say that an adequately planned and balanced diet is perfectly possible if kids are willing to eat a variety of protein sources, including beans, soy-based products like tofu, quinoa, dark leafy greens, fortified soy milk and fortified orange juice. Kids like Benji who will also eat eggs, fish and dairy have even more sources to choose from.

Children who choose to be vegans (avoiding all animal-based foods) may need supplements of B12, iron, zinc, calcium and DHA (long-chain omega 3 fatty acids), among others, depending on the variety in their diet. The CPS does suggest that teens who suddenly take on veganism or other restrictive diets be screened for eating disorders, but that there is no evidence that this type of diet itself is harmful to adolescents.

Fish says she doesn’t worry about Benji’s new diet. “He eats three good meals a day. He looks great; it’s not like he’s going to get rickets or anything,” she laughed.  “That doesn’t mean I get lazy. When I make a meat sauce for the rest of us, I’ll make him a sauce with lentils. I’m always happy to prepare something else for him to eat.”

Becoming a short order cook in a mixed family of omnivores and vegetarians may seem like the biggest obstacle for time-challenged moms and dads. It’s particularly helpful if your new young vegetarian is prepared to roll up his or her sleeves in the kitchen and learn to prepare some age-appropriate dishes.

But if not, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests parents cook meals in which the protein sources (whether that be chicken, beef, tofu or fish) be added at the very end of the preparation. It is easy to do this with stir-fries, rice and vegetable dishes and pasta. Soups can easily be prepared with vegetable stock instead of meat-based stocks without sacrificing flavour.  And since all of these options are healthy choices for anyone, even your confirmed steak-eater may suddenly discover that marinated tofu tastes good, too.

While most of his friends’ parents know and respect Benji’s decision, he was perfectly prepared to eat fruit when one mom put out deli meat sandwiches for lunch one day. Young vegetarians need to be prepared to make do with side dishes at a friend’s house when meat is the main course, or else slap together a peanut butter sandwich as an easy alternative. Either way, they should offer a polite explanation to their hosts when they pass on the veal chops or roast turkey.

So, are there any foods Benji misses? He says, at the beginning, he did miss hamburgers  but he’s grown perfectly happy with veggie burgers, and adds that he’s committed to maintaining this way of eating. “I feel proud of my decision,” he said.


Important nutrients for vegetarians from kidshealth.org

Vitamin B12: dairy products, eggs, and vitamin-fortified products, such as cereals, breads, and soy and rice drinks and nutritional yeast.

Vitamin D: milk, vitamin D-fortified orange juice and other vitamin D-fortified products.

Calcium: dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, dried beans and calcium-fortified products, including orange juice, soy and rice drinks and cereals.

Protein: dairy products, eggs, tofu and other soy products, dried beans and nuts.

Iron: eggs, dried beans, dried fruits, whole grains, leafy green vegetables and iron-fortified cereals and bread.

Zinc: wheat germ, nuts, fortified cereal, dried beans and pumpkin seeds.


Types of vegetarians

Vegan: eats only non-animal foods.

Lacto-vegetarian: eats non-animal foods plus dairy (no eggs).

Ovo-vegetarian: eats non-animal foods plus eggs (no dairy).

Lacto-ovo vegetarian: eats non-animal foods plus eggs and dairy products.

Source: the Canadian Paediatric Society www.caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/vegetarian_diets_for_children_and_teens