Guest Post: Lisa Betts on Raising a Vegetarian Family

I am so excited to welcome Lisa Betts to the blog today.  Lisa is the author of the blog Vegan Cookbook Academy, where she takes vegan cookbooks through their paces.  Lisa is also Nathalie’s sister-in-law.  Not only is Lisa one of the major inspirations for Nathalie’s becoming (mostly) vegetarian, she is an inspiration for energy, experimentation, variety and fun in the kitchen, and we have been on the receiving end of many of her excellent meals.  (I tried all three of the Three Birthday Cakes, and, yes, they were all as good as they look!)  I’ve never met anyone with more of a passion for learning about the science and art of eating well.  Check out her blog and get your vegan groove on!

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The kitchen is truly the heart of our home. At least, it’s where I spend most of my time, and I put a lot of work into making yummy, healthy food. Of course, feeding children is always a challenge. We have been fairly shameless in our tactics to make the vegetables go in. Basically, the favoured food becomes the reward for eating a less enticing item. On our eldest son this worked amazingly well – “You can have more tofu if you finish your spinach!” – up until quite recently. Now he has particular ideas about how food should look and taste (i.e., no sauce of any kind). Our younger daughter is made of sterner stuff, and is much more difficult to manipulate. I think it is partly because she sees her older brother now resisting his food, and also because she is just that much more independent than he ever was. Second child, after all. I try to get 3-4 different vegetables into them daily, plus at least one big round of protein. I’m still struggling to increase their fatty acid intake, as they don’t reliably finish their smoothies anymore and I am loathe to waste the precious Udo’s Oil. So far, I’m sure this sounds like fairly typical family food dynamics. The only twist is that we are raising our kids as vegetarians.

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My husband and I have been vegetarian since 1997, and we eat very little dairy in day-to-day life. It has never been easier to be a vegetarian, or to be a vegetarian kid. Meat and milk alternatives are flooding the grocery stores, even easy kid foods like veggie dogs and nuggets (basically, things that go with ketchup). Celebrities are crowing about their vegan ways, and there is a growing interest in the health benefits of plant-based eating. The cookbook world is exploding with vegan authors, as my blog can attest (vegancookbookacademy.wordpress.com), meaning that the traditional home cooked meal is evolving from a meat + 2 veg into something more diverse. Not to mention the vegan baking – ditch the eggs and eat the batter, worry-free!

There are so many children with food allergies and intolerances these days that making special vegetarian requests at school and special events is not ostracizing. My eldest eats dairy and eggs, so he is easily satisfied by cheese pizza, chocolate milk, and birthday cupcakes. I do worry when my daughter starts school that she will find it a bit harder, because she is lactose intolerant and has been vegan all of her life. Even when she was exclusively breastfeeding, she would spit up – like, a lot – if I had milk or eggs in my diet, so I followed a strict vegan eating plan as well until she weaned. She may outgrow her intolerance, but I’m not going to push milk on her because I strongly believe that I can raise her to be a strong and healthy vegan. I’ve told enough diaper horror stories to our extended family that they no longer offer her dairy-based treats. When she is sick, and people suggest that perhaps she needs to eat some meat, I politely point out (often through clenched teeth) that all the other children are also sick with the crazy superbugs that are floating around, and their diet is not providing them with any magical immunity. I know that I will bump up against that bias time and time again.

IMG_2071We are at a very critical stage with our oldest, who just completed his first year of junior kindergarten. He has known for a while that being a vegetarian is different, especially at our large family gatherings with the aunts and uncles and all of the cousins (all of his 8 cousins are devouring the turkey and ham at the holiday gatherings). When he recently stayed with his grandmother for a week, he would ask, “What animal are you eating today, Nana?” Up until his time at school, his food was always controlled by his parents. It still is, for the most part, but there are often treats and candy that are handed out and he is now paranoid that they contain meat. Have you ever known a 5-year-old to turn down a bag of candy?? He is even asking me now whether the food that I’m making for him contains meat, and whether the store we are at contains meat. I feel bad that this is a cause for anxiety for him, but he’s figuring it out, and we answer all of his questions the best that we can. I admit that it was a bit tricky to explain my t-shirt that reads, Kale is the New Beef.

Will my children stay vegetarian? Will my son ask enough questions about cheese and milk to give up his beloved dairy? My husband and I have talked about it, and almost expect that eating meat will be a form of rebellion when the time comes: “You will not eat meat in my house, young lady!” When they are old enough to feed themselves and develop their own politics we will let them make their own food choices. Perhaps they will become the faces of the new vegetarian generation. Time will tell…

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3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Lisa Betts on Raising a Vegetarian Family

    • Here’s a response from Lisa:
      Many people find that the easiest place to start is by using the faux meat products (veggie dogs, burgers, ground round, etc. ). A word of caution, though: these products DO NOT taste like meat! They are convenient substitutes but aren’t going to fool anyone. They work well with kids because they don’t have as much attachment to what meat tastes like.

      I would recommend learning a few basic meals that are meat free and also familiar. One of our regulars is burrito night. I make my own refried beans (fry an onion in about 1/4 cup coconut or veg oil for 5 minutes. Add 2 tsp cumin, 1 tsp oregano, chipotle or other chili powder to taste which for me and the kids is about 1/4 tsp, and about 1/2 tsp salt and cook for 10 more minutes. Add a can of pinto or kidney beans and 1 cup of their cooking liquid. Mash the beans, let it simmer for 5-10 more minutes.) and serve them in wraps with tomatoes, avocado, lettuce, cheese (vegan or regular), salsa, and whatever else you want in your burrito or whatever you have in your fridge (cucumbers or peppers are great, green onions, rice, etc. etc.).

      The other thing I would strongly recommend is getting a good vegetarian or vegan cookbook. It might be overwhelming because there are so many titles out there and they all claim to be fantastic and revolutionary and delicious, and I’m sure they all have their merits. In terms of meal planning, my first recommendation for the vegetarian (not vegan) is Peter Berley’s Fresh Food Fast. The book is organized by season, and gives recipes in pairs to create complete meals. The paired recipes are designed to complement each other so you don’t have to go hunting around for inspiration for what goes with what. It also gives a game plan for how to cook the two dishes together, which is really helpful for getting everything to the table together. One caveat is that he does get a little crazy with the salt sometimes, so be warned! Other trusted vegan authors include Thug Kitchen (which is a hilarious read for everyone!), Isa Chandra Moskowitz (my friends rave about her latest, Isa Does It, and I love Vegan Brunch), and Angela Liddon (Oh She Glows – a fantastic book that also tells cooking and prep times, which is helpful).

      Finally, if you eat a varied diet that includes beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and green vegetables, you probably don’t have to worry about protein. If you feel you need a boost, add some hemp protein to a smoothie, or roast up some chickpeas in olive oil and sea salt for a quick snack. With kids it can be trickier, but even just plain beans from a can, some steamed edamame, or a handful or frozen peas can please many toddlers. Also, plain tofu (the extra firm kind, not the silken stuff in the vacuum pack), uncooked, just sliced up into sticks or cubes, is surprisingly well tolerated by kids, especially if they like bland foods (plain noodles, anyone?).

      Good luck and happy cooking!

      cheers,
      Lisa

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