Since entering school, my children have consistently earned close to all As and have been very alert and quick-witted. Both have won countless academic and athletic awards. Furthermore, they have rarely been sick. So I would say a plant-based diet has not harmed them in the least. Instead, it has nourished their mental and physical potentials.
I am often asked about raising children who consume a strict plant-based diet. Here are some common questions, followed by my answers.
Q. Do children who are raised on a plant- based diet lack nutrients? How does this diet affect their physical and mental growth?
A. Based on the experiences I have had with my sons, I see no evidence that being raised on a plant-based diet has stunted or damaged their physical or mental growth. In fact, it has been quite the opposite. Steven, who is nineteen years old, and Nelson, who is eighteen, are both in excellent physical condition and have always been incredibly active and exceptional athletes, both playing on sports teams since the ages of four and five. Steven is 6’4” and Nelson is a little over 5’11”; both boys are muscular and well-toned. Since entering school, they have consistently earned close to all As and have been very alert and quick-witted. Both have won countless academic and athletic awards. Furthermore, they have rarely been sick. So I would say a plant-based diet has not harmed them in the least. Instead, it has nourished their mental and physical potentials.
Q. Where do they get their calcium if they don’t drink milk? What do they drink?
A. When you consume enough calories from whole plant-based foods, plant foods provide all the calcium you need. It’s been an age-old myth that you cannot get the proper amount of calcium from plant-based foods.
In place of cow’s milk, the boys use rice milk on their cereal; in place of other dairy products in recipes, we substitute soy milk or rice milk. We also use these same products in plant-based desserts and ice cream. With most meals, we drink water. We try to drink at least six to eight glasses of water a day.
Children will generally eat the foods that their parents eat. This is what they see on a daily basis, but it’s more than what you eat in front of them.
Q. How do your children get enough protein if they don’t eat meat?
A. When you consume a variety of plants, you will get all the protein you need. Moreover, you will receive a healthier protein since plant protein is less likely to promote cancer growth and increase blood cholesterol levels associated with heart disease.
Q. What about when they go to school? How do the other children respond to their diet?
A. In school, the boys take their own lunches from home. Often they bring leftovers from dinner the night before or from earlier in the week. They heat their meals up in the morning, before they go to school, and take them to school in insulated containers. If they don’t take leftovers, they make sandwiches, several of which are included in my cookbook (The China Study Cookbook), such as Delicious Egg-less Sandwiches, Hummus Wraps, Granola Fruit Wraps, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
When their school friends used to make comments about their food, the boys would occasionally make a game of it. My younger son would call it “the mystery mix” and ask his friends to guess what he was eating. The more different and strange his food appeared, the more he would enjoy the game. One of his favorite “mystery mixes” was Dominican Beans, served with Fiesta Potato Salad, which has a bright pink tinge from beets.
It’s also important to invite children to help in the kitchen. Have them select a recipe, and if they can, have them prepare the dish, or at least assist you.
As is the case with many things in life, it was my sons’ attitude toward their dietary preferences and the fact that they felt comfortable with who they were and why they ate this way, that made it easy for them. Now that they are older, they no longer engage in this game. Often their classmates ask to taste their food, and their friends—much to their own surprise—often want more.
Q. What do they do when they go to their friends’ homes and are offered meat and/or dairy foods?
A. My sons’ friends and their families respect my sons’ dietary choices and have never forced or bullied them into eating meat or dairy products. In fact, their friends’ parents’ reactions have usually been the opposite: preparing a meat and dairy-free meal that everyone at the table would enjoy, usually a pasta dish. However, when my sons travel or go on vacation with their friends’ families, I will usually pack food for them to take, often rice milk and additional fruit or snacks, sometimes hummus.
Their closest friends are actually very accommodating, stopping at fast-food restaurants where everyone finds food that they can enjoy, such as Subway, where the boys can order a vegetable sub, or a restaurant where they can buy burritos, such as Moe’s, Chipotle, or Qdoba. Regardless of the specific restaurant, my sons know what they can order.
By being personally involved in preparing meals, children are more motivated to eat what they prepare.
They have occasionally visited friends who didn’t know what to feed them. In these instances, I made sure they ate a meal before going to the friend’s house and sometimes packed additional snacks for them to take. It has always worked out, even when we lived in areas of the Deep South, where vegetarianism is rare. During the two years that we lived in a small town in Mississippi, my sons’ friends’ parents were some of the most accommodating people of all.
Q. How do you get them to eat vegetables?
A. I’m asked this question a lot. I think the answer has to do with the family environment. For instance, I don’t like black olives and never use them in cooking. Neither of my sons eats olives. My sister-in-law, however, loves black olives; she cooks with them all the time. As toddlers, her children ate them often.
When my sons travel or go on vacation with their friends’ families, I will usually pack food for them to take, often rice milk and additional fruit or snacks, sometimes hummus.
Fortunately for my sons, I love plant- based food, so I have always cooked different dishes with a lot of fresh vegetables, grains, and legumes. This is what they see on a daily basis, but it’s more than what you eat in front of them. It’s also important to invite children to help in the kitchen. Have them select a recipe, and if they can, have them prepare the dish, or at least assist you. By being personally involved in preparing meals, children are more motivated to eat what they prepare. As my sons helped with my cookbook and prepared different dishes, they were much more willing to try new food, especially the dishes that they prepared.
Dr. Antonia Demas, who has her PhD in education, nutrition, and anthropology from Cornell University, has done research showing that children who prepare their own food are willing to eat their own dishes, even if the dishes contain vegetables that the kids previously disliked. Kids who cook take pride in the food they prepare and will be more excited to try new things. Dr. Demas has created a curriculum called “Food Is Elementary” (available at www.foodstudies.org) based on her research and has worked extensively in schools across the country.