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Keep calm and carrot on

Why your kids going veg is a really good thing—for them, for you and for animals

All Animals magazine, January/February 2018

By Emily Smith

Samantha Morris, 6, helps her mom, Josephine, and dad, Jason, make an animal-friendly version of shepherd’s pie. Photo by Gilles Mingasson/AP Images for The HSUS.

Nearly all of the cows on my family’s farm were black and white, so when a light brown one arrived, I promptly befriended him and called him Cinderfella (I was only 10). After school, I would head out to the field to hand-feed him grass while I scratched his broad forehead and told him about my day. He’d be standing near the fence, waiting for me—until, one day, he wasn’t.

You’ve already figured out what happened to Cinderfella, but it took me a bit longer. While scrounging around the kitchen for a snack, I settled on a Popsicle—nestled in the freezer next to the neatly stacked cuts of beef, tightly wrapped in white butcher paper and stamped with a cow logo. I had seen those packages hundreds of times before, but in that moment my mind and heart made the connection, and I wasn’t hungry anymore.

My declaration of vegetarianism that night at supper was met with, That’s nice, dear. My parents figured I’d forget about it in a week or so.

They were wrong.

As the meals ticked by in which the meat on my plate remained untouched, they were convinced I was one skipped meatball away from my deathbed. “Wrong again,” my dad laughed over the phone not long ago, when I called him up to talk about this story. “You were healthier than all of us.”

DID YOU KNOW?: It can take up to 50 times more water to produce meat products than plant-based foods.

If your kid wants to drop animal products from her diet, you might have some of the same questions my folks had: Will she fit in with her friends? What will she eat? And the question that everyone (parent, friend, nosy stranger in the checkout line) seems to have—but what about protein?

Fear not: We talked to nutritionists, parents and kids about how plant-based diets can benefit your whole family—and animals, too.

QUESTION: But what about protein?

Tyler Parker-Rollins shakes his head and laughs like someone who has heard this question once or twice. As a basketball and football player for his high school in Maryland, Tyler, 15, needs plenty of protein— and getting it is no problem, he says. Lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, tofu and a variety of vegetables are just some of the foods that keep him powered up to play. “It’s not like I’m eating just grass every day,” he jokes.

Nutrients like protein and calcium are abundant and healthier when found in plant-based foods, says Karla Dumas, a registered and licensed dietitian and senior manager of food and nutrition for The HSUS. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently stated that plant-based diets are appropriate for all life stages, including infancy.

Siblings Caden, 5, Cael, 3, and Catie Brynn, 1, are plant-powered and off the growth charts, says mom Kim Kelly, HSUS senior state director in South Carolina. “They’re the tallest in their classes,” Kelly says. “It’s become a joke to us when people worry that they’re not going to be strong and healthy.”

Dumas says that most Americans who are eating meat, eggs and dairy aren’t getting enough of some crucial nutrients: fiber, potassium and vitamins E and D. These deficiencies are easily addressed with a plantbased diet. What’s more, kids who eat a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet are at a lower risk for obesity.

“We’re starting to see the shift with more and more health professionals recommending vegetarian and vegan diets,” Dumas says. “Research is showing that having a more plant-based approach is so important because the standard American diet is so out of whack right now.”

Lesley and Ray Parker-Rollins involve their kids—Maya, Will (right) and Tyler—in shopping for and preparing family meals.Photo by Meredith Lee/The HSUS

QUESTION: Will she fit in with her friends?

Even 30 years ago in my small rural town, being a vegetarian didn’t brand me an outcast (or limit my dating prospects, much to my parents’ disappointment). With even more vegetarians and vegans in the world today, it’s hardly a jaw-dropper when kids say they don’t eat meat.

Entire school districts—including Detroit Public Schools and the Los Angeles Unified School District—universities, hospitals and other institutions are offering Meatless Monday and other plant-based food promotions, often with help from the HSUS Forward Food program, which provides training, resources and recipes for plantbased cooking. And in many cases, Dumas says, the push for more veg options comes from students who are concerned about their health, the environment and animal welfare.

“As a culture, we’re reducing our dependence on animal products,” she says, “and a lot of that is being driven by youth.”

Anne Sterling, HSUS Midwestern regional director for state affairs and mom of 1-year-old Wilder, points to many children’s innate love of animals. “It seems that we start very subtly encouraging kids to tune that out, things like where their food comes from.”

But more and more kids, like Tyler, are holding onto that appreciation for all animals and encouraging others to do the same. “Some of my friends see their dog or cats in one way, but they don’t think that pigs and farm animals are the same,” he says. “Why is one considered food and one is not?”

  • Maya loves animals, including cows, pigs and her cat Pumpkin. Photo by Meredith Lee/The HSUS.

Eating a humane diet fits right into the social scene for Tyler and his siblings. When he and his brother, Will, 14, banter with friends over lunch in the school cafeteria, you can’t tell the difference between their sandwiches and those of their classmates, and whenever their sister Maya, 10, heads out for a birthday party, she still has plenty of fun. Her mom, Lesley Parker-Rollins, even makes sure to send along a vegan cupcake so she gets to enjoy a sweet treat, too.

Dave Soleil of Georgia takes the same approach with his daughters, ages 7 and 10, who are both vegan. “My kids love it because they get to choose their favorite things to bring,” Soleil says.

Kids are curious, and some who aren’t familiar with a plant-based diet will likely have questions. You can help your child decide the best answers, which can lead to great conversations—and even change.

When kids ask 6-year-old Samantha Morris, daughter of HSUS food and nutrition specialist Josephine Morris, why she doesn’t eat meat, Samantha tells them how much she loves chickens, pigs and cows and that to her they’re friends, not food. Youngsters are very receptive and accepting, Morris says. For example, when one of Samantha’s friends stayed for dinner one night, she was so excited about the chickpea stew Morris had made that she ate two bowls full and asked for the recipe to take home to her parents.

DID YOU KNOW?: 475 schools, hospitals and institutions have joined our Forward Food efforts to reduce meat offerings.

Two of Maya’s friends became fans of her family’s plant-based cooking, too—and after learning how animals suffer on factory farms, such as being confined so tightly they can barely move, they decided to stop eating meat, something Maya is quite proud of.

“I feel really happy,” she beams, “for my friends and for the animals.”

QUESTION: So what do I make for dinner?

Your family is probably already eating at least one meatless meal a week and you don’t even realize it, such as pasta marinara or rice and beans. Dumas recommends starting with those familiar foods and then making small simple substitutions with your family’s other favorites to build out your options: black beans instead of beef, tofu instead of chicken, almond milk instead of cow’s milk.

“Most people are living on six to 10 of their favorite meals,” Dumas says. “We don’t expand our repertoire too much, we just rotate them. So think about ‘What are my favorite meals and how can I make them more plant-based?’ Just think about what you like and then make simple swaps from there.”

GET COOKING: Search hundreds of animal-friendly recipes.

You can find a wide variety of products that mimic meat at your local grocery store, including plant-based burgers, hot dogs, fajita strips, crumbles and even crablike cakes, to help get you started. Morris and her family use meatless crumbles to make an animal-friendly version of shepherd's pie. Dumas advises that it’s also important to include whole foods—such as beans and other legumes— and less-processed sources of protein, such as tofu and tempeh.

  • Samantha loves to help foster dogs like Tommy. Photo by Gilles Mingasson/AP Images for The HSUS.

As part of her work with The HSUS, Dumas coordinates cooking demonstrations and workshops at schools and other institutions that want to offer more plant-based options.

Attendees are often surprised at how easy and delicious the meals are and are eager to make them at home.

“They go into it thinking, ‘Ugh, tofu,’ and that’s probably because they haven’t really tried it before, and then it turns out fantastic,” she says.

For easy school lunches, there’s the classic peanut butter and jelly, or use chickpeas and eggless mayo in your usual chicken salad recipe. You can load up a tortilla with colorful veggies and hummus for a quick wrap. Smoothies make tasty, nutritious options for breakfast and after-school snacks.

Tacos and spaghetti are easy meals to make animal-friendly, says Soleil. His daughters also love “ketchup night,” where they can dip everything on their plates (french fries, meatless hot dogs, cut-up veggies) in ketchup.

The Parker-Rollins kids like pesto pasta, kung pao tofu and chana masala (an Indian chickpea dish), while Samantha Morris loves lentil soup, animal-friendly shepherd’s pie (recipe, left), tempeh shawarma and, of course, the chickpea stew that won over her friend. “People say kids won’t eat that, and I completely and totally disagree,” Morris says. “It depends on how you present it and how you react to those things. If you love it, they’ll love it.”

DID YOU KNOW?: Reducing your meat consumption by just 20 percent is the equivalent of switching from a gas-powered sedan to a hybrid.

Morris and fellow HSUS moms Kelly and Sterling recommend involving your kids in the menu selection, grocery shopping and age-appropriate cooking tasks. Making them a part of the process helps build enthusiasm for new dishes and teaches them valuable skills in the kitchen.

Samantha Morris helps pick out and prepare the vegetables for her family’s dinner. Even her rescue dog Bunny gets a taste! Photo by Gilles Mingasson/AP Images for The HSUS.

QUESTION: Does this mean I have to go veg, too?

Of course not. But once you start seeing the benefits, you might find yourself choosing more plant-based options. Sharing a meat-free meal is also a great way to show your kids that you support their choice. Even my parents have kept a few meatless meals in their weekly rotation long after I flew the coop.

It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach for you or your child. The HSUS advocates the “Three Rs” by encouraging people to reduce their overall consumption of animal products, refine it by choosing higher welfare products and replace animal products with plant-based alternatives.

DID YOU KNOW?: 60 percent of millennials consume plant-based meats.

Striking a balance at home is key when not all family members eat a plant-based diet, says HSUS food and nutrition coordinator Rebecca Portman. She recommends “build-your-own” meals such as tacos, nachos, salads, wraps or oatmeal with mixins for breakfast so everyone can choose what they like.

Portman works with large institutions such as schools and hospitals on increasing plant-based options. “Nothing is black or white,” she says. “At The HSUS, we ask institutions for a 20 percent reduction of meat purchases. Because of that, we’ve really made a lot of headway. Every little bit makes a difference.”

Going meatless even just one day a week as a family can save animal lives and help the earth, your health and maybe even your budget. Many schools and other organizations have reported saving money since they incorporated Meatless Mondays.

The goal is to make small changes that are good for everyone—including animals.

“Once parents understand that it can be done in a healthy, easy way, they’ll see that there are a lot of options out there,” says Lesley Parker-Rollins. Not only are you supporting your child in their love of animals, she adds, but you’re setting them—and maybe even you—up for a lifetime of humane eating.

“You can count on it,” Tyler says.

Never underestimate the commitment of a compassionate child. Just ask my folks.

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