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Raising Vegan Kids: Is The Diet Nutritious Enough?
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By now, most people have heard of the vegan diet. It’s similar to vegetarian, but it excludes all animal-derived products, including dairy and eggs. As more people adopt the vegan diet, more parents are choosing to make it a family affair.
Plant-based diets for babies and toddlers.
This phrase may startle or disconcert some people. After all, it’s not necessarily considered a traditional American diet. But if you google it, you’re certain to find more information on vegan diets for kids than you imagined.
Columbus mom, Joanna Thomas and her two children are vegans. Thomas has been eating only plant-based foods for 25 years. So when she got pregnant in the late-90s, sticking to a vegan diet was an instinctive choice.
“I was very, very confident in the healthfulness of my vegan diet. I had no concerns at all about having a vegan pregnancy and felt sure that what I was eating was good,” she said.
Thomas’ children, now 12 and 15, have never eaten any animal products.
No milk. No meat. No eggs. Not even refined sugar.
Since the time they were babies they’ve been on a plant-based diet.
“I would never let them be picky about eating. If they complained they didn’t like something I would just say, ‘I will only serve you a ‘no, thank you’ bite.’ And I would give them a little taste. They always had to have a little taste of something even if they didn’t like it.”
While the vegan diet has grown in popularity in the past decade, surveys suggest fewer than 3 percent of Americans follow it. Some people choose it for animal rights and environmental reasons, while others have adopted it for health benefits.
Infants are natural vegans. Doctors have long promoted mother’s milk or formula, grains and fruits and vegetables as babies’ first foods. It isn’t until much later meat and cow’s milk are introduced.
Still, there are concerns whether the diet provides enough nutrition or if it’s OK for pregnant moms and growing children.
Jennifer Curtiss answers “yes” and “yes.” Curtiss is a registered dietician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. But she cautions eliminating animal products from a person’s diet takes careful planning to ensure all dietary needs are met.
“So you shouldn’t wake up one day and decide this is the plan that you’re going to have for your family. You really need to do your homework.”
“If this is the lifestyle that you choose for you and your family, and you’re educated and you do your research and you plan well-balanced meals, this diet can be safe and it can have long-lasting health benefits to the family.”
Curtiss notes protein, calcium and vitamin D are some of the key nutrients growing children need, and kids get a sizeable amount of this this from cow’s milk. But she says there are other sources, “that we wouldn’t necessarily think of like kale, broccoli, almonds and some dried beans also can provide some calcium.”
In addition to the significant meal planning, raising vegan children can draw criticism and create social challenges.
It took a couple of tries before Thomas found a physician who didn’t condemn her family’s choices. And her daughter has taken some teasing at school about the contents of her lunch sack. Then there are all the birthday parties and holiday dinners.
“I really learned how to cook very, very tasty treats for my kids so that they would never feel like they were missing out on anything,” Thomas said.
“That was really, really important to me that they never felt like they were missing out. And so if we were going somewhere where I knew the other children had treats I’d always pack something for them.”
Jennie Scheinbach knows a thing or two about creating tasty vegan treats. She opened Pattycake Bakery, a vegan option in Clintonville, about ten years ago.
“We do a lot of kids’ birthday cakes. There is a vegan community who are getting birthday cakes from us are vegans. There’s also an allergy component. And then there’s the people who are just really concerned with natural foods,” Scheinbach said.
Scheinbach is vegan, and her children, ages 15, 10 and 7, are vegetarian. She said raising vegetarian kids in Clintonville is easier, as the lifestyle is more understood and accepted. But it can get confusing for children.
“I can remember our daughter going to our neighbor’s house and asking for a glass of water without meat in it because she was so hyper-conscious of, like, these people eat meat. There could be meat in anything,” Scheinbach laughed. ‘No, water is safe.’”
Scheinbach said her children will be able to choose whether to remain vegetarians. And Joanna Thomas also has encouraged her children to decide for themselves whether to keep the vegan lifestyle. About a year ago, her son began to include refined sugar into his diet.
“You know, he’s out with his friends and he wants to have a soda and kind of be like them. So, you know, I wasn’t happy about it, but it was his choice. I’d always told him eventually it’s your choice, you need to decide, it’s your body, it’s your life,” Thomas said.