No matter the species, fit and growing youngsters are hungry a lot of the time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and National Center for Health Statistics, the average healthy male infant is expected to double his weight by three months of age. If he follows typical growth charts, then by 15 months, he will have doubled his weight again. In addition to that, his weight is expected to double between the ages of 3 and 9 years and continue to increase by about 5 lbs per year until age 20. [1,2]
Weight is not all that children gain in the years between infancy and adulthood. They develop teeth, bones, the brain, internal organs, and immune system intelligence. They acquire language, social skills, and psychological and emotional resilience. They also gain control of bodily functions and physical movements, and more. The quality of the food they eat affects all these facets of human development.
The exponential growth that children experience in their first 20 years explains the need for high-quality, nutrient-dense foods most, if not all, of the time. This fact is important to remember because we are what we eat, especially when learning and developing as quickly as children do. Food choices and eating patterns are very sensitive aspects of a person's life. Food is wrapped up in family, culture, country, patriotism, socioeconomic status, political ideologies, religion, morals, and ethics. It is also woven into local commerce, national economies, and world politics. In the Global North, the predominant eating pattern is animal-centric and full of processed foods. These dietary patterns are held in place by ongoing education, national customs, and commercial advertising.
Because of this tapestry of interrelated factors, choosing a healthy vegan or whole food plant-based (WFPB) way of eating for your children could feel like swimming upstream after heavy rain. As a result, some family and friends may openly question your decision. Others may even try to interfere with or undermine your choice. These challenges may be particularly concerning as we come into the holiday feasting season. Therefore, if you find yourself justifying your food choices, it may be valuable to have a few responses ready to address any questions or concerns.
- First, know your audience. If your family and/or friends are hunters, fishermen, cheese makers, or animal farmers of any kind, be prepared for questions and maybe even direct confrontations. Likewise, for people who have disordered eating patterns.
- Next, stay calm. It helps to remember that the Standard American Diet education is thorough and usually unquestioned. Most of your friends and family have been eating animal products for their entire lives and have learned that high levels of animal products do the body good. Often, at least on the surface, your family members may be nervous about your children’s health if they eat a plant-exclusive diet. Just beneath that, they may feel threatened that you are judging them and their choices, or (even worse) rejecting the family culture or income stream.
- Have some facts at your fingertips. For example, the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics supports well-planned plant-based diets as healthy, nutritionally adequate, and appropriate for all ages and stages of life .
- Make sure you know the most current wisdom on how to plan children’s WFPB meals. Assure calories and healthy fats, beans, legumes, whole grains, fruits, and veggies are all adequate to meet your child’s needs for growth and development. (see Dr. Reshma Shah and Brenda Davis’ “Nutrition for Families” webinar  on YouTube for more information.)
- Check-in with your pediatrician at least annually to ensure your child is on track for all growth and developmental milestones. Be able to reassure your friends and family that your child’s pediatrician agrees with the choice and that your child is healthy based on labs, growth, and developmental expectations.
- With all the above accounted for, you can easily say the WFPB eating pattern works for your child. You can also say that you know it may not work well for every child. That could help diffuse any growing tensions.
- If your family or friends continue to push the issue, you will have to decide how to handle that next level of challenge. For example, some people choose to have a heart-to-heart conversation with the family and ask for support to keep junk and other non-WFPB products away from their child.
- You could invite your questioners to a movie night and show a WFPB/climate change/animal rights documentary as a way to inform them about your motivations.
- Always bring your own choice of food to parties and food-centered gatherings. Bring enough to share at the party, but leave expectations at home. Be generous but not pushy. And above all, don’t get emotionally attached to whether or not anyone wants to try the dish you may have put all your effort into. That would be a set-up for disappointment.
Final thoughts: we have heard stories of heated arguments at holiday parties, including hurt feelings and grudges that last for years. We have even seen WFPB parents refuse to attend family functions because of food-based bru-ha-has involving the children. Fortunately, these are the more extreme cases. If you can catch yourself fast enough, you have a chance to make a decision right there in the heat of the moment to prevent this from happening.
We recommend that you privilege the relationships and do what you can to keep your positive connections with your tribe. Interpersonal connections with friends and family can be strong and fragile at the same time. Weigh out your priorities. What is more important? Is it food over family or family over food? Only you can decide what is best for your situation.
- Nutrition for Families with Dr. Reshma Shah MD, MPH and Brenda David, RD https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSKSoGoYclA