Food Without Fighting: Kids Do Eat Vegetables!

Raising your children to be vegan or just to eat more vegetables can be both challenging and a bit scary. Is it safe? How will my children get all the nutrients they need to grow? How do I introduce new foods to them? Dietary habits formed in childhood often carry over into adulthood, so it is important to establish healthy eating habits early in life. Benefits include a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, fewer inflammatory markers found in the blood, and less exposure to antibiotics found in animal products compared to children who eat meat.[i]

How Do We Begin?

  • It is easiest if the whole family is on board. If only one or two family members are vegan or trying to transition to being vegan and other family members are not, it may be more difficult for children to give up animal products.  Explaining why certain foods should be avoided is important for children to understand (environment, compassion, the importance of being healthy, etc.).
  • If this is something that you are wanting for your children and they are not as receptive, start slow. Be a good role model with them observing your own attitude towards a plant-based diet and seeing what you eat. Don’t expect perfection.  Remember your transition?  It’s a journey.
  • What are your children are currently eating? Can it be “veganized?” This may not be as difficult as it seems. Beef tacos can become bean tacos. Spaghetti with meat sauce can become spaghetti with vegan meatballs, mushrooms, or with lentils. Pizza can be a veggie pizza with a small amount of vegan cheese on top during transition and eventually with extra veggies and sauce and no cheese.  Chili can be made with beans. Breakfast can be oatmeal or other hot cereal with fruit on top. Scrambled eggs can become scrambled tofu. Desserts can be a fruit cobbler, tofu pudding, “nice” cream made with frozen peeled banana chunks pureed in a blender, or peeled banana segments dipped in melted dark chocolate, rolled in nuts, and frozen.
  • Let them tell you what they want. Ask what foods they miss, and work together on finding a vegan version. Have them be a part of the process by asking them to search on Google.
  • Start early. Eating habits taught early can last a lifetime. I remember attending several Vegetarian Summer Festival conferences in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  It was a great experience with speakers, demonstrations, exercise classes, camaraderie, great food – all with like-minded people.  One thing that amazed me is when we sat down for dinner, kids were eating raw stalks of broccoli like they were tater tots.  How did the parents do that? Vegan meals started at an early age for these children.
  • Soups are a great way to help children eat more vegetables. A great minestrone with onions, carrots, beans, celery, chopped tomatoes, zucchini, and small pasta or a non-dairy creamy carrot soup can be a more inviting way for kids to eat vegetables.

Getting Children in the Kitchen to Help

There are many things children can do to help prepare meals.  Teaching children to cook is one of the greatest gifts parents can give their children.  Depending on their age, they can do tasks like pull the ingredients from the pantry, measure, mix, set the timer if using, use a spiralizer to make zoodles, and cut, slice, and dice if they’re old enough. Knives with nylon blades made especially for kids are available on Amazon.

If eating more vegetables is a challenge, start with mild tasting greens like romaine lettuce, bok choy, or spinach. Most kids like peas and carrots. Start with what they do like and gradually introduce new vegetables.

As great as my parents were to be sure we had healthy meals, they were part of the “clean your plate” era, and I still struggle with this today.  Better to give kids smaller portions and let them eat until they are full. Rather than forcing children to eat foods they are resistant to, find the nutrient dense foods they love and focus on those foods.  When introducing a new food and they are resistant, just ask that they try it.  If they don’t like it, thank them for trying it and try introducing a different new food another time. Perhaps cooking the food they didn’t care for another way would make it tastier.  None of us like to be forced to eat something that does not taste good to us! With kids, sometimes it takes several tries before liking a food.

Lunch/Snack Ideas

Packing a lunch for school can be a fun activity to do with your children. The possibilities are endless. Wraps spread with hummus and filled with chopped vegetables are always good. Pineapple tidbits. green pepper strips, red grapes, quinoa salad, melon balls, bean salads. Any type of finger food will work.  Putting lunch items in a compartmentalized container like a bento box makes the food fun to eat.

Snacks- dried unsweetened fruit including raisins, apricots, cherries, and dates. Soy nuts, dry roasted almonds or cashews, applesauce without added sugar, sliced apples with peanut butter, dairy-free plain yoghurt cups with fruit they add. Mini carrots, snow pea pods, sliced cucumbers, sliced pita wedges with hummus dip, hot air popped corn, dates with the seed removed and filled with a nut butter.

Growing Children Need Key Nutrients

There are a few nutrients that are particularly important children get during development.

  • Iron – A lack of iron can put children at rick of not having enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells that support growth and brain development. Spinach, lentils, beans, bok choy, cumin and asparagus are all good sources of iron. Pairing it with vitamin C foods like bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, oranges, kiwi, cantaloupe, and cabbage will enhance absorption of the iron.
  • B12 – Keeps blood vessels and nerves healthy. Available in fortified foods, and some nutritional yeasts (check nutrition information label).  A supplement is highly recommended especially if the child (or adult) is 100% plant-based.
  • Zinc – Important for children’s cognitive and motor development. Spinach, asparagus, mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, lentils, and garbanzo beans are good sources of zinc.
  • Iodine – Needed to produce thyroid hormones that regulate various functions including growth and metabolism. Beans, including tofu, and sea weed are good sources of iodine. Also available in iodized salt.
  • Vitamin D – Important for strong bones and immune system. 15 to 20 minutes of sun per day gives just about a full day’s requirement of Vitamin D. You may need more sun-time if you have darker skin or live in the northern latitudes. Mushrooms and orange juice have Vitamin D. Many plant milks are fortified with Vitamin D. This is another vitamin supplement that should be considered to meet nutritional requirements.
  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids – Omega 3 fatty acids help protect against allergies in early childhood, improve cognitive function, cardiovascular health, and visual development.[ii] Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in flax, seeds, walnuts, and edamame, as well as fortified plant milks.

Here are a couple of recipes to get your children (and others) started on their journey. With good communication, patience, planning, and parent/children team participation, raising children vegan can be accomplished.

LENTIL BOLOGNESE

  • 1 cup lentils
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable broth or water
  • 1 cup onion, diced
  • 2 medium carrots, diced
  • 2 medium celery stalks, diced
  • 1 cup mushrooms, sliced thin
  • 2 cloves garlic diced
  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 24 oz. jar marinara sauce
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 1/2 cup water or vegetable broth
  • 1 14.5 oz box whole wheat penne or rigatoni pasta, ….. reserve pasta water
  • 1/2 cup reserved pasta water

 Directions: 

  • In a small pot over high heat, combine the lentils and water. Cover and bring to a boil.
  • Once the water and lentils are boiling, lower heat and simmer for about 20 minutes or until lentils are soft. Drain and set aside.
  • 10 minutes before the lentils are done boiling, preheat a large soup pot with 1 tablespoon vegetable or broth over medium heat. Sauté onion, carrot, celery, and mushrooms for about 7 minutes or until the veggies are softened.  Add the garlic and sauté for a minute more.
  • Add the cooked lentils, Italian seasoning, and red pepper flakes to taste. Mix to combine.
  • Add the marinara sauce, mustard, and reserved pasta liquid to the pot. Mix to combine.
  • Add the cooked pasta to the pot. Simmer for at least 10 minutes. The longer you allow the dish to simmer, the more flavors will come together and the thicker the sauce will get.
  • Serve when sauce reaches desired consistency and flavor.

Serves 6.  Recipe adapted from Meatless Monday.                                                   

POWER BALLS

  • 1/2 cup organic peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup pure maple sugar
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup raw sunflower or pumpkin seeds
  • ¼ cup chia seeds
  • ¼ cup rolled oats
  • Shredded unsweetened coconut

Directions:

  • Mix peanut butter and maple syrup in a Cuisinart or blender.
  • Transfer to a bowl and add all remaining ingredients but coconut.
  • Scoop out pieces about 1 1/2” in diameter.
  • Roll into a ball between the palms of your hands.
  • Roll in the shredded coconut.

Makes about 14 balls.  Keep refrigerated.  Can be frozen.


This article is not intended to be a substitute for nutritional advice and is for informational purposes only.

[i] Agnoli et al., 2017; Ambroszkiewicz et al., 2018; Baroni et al., 2018; Lemale et al., 2019.

[ii] Rev Paul Pediatr. 2017 Jan-Mar; 35(1): 3–4. doi: 10.1590/1984-0462/;2017;35;1;00018

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