When 12-year-old Sami Grover told his grandmother he was adapting a vegetarian lifestyle, she cried.
Grover, now an environmentalist and the author of the forthcoming book We're All Climate Hypocrites Now, says his Finnish grandmother was distraught at the idea of not being able to prepare his favorite stews any longer.
“I think for a lot of us, cooking is a way of showing love,” says Grover, who as an adult still eats a heavily plant-based diet but is less all-or-nothing than he was as a kid. “It’s also a way of connecting to traditions and heritage.”
That fear of losing a familial connection at the dinner table is just one of the reasons that carnivorous parents may freak out when their child announces they’re vegetarian (no meat) or vegan (no meat or animal products). And though currently only about 2 percent of vegetarians in the United States are children, that might be changing. As kids continue to champion causes that fight against climate change and animal mistreatment—and as they watch trendy restaurants and foodie magazines do the same—experts are seeing more youngsters embracing a plant-based diet.
“It’s more prevalent to see families choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle with their children these days than in the past,” says registered dietitian Karla Moreno-Bryce, who is herself vegan and raising a vegan daughter.
And though kids’ interest in going vegetarian hasn’t been widely studied, Natalie Muth, a pediatrician, registered dietitian, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that anecdotally, she’s also seen an increase of children more interested in a meat-free diet, often spurred by concerns about environmental impact and animal cruelty.
“Vegetarianism is becoming increasingly common on the whole,” Muth says. “While in the past there was concern that a vegetarian diet might be ‘inadequate’ in certain key nutrients, that’s generally not the case in well planned vegetarian diets.”
Even if you’re a bit wary about your child’s new dietary interest, experts agree that respecting their choice with unemotional discussions and thoughtful solutions will go a long way toward ensuring they stay happy and healthy. Here’s how to start the conversation.
Why eating less meat can be a good thing
Concern about climate change was a key reason that Muth’s 10-year-old, bacon-loving daughter recently announced that she wanted to stop eating meat altogether. In fact, meat production can have huge impacts on the environment—from greenhouse gas emissions to water usage, fertilizer pollution to biodiversity loss from land-clearing. Based on calculations from one 2019 report, if everyone in the U.S. went vegetarian, we’d decrease greenhouse emissions by 5 percent.
That’s not likely to happen, and kids skipping their burgers won’t unilaterally solve climate change. But Grover notes that protecting the planet through food choices doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision.
“You can get a large amount of the climate benefits just by cutting out beef or cutting back significantly on the beef you eat,” he says, adding that because chicken, pork, and seafood impact the environment less, kids don’t have to throw out all non-plant protein sources to make a difference.
And it should come as no surprise that eating less meat—especially red meat—is a healthier diet choice.
“Children and adolescents who follow a vegetarian eating plan tend to consume greater amounts of fruits and vegetables and less sweets, salty snacks, and saturated fat than their non-vegetarian peers,” Muth says. “They also tend to be at lower risk for being overweight and obese.”
Moreno-Bryce adds that kids who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet have a lower risk of developing certain chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The key, of course, is making sure that children still receive the nutrients they need—and that often means some extra effort from parents. (For example, inadequate iron intake, which is common in most children, can be even more prevalent in kids on a vegetarian eating plan.) According to the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, children can thrive while following a plant-based diet, as long as it includes a variety of nutritional sources including legumes, grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Lianne Phillipson, Registered Nutritionist and host of the Eat This With Lianne podcast, recommends food choices like sesame seeds and leafy greens for calcium; egg yolks for vitamin D; nutritional yeast, tempeh, or nori seaweed for B12; pumpkin seeds for zinc; and walnuts and Brazil nuts for omega-3 fatty acids.
“A well-planned vegetarian eating plan can provide optimal nutrition and health benefits,” Muth says. That said, consult your pediatrician before pursuing any long-lasting dietary change. Children may have particular needs or underlying conditions to consider when crafting an eating plan that supports their growth. A medical professional might also want to do baseline tests like blood work to monitor your child’s progress and can also watch out for psychological issues. (A drastic change in diet can mask an eating disorder.)
Talking to kids about going veg
To a family of meat-eaters, a child coming home and announcing he or she is now vegetarian can be a bit of a shock. But congratulations: The fact that your child has told you about their decision is important.
“It means they trust their parents to seek the proper support and guidance,” Moreno-Bryce says. “Having frequent discussions about this choice will help [you] come up with a plan on how to best transition, together.”
Registered dietitian Pegah Jalali adds that it’s a good idea for parents to understand what—or who—is motivating the child (it’s not always about animal rights!) and where they’re getting their information. “It’s like drugs, sex, alcohol: You don’t want them to learn about it outside of your house, because then they’re going to go to any source to try to get information,” she says. “If the conversation is welcoming and you’re offering a safe place for them to talk, then it’s always going to have a better outcome.”
Phillipson suggests asking questions that encourage further information sharing. (Can you tell me more about your decision? How did you decide this? Is there a recipe you’d like to try?) But strive to avoid judgment—and perhaps your own personal opinion.
“Parents need to keep their ears open and their mouths closed to start, and allow their child to explain their decision to them,” Phillipson says. “It could be really hard, but that’s part of honoring their choice. If [children] feel supported in what they’re doing, they’re going to be far more open to a discussion around it.”
Even as you support your child’s decision, it’s good to make sure they understand how it might affect their life—and to help find solutions. For instance, what will they do at birthday cookouts? How will they make sure their little brother still gets to eat his beloved chicken nuggets? How will this decision affect the person who prepares the meals?
“It’s a big decision for the individual, but it’s also a big decision for the family,” Phillipson says. “So everyone needs to get onboard.”
Getting kids started
Even if you’re not 100 percent behind your kid’s new veggie lifestyle, small, gradual gestures can show that the whole family is onboard, which helps the child feel supported. Here are some ideas:
• Find plant-based recipes to share with your kid to see what sounds good.
• Make family events—like movie night or a weekend picnic—inclusive of your child’s vegetarian diet.
• Get your child involved in making meals. This will help children take ownership of their decision—and let them decide if the desire matches the effort.
• Try “sequential cooking,” in which you take out the non-meat portion of a meal just before adding meat for the rest of the family (for instance, removing the spaghetti before adding the meatballs).
• Plan international meal nights and lean into cuisines already high in vegetarian ingredients, such as Indian vegetable curries or Mediterranean dishes with tahini (high in calcium!) or falafel.
• Compromise! Swap out one meal a week for a meatless option (try plant-based burgers instead of beef ones, or replace meat with lentils in a well-loved dish), or think about going meatless on the weekends. Other ideas: Cut back on red meat but not, say, chicken; or try out “pescatarianism,” in which you eat fish instead of meat.