Giving Kids Eating Options Outside Your Vegetarian Home


According to a recent Los Angeles Times health blog post, curiosity and social awkwardness about meat can be major stressors for kids raised in strictly vegetarian households.

It’s not that veggie parents have bad intentions. Lots of parents build a home around specific moral codes that they feel strongly and positively about — a spiritual faith, for instance. Ultimately, though, the decision to adhere to dietary restrictions (or belief systems) should be an individual choice.

Now, if you’re a vegetarian with wee ones, that doesn’t mean you have to start frying up bacon in your home — it means it’s important to let children know they aren’t disappointing you if they experiment with meat elsewhere:

“You need to be able to support your child in situations where he is going over to Tommy’s house and Tommy’s family is not vegetarian,” [Jennifer] Nelson [of the Mayo Clinic] says. “Are you going to tell the child he can’t go to Tommy’s house, or are you going to raise your child to deal with that so that he doesn’t feel like he’s trapped between two world war events?”

Nelson says that while it’s important to communicate to your kids — in an age-appropriate way — why meat isn’t a part of the family diet, it’s also vital to explain that they don’t have to feel the same way, and that they aren’t “bad” if they choose to eat meat in social situations.

“The last thing you want your [child] to do is go into the world and feel distressed that ‘I have to be just like Mommy and Daddy, and I’m not seeing anything here I can eat,’ ” Nelson says. “Early on, you do not want to set your child up for failure.”

According to Meredith Renda, a pediatrician at Doctor’s Pediatrics in Wilton, Conn., “Food is a huge area where peers fit in together and bond.” As a result, for school-aged children, “[r]esentment can build up if foods are forbidden completely.”

Parents should be ready to make compromises, Renda says, such as:

… allowing kids to eat meat at friends’ houses or restaurants or packing snacks and lunches that look like chicken nuggets or hot dogs but are actually made from soy or wheat gluten.

So, to all the vegetarian, Zelda Lily-reading parents out there, what are some of your tactics in raising well-adjusted kiddos? Any products of veggie homes who feel completely wonked by the circumstances in which they were raised?

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43 thoughts on “Giving Kids Eating Options Outside Your Vegetarian Home

  1. It bugs me that these people are saying kids should be allowed to eat meat outside the home. If they want to experiment with it when they’re older that’s fine but parents should control their kids diets, that’s part of good parenting. Why would you have different rules outside the home? If you’re Jewish are you going to give your kids permission to eat bacon so long as they don’t do it at home? If you don’t allow your kids to use bad language are you going to tell them it’s OK to drop F-bombs when they’re at a friends house? If you’re raising your kids with certain ethical beliefs then you should be consistent. Don’t tell them they only need to be good people at home.

    There’s always something they can eat. The vast majority of kids gatherings include peanut butter sandwiches and fruit and potato chips and other vegetarian foods. The only place I can think of that doesn’t offer any options is McDonalds. If you really need to go there for a birthday party say you can always order a burger without meat and pack a boca burger to slip in there.

    • I understand where you are coming from and it makes sense. I think, however, it’s more about making sure kids don’t feel afraid of meat or wanting to try it. Kids could see their parents not eating meat and think it’s “bad” and feel bad because they are curious about it.

    • If children (teenagers, specifically) have been raised in a meat eating home, how would you suggest they encourage a vegetarian/vegan environment? If only for themselves?
      Just curious…
      I think many young adults are at a disadvantage based on their parents habits–either pro meat or not.

      • That really depends on their parents. I know some people who became vegetarians as teens and had no trouble with their parents accommodating their diets. Some designated a couple of days a week when the whole family would eat vegetarian. Some buy things like veggie burgers and serve those with whatever sides the family is eating or if they’re making something like a chicken stir fry they’ll take out a portion before they add the chicken. Others are totally against the idea and refuse to buy any special food or even try to slip meat in like saying soup is vegetarian when it’s made with chicken stock. One of my friends add basically nothing but boiled veggies, potatoes, and cheese for the first couple of years that she was vegetarian before her dad finally admitted to himself that it wasn’t a phase and bought her some vegetarian sausages and such. Seven years after that he went vegetarian himself and turned to his daughter for advice.

        I think the best thing to do is compromise, show your parents that you’re serious and deal with it on an adult basis. Offer to cook meals, suggest specific products that will make everyone’s life easier, suggest restaurants that can accommodate everyone.

  2. This is slightly on-topic. My parents had a blanket ban on soda at home, not at some, special occasions as a treat, whatever. I could not consume it. The problem was most of my friends did not live under such guidelines, nor the hosts of any sort of event I was at (even school related, which is obviously different now). I had a ton of anxiety about what would be there for me to drink and I admittedly wasn’t the best advocate for myself in asking for things (that’s sadly been an issue for me under a variety of circumstances and needs) and I know I stayed away from fun things because of that anxiety. I viewed soda as this sort of demonic thing that my friends were consuming and was terrified of it for really no reason. If I had had a cup of it at some function I wouldn’t have dropped dead.

    • My parents never ever ate certain foods, so as a result I never had the chance to eat them. To this day I go apeshit over donuts, solely because the occasion never came up to eat them when I was younger (it wasn’t that it was banned outright, but that I was never in a situation where I could BUY one to try until I was old enough to go to the store by myself). I’d say a harsh ban on ANYTHING just makes it more attractive in the long run, because it becomes this forbidden fruit that MUST BE SAMPLED.

      To be fair, I’m not a parent right now, but from my experience as a child and watching other parents’ examples, it seems like the best way to go is to encourage healthy eating habits and make sure most of the kid’s diet is healthy (if they get used to eating fruits and healthy stuff as snacks early on, the habit becomes easier to maintain later in life), but to occasionally let them try something nasty. Make sure they know it’s not good and they shouldn’t have it often, but don’t make it a big deal or a taboo, make it an occasional treat instead.

      Obviously this wouldn’t work with vegetarians until the kid’s old enough to make their own dietary choices, but I do agree that it’s important to make sure the kids aren’t terrified of it and of eating at other peoples’ homes.

  3. There are enough vegetarians out there that this really shouldn’t be an issue.

    Anytime that my kids had a friend over that had special dietary needs (be it diabetes, nut allergies, gluten sensitivities, vegetarian diet. etc), the Mom would usually give me a call. I appreciated it and I am certain that most people would as well.

    I think that it is very rude to try to give meat to a vegetarian.

    I’d be pretty pissed if someone tried to feed me dog – something that I would find to be morally wrong to eat.

    • I agree, as a parent you should think ahead to notify the parent or check the menu of the place where your child is going. I think most people are pretty good about making a few options when there are special diets to consider.

      I think the other thing at play here is the child feeling guilty if they do want to try something that their family has sad is wrong or bad to eat. So it’s really important to explain to kids why you eat the way you do (health, moral heath reasons, whatever) and tell them that while they can do whatever they want to do when they grow up, that right now you don’t eat meat, so neither do they. Can you tell that I grew up in a very ‘as long as you live under my roof, you play by my rules’ household?

  4. I feel the line that needs to be drawn by parents is where they lie on vegetarian spectrum.

    I know some people that are vegetarians because they believe that it’s immoral to kill another living being. I know other people who are vegetarians because they find the lifestyle healthier, and it works for them. If you are raising a child and you are from the former camp, I can see why it would be a huge issue if another parent gave your child meat. However, if it’s more of a healthy diet issue, I can see the benefit to teaching your child about how to make healthy choices when they aren’t with you, and not demonizing “bad food.”

    I believe that parent’s should pay attention to their child’s nutrition, but I’ve also seen the intense anxiety that children, especially young children, can develop in regards to food.

    When my husband was a child, his parents told him that he was allergic to artificial dyes and sweeteners, so he was not allowed to have candy. He found out later on that his parents had made it up in order to control his diet, and he felt incredibly mislead. There’s a lot of stigma surrounding a child that can’t eat candy, so I can only imagine what it’s like for a kid who isn’t allowed to eat meat, especially when navigating the social hierarchy that surrounds lunch time at school.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that children need to taught to eat good things, but they need to be trusted to make their own decisions away from their parents. Otherwise, that stress can translate to serious anxiety issues when they get older.

  5. I know a few vegans and I have to say the massive GUILT trips they lay on their kids cannot be healthy. One parent had a hissy fit when she found out her kid ate a piece of cheese. She went on a 40 minute guilt laying diatribe acting like her child just committed some diabolical act. Not good.

    • Virtually all parents lay guilt trips on their kids of one sort or another. I don’t know any vegans who lay guilt trips on their kids for accidentally eating something non-vegan. It happens and you just do your best. My friends daughter accidentally ate a piece of ham in first grade because her teacher gave it to her. She knew the teacher knew she was vegan and had had vegetarian ham at home so she assumed it was that. When she found out she felt very guilty but her mom reassured her that it wasn’t a big deal and that these things sometimes happen.

      Now if a kid deliberately goes out and eats a hot dog as an act of defiance in an attempt to upset their parents then that should be punished. Kids need to obey the family rules as best as they can. It’s like punishing a kid if they deliberately steal something from a store but not punishing them if they accidentally steal something e.g. miss something while emptying the shopping cart. If they want to experiment with meat when they’re older and the parents are OK with that then they can lay down ground rules like using their own money to buy it or not bringing it in to the house.

      • I’m not sure where I stand on this issue, but I don’t think I agree with you. I don’t think that a child should be punished if they really want to eat meat and do so any more than I feel a child should be punished if they wanted to work on the Sabbath or didn’t want to go to church. Unless there is a very specific health reason for a person (which some people legitimately have), vegetarianism is a philosophical choice. Children should be expected to make up their own minds about these things. Now, I don’t think that it’s wrong to say that you won’t serve meat in your home or buy meat for your child, but to declare the child’s philosophical bent by fiat is unhealthy.

        • It’s the same as any other moral rule. My daughter wasn’t allowed to watch MTV when she was young, and that rule applied to her life, not just our house.
          If you set guidelines for your kids, they need to follow them. It’s part of being a kid. Kids should not be making every decision for themselves. That’s what parents are for. Little kids need to obey, for a variety of reasons.

          Teenagers are different. Those are the years when they’re supposed to be learning how to be adults, so making their own decisions is a necessary part of growing up.

        • I’m with you Matrim, I don’t think a kid should be punished for eating a hot dog any more than a kid should be punished for being vegetarian when the parents are meat eaters. Kids often like different foods than the parents and if you try to force the issue they may end up with an eating disorder.

        • Alzaetia> So, if you were a meat eater (I don’t know if you are or not, but for this exercise we’ll say you are) and your 10 year old came up to you and said they didn’t want to eat meat anymore because they felt it was wrong, would you punish them? Peggy there has a good point.

        • I can’t imagine a situation where the eating of meat is a moral imperative. I’ve also never heard of a carnivorous human, so this is a hard one to imagine.
          It’s easier to compare the situation to an Orthodox Jewish family who keeps a kosher household finding out that their kid ate a cheeseburger. They would be pissed. The kid would likely face punishment of some sort.
          I said it would be the same as any other moral rule. Kids do need to follow the moral guidelines set down by their parents, at least until they’re much older.

        • Just because you can’t think of a situation where it is a moral imperative doesn’t mean that situation doesn’t exist. Plus, that isn’t the point. The point is, while parents are responsible for most of a child’s decisions, I don’t think they are right in trying to make ALL of them. I also think that it would be wrong for a parent to force religion on a child. If the child of Orthodox Jewish parents decides they don’t want to be Jewish, I don’t think that the parents are correct in punishing the child.

        • Just because you don’t think it’s your job as a parent to enforce a moral code in your children doesn’t mean other people are wrong to do it.
          I personally think it’s a parent’s responsibility to instill a moral compass in a child. To attempt to force them to live by your moral code for their entire lives is wrong. But I’m talking about children.
          If you believe meat is murder (or eating other than kosher is against the law of your religion) it’s completely within reason to expect your children to live by that code as well.

  6. Shouldn’t kids eat meat and fish? I’m not an expert on this field so please give me any information, but as long as I know, children need balanced diets. It’s fine -more or less- for an adult to ban meat and milk derivatives from their diet, but, is it good for a child’s upbringing? Isn’t the poor thing going to have a lack of certain vitamins, proteins, etc.? I’m just asking, really.

    • I think it depends on how you’re substituting for the lack of proteins in their diet. Many areas of India are almost or completely vegetarian, after all, and their kids don’t turn out sickly as a result.

      Like anything else, I think there are some very irresponsible vegetarians/vegans out there who DON’T understand that when you take something out of your diet, you need to substitute something back in, while there are more sensible vegans/vegetarians who either have the knowledge themselves or will go to a nutritionist for advice. If all you’re doing is taking meat out of the diet and substituting it with more vegetables, yeah, that can’t be healthy.

    • Vegetarian and vegan diets are just as likely to be balanced as omnivorous ones. Sure there are fries and granola bars vegetarians out there but there are also omnis who eat nothing but McDonalds and pizza. I have a friend who swears she’s allergic to vegetables and seems to survive solely on pasta, chicken, and cheese. Animal products just aren’t necessary and humans are better off without them.

      The only vitamin that is only available in animal foods nowadays is B12 and that is added to just about everything fortified anyway so it’s in milks, cereal, bread, and so on. Nutritional yeast is a great source too so it’s really easy to get it, it’s just the only thing you really need to actively think about getting in your diet as a vegan.

      My son has been vegan since birth and at age 4 he’s at the 60th percentile for height and the 40th for weight which his dr considers pretty darn perfect and way preferable to all the fat kids they see every day. He’s very healthy, no problems with his hair and nails and such which you would typically see with a poor diet. He eats a far better diet than most little kids because he loves tofu and veggies (he once stole a head of broccoli from the fridge and ate almost the whole thing) and given the choice of any item in a bake case he will always go for a bran muffin with raisins. He also loves salad, picks whole grain breads when given the choice, and frequently gets funny looks in the supermarket because he gets so darn excited when I buy him a tub of strawberries or a bag of baby carrots.

        • Vegan isn’t healthy IMO. You should at least be eating eggs otherwise you won’t get B12. The body doesn’t readily absorb vitamins in pill form.

        • Darn it, I wrote out a whole reply then the internet went down just as I hit send. Long story short, there’s a big difference between brain washing and good parenting. If you don’t let your kids play with guns are you brain washing them? More to the point, if you feed your kids meat are you brain washing them in to being omnivorous? Is it brain washing because it’s not a parenting decision you’d make yourself? I’m sure there are parenting decisions you’d make for your kids that I wouldn’t agree with too but everyone makes their own choices.

          In any case, it’s not brain washing because I’m not forcing him in to anything. He knows the facts at an age appropriate level e.g. he’s been to a dairy farm and knows what happens to the calves born there but he hasn’t seen slaughter house video or anything like that. He knows why he eats the diet he does and he agrees with it.

  7. mireee
    dietary requirements for vitamins and proteins can be well met by various kinds of lentils (look in any store stocking indian or north african foods – there are a variety of options, very easy to cook, ample recipes to be found online), servings of vegetables/fruit and dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and non processed cheese. whole grain unpolished rice (brown or wild or red) and quinoa are great source of vitamin too. and, yes, there is a way to make all of this palatable to a child :) has wonderful recipes.

  8. My parents tried to force me to be Catholic and go to church and that was the main reason I didn’t want to go. I feel like if somebody tried to force me to not eat meat or anything else, it’d make me want to eat meat simply to get back at them…

  9. My daughter was a vegetarian until she was old enough to understand where meat came from. She always knew that when she was older she would be allowed to make the choice to eat meat so it never bothered her not to before then. My little brother once fed her a hot dog on accident when she was two. I didn’t sweat it.
    It just wasn’t a big deal. She had zero stress over the whole situation.

    • That’s what we’re doing too. My son pretty much knows what’s what by now. He was once offered a sample of chicken in the mall food court. He asked what it was and the woman told him a piece of chicken to which he replied “that’s a piece of a chicken? That’s gross! No thanks.” He knows that some people eat animals but he doesn’t really understand why anyone would do that. I suspect if he continues the way he’s going he’s going to try it some day but probably not going to eat it on a regular basis.

  10. Reading these posts, I’m so grateful that I have no desire to be vegetarian/vegan or raise my children that way. Life is too short to spend it being the Meat Police.

    • It’s really not difficult. The only places I won’t eat are McDonalds and Applebees because they have no options that don’t have meat in them but let’s face it, it’s not like they have anything that anyone who cares about their health at all would eat anyway. Most kids aren’t big meat fans anyway so there are always plenty of options on kids menus and at b’day parties and so on.

      It depends on your perspective. I know some people say that life’s too short not to eat cake/cheeseburgers/’bad’ food of choice but I think it’s too short to eat junk that’s going to make you feel like crap and make your life shorter. I think it’s worth toting my own box of veggie burgers to a BBQ because the payoff is greater than the inconvenience. That and it just tastes so much better.

      • When I was growing up, there was no such thing as “banned food”. Obviously, my mom limited how MUCh we ate of certain things, and she wouldn’t let us overindulge with something unhealthy, but she encouraged us to cultivate our own likes and dislikes. We were never forced to clean our plates as long as we at least sampled everything. The whole system worked spectacularly, and I’m going to do the same for my own kids.

        • Being vegetarian isn’t the same thing as banning candy or whatever. Vegetarianism is almost always an ethical issue. My rules are basically the same as your parents in that I allow my son to eat desserts and such in moderation, don’t require him to clean his plate, and if he tries something and doesn’t like it he can have an alternate easy meal like a peanut butter sandwich or a banana. We just don’t eat dead animals. If you’d been offered the opportunity to eat dog meat or human meat would your parents have been OK with that or would that have been banned food?

  11. I thought if you stop eating meat, your body stops producing those enzymes. So if parents raise their kids veg/vegan, aren’t they shutting off their kids to the possibility of eating meat since they’ll lack the enzymes?

    • Not at all. It can take a little while to get used to processing meat again since it’s so much harder on your body but it’s possible. I was vegetarian as a teen then ate meat again in college because I had basically no money and I had to eat whatever was cheapest. I didn’t have any trouble getting used to it again. After I graduated and could afford real food again I went back to eating vegetarian no problem.

      • I think it might be different since you presumably ate it as a child and then stopped as a teen, after much of your stomach’s development has settled. I say this because my fiancee is a Hindu, and while his particular region of India isn’t religiously anti-beef, it’s still a rare thing to eat, so he never ate any as a kid or teen, and now he’ll get sick if he tries. Every now and then he gives it a shot (sometimes by accident, as when he got an omelet with ground beef in it and decided to just keep on eating since it tasted good), but he’s always sick a few hours later.

        But I know very little about these things, so it’s just anecdotal on my part!

        • It does take a while to get used to it. Many people who want to start eating meat start off slowly with stuff like chicken soup which is mostly broth with very few chunks. Digesting meat is very hard on the human body so it takes some training if you’re not used to it. If he really wants to eat beef he should start off slowly with some broth based soup like french onion and then move on to small portions.

  12. Vegetarians are healthy,if your varied in choices. I had a macrobiotic girlfriend,she was like the energizer bunny. But I also think its not morally wrong to enjoy meat,and yummy! Cow farts aren’t going to destroy our planet.

  13. I’ve actually been thinking about this topic a lot recently. I’ve been a vegetarian for over ten years, and more than half of my life. I’ve just begun the transition into veganism, and have obviously been considering how this choice will affect me throughout my life.
    My boyfriend, who I would happily have children with one day, is omnivorous and it has never bothered me, and I would never attempt to change him. That said, if we were to one day raise children together I would not stop him from cooking and eating meat in their presence. I would never dream of asking him to give up meat or dairy because of how I choose to eat, it isn’t right.
    It’s safe to assume, then, that at some point my children would become curious about meat. I think I’d prefer not to feed them meat before they ask for it, but if they were to express a desire to have a bite of dad’s burger, why not give it to them after having explained exactly what it is they’re about to eat?
    Everyone should have the right to choose their diet, children included. I know how much I hated it when my father would harass me for choosing vegetarianism, and I would never treat my child in such a disrespectful way. I refuse to force my lifestyle on anyone, including any children I may one day have.

    • Excellent post. If you try to force kids to eat food against their will they will either end up with some sort of eating disorder or become defiant and eat the opposite as an act of rebellion. When I was little I had an intense hatred of meatloaf which my parents tried in vain to force me to eat with harassment and threats of not being able to leave the table, behavior which I totally resented. Thank God I had a dog growing up!

      Isn’t meatloaf just the grossest thing ever???

  14. Indian cuisine in Asia is replete with vegetarian dishes, many of which can be traced to religious traditions (such as Hindu Brahmins). Gujarati cuisine of India is predominantly vegetarian among other Indian cuisines and Gujarati thali is very famous among Indians. …:*

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