It can take you by surprise if you child comes to you and informs you that he/she have decided to become vegetarian. This can be shocking to a parent and very overwhelming. For families who eat a lot of meat this can be very challenging as well. Learning how to work through this dietary choice as a family is important. I have experienced this first hand in my own family and then also worked to counsel families who are going through this experience.
My younger sister decided to become vegetarian when she was in college. She made the choice to stop eating meat and if I remember correctly this happened in the summer immediately prior to a family vacation. It was challenging for my family, because my sister was also restricting her overall caloric intake and then struggling with disordered eating. My sister has continued to be vegetarian for several years, but has thankfully overcome disordered eating and still practices vegetarianism in a healthier way now. This was obviously challenging for family to navigate my sister’s dietary preferences with the rest of the family.
It is important to help remind the parents that their child is making a choice about their diet isn’t a personal reflection of them, but instead an expression of their child’s independence. Talking through why their child is choosing to avoid meat, where is the desire coming from and what prompted that change? How does it make the child feel? How can the parent work to support their child’s independence in a healthy way? If you child is choosing to be vegetarian that is great, but they need to be choosing healthy foods. Being vegetarian doesn’t mean they should be eating crackers all day with PB&J sandwiches for every meal. Being a healthy vegetarian means that they are consuming more fruits and vegetables and finding ways to increase their consumption of plant based proteins (beans, soy, hemp, etc). Also making their that the child’s choice to be vegetarian isn’t an excuse to calorie restrict. Sometimes disordered eating is masked by a dietary preference like avoiding meat, or cutting out a particular food group. That is unhealthy and not safe for a growing child. Working with a Registered Dietitian to help facilitate these discussions can be helpful. It is tough sometimes for a parent and child to have an open and productive discussion without a 3rd party to help mediate. It is easy for emotions to get in the way and then creative a stressful/hostile environment.
Discuss this dietary change and what all surrounded this shift in eating. Having this open communication is key to embracing and working through this new behavior in a positive way. This can be where having another person, like a Registered Dietitian, can be helpful to lead this discussion and help both parties (child and the parent) share their feelings in a non-judgmental environment.
Talk about what this means in terms of the family dynamics at meal time and in regards to food preparation. This is one of the biggest challenges. For most families, if one child is choosing a different diet/eating habits from the rest of the family that makes meals complicated and can add stress. Talking about how everyone in this family matters and there will need to be some compromise to make this work. There can’t be two separate meals each night for dinner and the vegetarian child can’t be eating “special” foods all the time that will make other siblings jealous. Coming up with recipes and meal ideas where the family can “build” their own dinner plate with meat and non-meat options can be one of the best ways to accommodate special requests. For example, if you are having hamburgers, then have meat burgers and veggie burgers available for the main entree. If you are having a grilled meat item, then make sure there is an acceptable non-meat option (grilled mushroom, tempeh or vegetables kabobs).
Brain storm ways for the child to help take ownership over his/her meals (list making, shopping, cooking and cleaning up). Including your child in the meal planning and preparation process is a way to help them assuming responsibility for their meals. If your child is choosing to eat vegetarian then they can help come up with food items they would like include for meals/snacks that are healthy and don’t contain meat. They can also help prepare those items since they are part of the family. I believe that all children need to be involved with the food preparation and these skills help them grow up into independent people.
Talking with your child about healthy eating habits is important. Working to accommodate their dietary preferences/choices is important as well. If you child has chosen to be vegetarian, there has to be some reason behind that change. Maybe is stems from a discussion they had with their peers and it leaves them really be grossed out or concerns about processed meat items. Maybe they are trying to restrict calories and that is presentation of vegetarianism is just a symptom of a deeper issue. As the parent, talking with your child is key to better understand what they are thinking and working with them to make healthy decisions. If you have questions about working with your child and dealing with food choices/dietary changes, let me know and I would love to be able to work with you and your child.