When people find that I'm plant-based, it’s not uncommon to be asked if my kids are as well. When I say yes, I usually get a look that consists of equal parts pity and horror, which is followed up by the inevitable question, "Soooo. what do they eat? How do you know if they get enough protein?"
Since my kids have followed a vegan diet since birth they don't know any different. Beans, legumes, lentils and nuts have been staples of their diets. Things like peas, broccoli and kale were integrated into their diets very early on as element s of their baby food. Add in some flaxseed meal; hemp milk and nutritional yeast and my kids have a pretty well rounded diet.
I understand, though, how jarring it can seem, especially to someone (like my husband) who grew up on meat and potatoes. A plant-based diet can seem pretty extreme to someone that’s unfamiliar with it, but to us, its just who we are – it’s who we’ve always been.
Once people see my kids scarfing down quinoa pasta with kale and sweet pea pesto or lentil tacos with all the fixins', they’re astounded at how well they eat. Just because a child eats chicken nuggets, doesn't mean they're meeting all of their protein needs.
Now, let me just clarify, I am not making a judgment call on how one chooses to raise their child. I have a lot of friends who feed their kids a lot of different things and I am not judging. This is a personal choice and raising our children with a vegan diet is a decision that my husband and I made together. My husband and I both came to the plant-based lifestyle at different times and we walked two different paths to it; however, our collective experiences and understanding of nutrition makes us feel like this is the best decision for our kids.
I think we’re doing something right, because it’s not uncommon for people to ask me for recipes or ideas about how to get their children to eat better. I always have a few suggestions and these are my top 5:
Introduce Good-For-You-Foods From the Start:
Think about this – kids have more taste buds as babies than they will at any other point in their lives, so let them try everything! Different flavors, spices, sweet and savory. And if they don't like it at first, try it again a week later. Sometimes my 3 1/2 year old is so capricious that one week all he'll want is sautéed broccoli with garlic and the next week he doesn't even want to look at it. But that doesn't mean I stop making broccoli because I know he'll be back on it again soon enough. When you give your kids the good stuff early on, you're setting their taste buds to LIKE the good stuff! You are literally programming their taste buds for life.
Now, I can appreciate that not every child is going to love sautéed broccoli, but how about putting some cheezy sauce over it, or giving them a tofu ranch dip with nutritional yeast to use as a sauce? Maybe try blending it up with some basil, peas, and pumpkin seeds for a pesto. Feeding children is not for the weak of heart. It definitely takes tenacity and perseverance.
Get Them In the Kitchen with You:
Let your kids have a say in what they're going to eat. When they get to exercise some control over the outcome, it will change things dramatically. Start by letting them help with the grocery list. Then let them help you get the ingredients out of the fridge. Let them design their own pizza or fill their own burrito. Let them (safely) help you stir the sauce or put the pasta in the water. Meal times are always a conversation in our house. Of course, if it were up to my kids, we would have pasta every single night, but I'll offer up a few suggestions, hear what they have to say and then we make a plan.
Find What They Love & Sneak In the Sleeper Hit:
One of the favorites at our house is veggie pancakes: vegan pancakes made with whole wheat flour, flaxseed meal, corn and broccoli– and of course, a drizzle of maple syrup, because they’re pancakes after all!
If your kids love pasta, try making a cheeze sauce with miso and nutritional yeast (protein, amino acids, B vitamins) or a pesto with kale and pumpkin seeds (protein, vitamins A & C, iron & magnesium). If they love french fries, try making baked sweet potato fries or baked russets sprinkled with nutritional yeast. If they love oatmeal, sprinkle in some hemp or chia seeds (Omega 3's and calcium).
Eat With Them and Eat What they’re Eating:
When kids see that you're eating what they're eating, it helps them feel like they're not losing out on something better. Even though our family eats at different times, when we can, we sit down together. Even if my husband isn't home yet or we're planning to go out later, I'll sit down with the kids while they're having dinner and munch with them. When kids see that they're getting the kids food they start to wonder what mommy is having that is so much better. If mom or dad won't eat my food, why should I? Now I understand that it's hard to feed a 1 year old with only a few teeth, the exact replica of what you're eating, but improvise. Cut up the pasta into smaller pieces, puree the veggies into a pesto, instead of putting the lentils into a taco shell, make it into a taco salad that you can feed your little one with a spoon.
Keep It Flexible:
Look, life gets in the way sometimes. We don’t always have the time to make the most balanced dinner. There are some days when your kids will have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cereal for dinner, it’s been known to happen to the best of us. Don't beat yourself up and don't be too hard on your kid. Exerting power over food will just make the situation worse. If you want your kids to be curious and excited about food, then that is the attitude you have to embody for yourself. Your kids' tastes will be forever evolving. Expose them to a lot of different types of foods and flavors and eventually they'll find their palate.
Get in the kitchen with your kids. Create a recipe together. Make something up. Just have fun and get them curious. If they’re curious about food, they’ll try it and even if they don’t love it, they’ve let their mouth and taste buds decide what tastes good to them.
And since I've gone on and on about pesto. Here is our family recipe.
Kale & Sweet Pea Pesto (makes about 1-1 1/2 C)
1/4 C peas (I buy the frozen organic kind, run under cool water until thawed)
1 bunch of basil or flat leaf parsley (or a mix of both)
2 big kale leaves, remove from stalk
2 Tbsp pumpkin seeds
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp nutritional yeast
2 Tbsp olive oil
2-4 Tbsp water
1-2 tsp salt
In a food processor, gently pulse the green ingredients until roughly chopped. Add the pumpkin seeds and garlic and pulse again until mixture starts to combine. Add the lemon juice and nutritional yeast and gently stream in the olive oil as you pulse. Add the water until the mixture is smooth and somewhat liquidy; thicker than a soup, thinner than a salsa. Add salt to taste. Enjoy!