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Your kid cringes at the sight of meat or has proclaimed he loves animals too much to eat them. Are you freaking out? If you are, I don't blame you; most moms would. But this is the truth: a plant-eating kid can be extremely well-nourished if you put a little extra effort into it.
I have friends from India who have never tried any kind of animal protein, including eggs or fish. These almost-vegans are now grown ups and absolutely healthy, and so are their mothers and grandmothers who passed these traditions on to them.
I stopped eating meat at around age four, when I saw the Christmas turkey on the table and realized it was a dead animal. The way my parents handled this was way ahead of their time coming from a Peruvian household in the '80s, and it's something for which I will be forever grateful. Now I'm 33, healthy, and for the most part, happy. So instead of worrying too soon, read these four things I learned from growing up a vegetarian, that will hopefully make this an easier, healthier, and more pleasant situation for you and your family should your kids decide they don't want to eat meat anymore.
1. Respect your kid's choice Have you heard of intuitive eating? According to this theory, our body knows exactly what it needs to be healthy, and if you don't like a certain food, it may be your inner wisdom talking out loud. The more you force your kid to go against his or her own intuition when it comes to food, the more you disconnect them from this natural ability for the rest of their life. That's how we end up eating greasy take out every night and not realizing that what our body needs may be just an apple, a glass of water, or some extra sleep. We've lost that connection almost completely. Respecting a kid's decision to not eat meat also helps his self-esteem, making him feel that his opinion matters and that he's heard and understood.
2. Make the effort to understand a vegetarian diet better When I hit puberty and suffered from mild anemia, my mother didn't panic and try to force me to eat meat like many people around her suggested. Instead, she made an appointment with a nutritionist (in fact, with many of them), and we slowly learned how I could nourish myself better.
It's funny that many people consider a vegetarian diet "unhealthy," when the truth of the matter is that I eat, and always have eaten, better than most of the meat-eaters I know. Having to learn how to eat to make up for the lack of meat from such an early age is a great education that very few people get. I attended a first-class nutrition school to become a health coach, but I have to say that most of what I know I had already learned during those curious teenage years as a vegetarian.
3. Get the facts right It's easy to get carried away by all the myths surrounding meat and dairy consumption. But if you do a little extra research, you may find out that some of these "facts" are quite deceiving.
Most people believe milk is absolutely necessary for healthy bones, for example. But what I've learned from most nutrition experts is that acidic foods deplete our bodies from calcium. Guess what food is super acidic? Milk! As Dr. Mark Hyman, Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine says, "dairy is nature's perfect food, but only if you're a calf." You want your kids to have strong bones? Give them tons of dark leafy greens and sesame seeds instead, two of the richest sources of calcium in the food world.
4. Be practical and flexible I know not everyone has the money or time to cater for the needs of a vegetarian each day. So there are two ways you can have a non-meat eater at home without going crazy. First, cook meals that can easily be turned vegetarian. An easy example is tacos. You can make tacos with meat, and then cook a few extra veggies for your little vegetarian. The opposite also applies. There's nothing easier than making a vegetarian meal, such as chili, and then adding a little animal protein to it for the rest of the family.
The second option is to transition your whole family to a meat-free diet. This sounds completely radical at first, but it can be done. You can also take the partial approach, making a few vegetarian meals a week, or making your home meat-free but allowing everyone to eat meat when they're elsewhere.