Back in May, my husband decided to become a vegetarian, and we both agreed that it made sense to raise our son vegetarian as well. When we made this decision, I had been vegan for five months, so he had some understanding of what it meant to be vegan and vegetarian, but he’s also only four years old, so his understanding of the issue is limited.
There were a few key issues we wanted to make sure he understood. He already ate a vegan diet at home, but we wanted to make sure he understood that if he ate a vegetarian diet, he would be eating different food than his friends at preschool. He has some friends in his class who have various food allergies, so he was used to seeing some of them with different meals. I let him know that I would make the main portion of his lunch, but that he could (usually) eat the rest of the food his class was eating. He and I sat down and made a long list of vegetarian foods he liked that I could make for his lunches. Getting him involved in meal planning usually means there are fewer complaints and less wasted food.
We also thought it was important to let him know why we made the decision to eat a plant-based diet. We discussed the health benefits of not eating meat. We also discussed the importance of being kind to all animals, not just our pets. Obviously, for a four year old, the idea of being nice to all animals stuck with him more than the health reasons. As he gets older and is able to understand more complex issues, the way we discuss health and animal cruelty will evolve.
When we let his school know that his diet would be changing, they were very understanding. They provide a printed menu each week, so I know exactly what the kids will be eating. On days when they eat meat (which honestly is most days) I send something for him. I only send a replacement for the part of his meal that contains meat. I try and keep his meals similar to what his friends are eating when possible. If they are having pasta salad with chicken and vegetables, I send pasta salad with veggies. If they are having chicken nuggets, I send tofu nuggets. If they are having pork stir fry, I send stir fry with tofu or seitan. Sometimes it’s just not possible for me to make a meal similar to what is being served, and he’s stuck with leftovers. His school also serves a small breakfast and afternoon snack to the kids, and most of the time these meals are vegetarian, but if they’re not, I send something for him to eat. He recently let us know that he didn’t want to drink cow’s milk at school, so we have been sending soy milk for him.
Some times I feel like I get in a rut with planning his lunches, and I have to find inspiration to spark my lunch creativity. The Vegan Lunch Box is just one blog that has lots of great ideas for kid-friendly lunches. Type “vegan lunch ideas for kids” into Google, and you might be surprised at the number of sites that come up.
Even though his school serves a small breakfast, we still feed him breakfast at home, which usually consists of cereal and almond milk or oatmeal. Occasionally I’ll make a big batch of pancakes and freeze them for a quick breakfast during the week. For dinner, he eats whatever we are eating. I do not make a special meal for him. He is usually very good about eating vegetables, and really isn’t a picky eater. Snacks usually consist of fresh fruit or veggies, Larabars, crackers or nuts.
When it comes to the nutrients he gets every day, I’d rather be safe than sorry, so he takes a multivitamin and a calcium supplement most days. He takes Gummi King vitamins. They are vegan and they taste good, and he enjoys taking them.
There have definitely been some bumps in the road, but we deal with them and move on. My dad gave him chicken nuggets one time, and his teachers forgot to give him his lunch one day. Instead of dwelling on the negatives of these situations, I chose to use them as an opportunity to talk to my son about speaking up for himself and letting people know that he’s vegetarian. These days he will very proudly tell you that he is a vegetarian if he’s offered meat.
A few weeks ago, he and I were picking raspberries in our backyard and we started talking about bees. He told me that one of his classmates had killed a bee, and that he knew that was wrong because bees help pollinate our food. He told me that if the situation came up again, he would let his friend know that he shouldn’t kill bees. I’m proud that he is smart enough to understand the important role that all living things play in our world, and I’m proud that he has compassion for all living creatures, from the dogs who have been part of his family since they day he was born, to the cows he sees when we go on road trips, to the tiny bees pollinating our garden.