Getting your children to eat a healthier diet that is based on whole, plant foods does not have to be a major struggle. Making the transition gradually, setting a great example, and getting your child(ren) involved can help them adjust easily and learn to enjoy delicious foods that are good for them.
When you stop to take notice, it’s hard not to acknowledge the epidemic of childhood obesity and Type 2 Diabetes (previously known as “Adult Onset Diabetes”) in our younger generation. Many studies support a plant-based, whole foods diet as a way to maintain optimal weight and prevent a multitude of diseases. The greatest gift you can give your child is to introduce him/her to healthy foods early in life. As they are constantly bombarded by poor food choices, including fast foods that are high in animal protein and saturated fat as well as processed foods that are full of sugar, salt, and oil, this can be a bit daunting. But once they begin to eat real, whole foods, they will feel better and you’ll know you are doing your best as a parent to ensure their health later in life.
If your kids are at an appropriate age, explaining to them why you are making changes in your own diet and encouraging them to follow suit will help them to be less resistant to change. If you have a family history of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, and your kids are old enough to understand, explain that you want to protect them from suffering the same fate and ensure their future health. You may also want to explain ethical or environmental reasons if they are a factor. Most kids are very motivated by wanting to save the animals once they make this very real connection.
Most kids are hooked on cheese, so use some of the vegan cheese substitutes initially as they are transitioning. You can use these products in the early stages as it will allow you to continue preparing some of your kids’ favorite dishes, like pizza and burritos. You can also use almond milk and healthier versions of dried breakfast cereals. Once they are accustomed to eating more whole foods, you can gradually wean them off of these and introduce healthier, whole food alternatives that don’t include oil, salt and sugar. As a substitute for cheese, for example, you can make a delicious sauce with soaked cashews, nutritional yeast, lemon, garlic, and red pepper. Spreading a pizza flavored hummus on a sprouted grain English muffin and topping it with tomato sauce, nutritional yeast, spinach and mushrooms is a great way to enjoy a much healthier version of pizza. If your kids are accustomed to eating burgers, try some of the store-bought vegetable/bean burgers at first, then gradually move towards making your own at home with whole grains, beans, vegetables and spices. Let the kids help, too; it’s like playing with Playdough.
If they’re old enough to understand, let your kids sit with you as you peruse some vegan recipe books or websites. Ask them which recipe they’d like to try next. Bring them to the grocery store with you, and ask them to choose one or two new veggies or fruits they’d like to try. And offer a variety of condiments so that they can flavor their food to their personal taste.
If it’s appropriate, give them a task to involve them in preparing the food. Kids can help to choose spices, and if they are old enough, they may also enjoy measuring and stirring ingredients, washing produce, and slicing some vegetables (if they’re old enough for you to trust them with a knife). If you’re making something like a pizza, let them spread the sauce and top with their veggies of choice. When kids participate, they take ownership in the dish and are more likely to eat and enjoy it!
It takes time for tastebuds to adjust. If your kids have been eating a lot of highly processed foods, they’re used to foods that are exceedingly sweet and/or salty. Eating vegetable dishes that are not highly flavored will taste very bland to them. Experiment with some ethnic recipes, like Indian, Thai, and Mexican, that use a number of interesting spices and flavors. Invest in a good salt substitute, try some non-fortified nutritional yeast, vinegar, and lemon juice and zest to spice up your dishes. Eventually, your kids will grow to appreciate the delicious, subtle flavors in whole foods.
Be patient...remember that your kids may be used to eating a certain way and it will take some time to get used to thinking of whole foods as satisfying. When you begin to make the transition, it may help to allow them to continue eating dairy or some of their other favorite foods just outside of the house, in social situations. After a few months, they will most likely find that they actually felt better eating the healthier food you serve at home. You may learn only after taking dairy and processed items out of their diets that they actually had some sensitivity to these foods all along.
Don’t force them; if there is something they really don’t like, allow them to season it differently or add condiments. You may find that your pickiest eater will devour just about anything if he/she can put Dijon mustard or ketchup on it! It’s said that it takes a few times of tasting something before acquiring a taste for it, so don’t be discouraged. But best not to punish them as they will associate that food with negative feelings in the future and be less likely to try it again.
Don’t send your kids out without a plan or healthy choices to take along when you’re not around. If your kids have play dates at home, feed everyone the same way. You can make a delicious, healthy treat, like black bean brownies, a fruit smoothie with some hidden spinach or kale, or healthy cookies made with oats, dates, nuts/seeds, and sometimes cocoa. If your kids have a special event at school where unhealthy treats are served, let the teacher know in advance that your kids will be bringing their own (it’s also nice to offer to bring enough to share). You may find that your kids enjoy knowing they are eating something delicious that’s not bad for them! If you send them to a party or a play date, talk to the host/hostess in advance, and ask whether you can send your child with something of his/her own....then, again, offer to make enough to share with the guests. When all else fails, be sure to feed your child ahead of time.
There are no plant-based sources of Vitamin B12, so speak to your pediatrician about supplementing with this, as well as with Vitamin D if necessary (which is actually obtained through sun exposure and fortified foods).
Transitioning your kids to a healthy, whole foods plant-based diet may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s the greatest gift you can give them, as it protects their future health. Taking a few simple steps, like setting a good example, explaining your rationale, keeping them involved, and offering them a wide variety of delicious meal options and condiments can make the change a smooth one.
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