By Fredrica Syren:
My kids are vegan…there I said it! Whenever I tell people I’m raising three vegan kids, I get all kinds of responses, everything from “Good job!” to “Oh my, that must be hard.” Usually most comments are followed with “How are you sure your kids get everything they need?” or “Do they feel isolated?” or “Is it their choice?” or “Do you let them choose?”
My kids are 3, 5 and 9 years old and as I suspect with all kids — meat eaters, vegetarians or vegan — you can never be 100% sure they get everything they need nutritionally. However, since birth they have been monitored by a pediatrician, much as any other kids are. They are developing and growing ahead of the curve, and I can see they are filled with energy and light. So, right or wrong, I just assume they are doing well and that I feed them well.
At a vegan fest in Sweden last week, I spoke about raising vegan children, and the audience asked many good questions about my experience. I think that, in general, raising vegan kids is not much harder than raising meat eaters or children with a food allergy. My kids eat at school, they attend and host play dates, they go to parties, and they travel just as any other kids do. They do face questions and bumps in the road at times, but I feel they have a thick skin and very few things bother them.
The most fundamental difference between them and their friends is the food, obviously. Our family eats very basic plant based food, so we don’t eat a whole lot of processed food — beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, grains, fruit and veggies. Of course their friends can see there is a difference. My daughter has told me that some of her friends in school eat “her” vegan food sometimes when they don’t like their own food. During play dates at our house, her friends never can tell the difference between our vegan snacks and treats and theirs.
Let me just say that being vegan today is much easier than it was even just 10 years ago. I think with all the talk about how the meat industry is one of the major causes of global warming and how major health organizations worldwide have said that vegan is food is good for your health, more and more people choose vegan food. As a result, more vegan food is available in both stores and restaurants. Increasingly more people choose a vegan or vegetarian dish or diet, and nowadays you can find vegan foods in most grocery stores, making it darned easy to be vegan.
My daughter’s school lunches have been a challenge for us, and snack has been a bit underwhelming. For example, few times she has been served onion soup. I have nothing against onions, but most 9-year-olds do not like them and I question how much nutrition can be in onion soup. At snack time she has sometimes been left out and has ended up eating a snack lacking in the nutrition that any active kid needs. I have spoken many times with both the teacher and the chef at her school — with little change, unfortunately. I feel that some of today’s school chefs learned about vegan food in the 70s or 80s, so their education may have been about what you have to remove from the food to make it vegan, not necessarily what to replace it with. It comes down to a lack of imagination and unwillingness to change. So, my daughter suffers from that.
My sons, on the other hand, have been blessed with a daycare whose owner is a meat eater who never cooked vegan before but happily dove into the challenge. She “interviewed” me about how to adjust her menus and recipes, and what product(s) she could use in her cooking. Her food is wonderful, and my boys and I could not be happier.
Another area that can be a challenge is at kids’ birthday parties. Traditionally, birthday parties mean lots of cake, ice cream, chips and sodas; and most non-vegans assume those are safe and vegan–friendly. It’s no fault of theirs for thinking so, because how would they know about gelatin, additives, food colors and milk protein? I actually will call the hosting parents and tell them my kids are vegan, and ask what they plan to serve so I can bring a vegan version of the same dish. Usually they are very appreciative of this gesture. It never bothers my kids that they bring a present AND their own treats to the party. I mean, hello, they are going to a fun party, no matter what.
When it comes to health practitioners involved in my kids’ check-ups and health care, my experience has been mixed. I have had those who have warned me that a vegan diet is not suitable for young children and perhaps I should see a dietician. This does frustrate me when — if they actually looked and checked out my child first — they might learn something about how healthy they are before they judge me as a parent. I have learned that I have the right to find someone who is educated to know that a vegan child can thrive and be healthy on a vegan diet. I have switched practitioners twice and have been so fortunate to have worked with two amazing pediatricians who both stated they are not worried about our children at all.
As a parent of vegan children, I think my advice is to always be involved, ask questions and be nosy to make sure your child gets what he/she deserves. I also recommend joining some of the many vegan groups and vegan family meetups to have someone to ask questions of, get advice from and to get support from.