For many parents raised on a conventional meat and potatoes diet, hearing a teen declare her intention to go vegetarian raises worries. Will she get enough protein? What about iron? Is this a phase she’s going through because her friends are doing it?
Relax, say experts. As long as vegetarian girls eat a reasonable variety of foods, they should have no problem meeting their nutritional needs, says Suzanne Havala Hobbs of the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health and nutrition advisor to the Vegetarian Resource Group. In fact, there’s evidence that vegetarian teens may eat more healthily than their carnivorous peers. Among nearly 5,000 middle and high school students surveyed, vegetarian kids ate far more fruits and vegetables and less junk food, according to a study published in the May 2002 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
Still, switching to vegetarianism will involve time and thought from both daughter and parents. The upside is that the process pays off regardless of whether she stays veggie. Researching and carrying out an eating plan will teach her about nutrition and health, as well as about food shopping and cooking.
If your daughter hasn’t yet mentioned vegetarianism, prepare yourself for the possibility. An estimated 400,000 teens are at the forefront of the fastest growing group of vegetarians, with girls twice as likely as boys to go veggie. Some just give up red meat, such as the 11 percent of girls who now eschew beef. (Such stats prompted the National Cattleman’s Association to launch their “Cool-2B-Real” website, aimed at 8-12-year-old girls, which entreats them to eat beef.)
If your daughter votes veggie, here are some tips.
Learn the basics of nutrition along with your daughter. You might be surprised by what you don’t know. “You can get protein from grains, beans, vegetables, and nuts,” says Havala Hobbs, so meat-like soy substitutes aren’t needed at every meal. “Most Americans get too much protein anyway,” she adds. Easy iron sources include dried fruit and beans. Even vegans, who don’t eat animal products such as eggs or milk, can get calcium through tofu or fortified orange juice.
Explore recipe options. There are tons of fun recipes in cookbooks and on the Internet, as well as a large variety of vegetarian convenience foods in most grocery stores. Compile a list of meals such as bean burritos and veggie chili that your daughter can conjure up in a jiffy.
Negotiate a family plan. Incorporating a vegetarian family member could mean her eating everything for dinner but the meat, adding her own nonmeat items, or cooking meatless dishes for the whole family. Chart out how that will happen, perhaps with some sample weekly menus. While it’s reasonable to expect parents to include some vegetarian food in the family diet, it’s also reasonable for vegetarian daughters to take on some of the special meal preparation.
Monitor her diet. “Regardless of the food source, teens need adequate and appropriate foods for energy to be alert and do their best,” reminds Havala Hobbs. If you notice that she’s substituting all salads or chips for balanced meals, initiate a discussion on how to feed herself properly. Ask her to keep a food diary for a few weeks to make sure she’s meeting those basic nutritional needs.
Make sure that vegetarianism isn’t just a way to diet. “Unfortunately, with all the pressure in our culture for girls to be thin, some girls use vegetarianism as another way to limit food,” notes Havala Hobbs. Parents should deal with this promptly, targeting the unhealthy eating, not the vegetarianism.
Avoid battles and focus on issues. Whether she decided to become a vegetarian because of her concern for animal rights, her own health, or the environmental effects of large-scale animal production, the fact remains that a vegetarian diet is a legitimate choice made by millions worldwide. But the veggie issue shouldn’t involve either holier-than-thou attitudes from daughter or knee-jerk exasperation from parents. Turn potential feuds into intellectually challenging discussions. At the very least, a daughter’s vegetarian foray will provide food for thought, and spark a new look at nutrition for the whole family.
Helen Cordes is a member of Daughters’ advisory board and a regular contributor. She lives outside Austin, Texas.