The moment you decide to go vegan is exhilarating, in a way. You never really thought you’d go vegan, but here you are, on the edge of your last moments as a consumer of animal products. You leap, and now they are behind you forever. You are a little uncertain what your life will be like now, but you feel that particular kind of bliss that goes along with knowing that your conscience will be clear, and you can look a cow in the eye, knowing you didn’t cause her baby to become veal. And then you stop, and cock your head, and your bliss drains away, displaced by confusion as you remember, “Oh, wait, I have children!”
Having been raised vegetarian myself, I had no fear of raising vegetarian children. I laughed off the uninformed opinions some people held about children needing meat in their diet. My kids were perfectly healthy and thriving! But I discovered that once I considered removing dairy from their diets, I was in an uncharted wilderness of insecurity.
We are fortunate in that we live in the Google era. There is so much searchable information online on veganism, on nutritional requirements, and on raising vegan children. But still, it might take some time to feel confident that you can actually switch your children to a vegan lifestyle. I found myself reading articles about children who were raised vegan from birth, and I would scrutinise the photos, thinking to myself, “Do they look healthy? Do they look well nourished? Does this one look a little scrawny? Does that one look a little pale?” But really, they all just looked like children.
Every newly vegan family faces a unique transition, because kids vary so widely in their tastes, and in what they will and won’t eat. The main things to keep in mind are that you can do it, your children will be healthy, and they won’t feel or be deprived. There are so many vegan families out there already, eating wonderful foods and living well and happily. And they aren’t any different from you and your family!
Children have an amazing desire to do right by animals, especially if they have already been raised with some sensitivity towards the furry, the scaly, and the feathered beings who share their planet with us humans. I think a good place to start, in order to have the smoothest and happiest transition away from animal products, is to talk, in an age-appropriate manner, about how we can help the animals with the choices we make.
When I went vegan, before my children or husband did, my children were simply curious about the tweaks my diet had undergone. Example: “Mommy, why aren’t you having cheese on your pizza?”
I didn’t want to traumatize them with exactly why Mommy wasn’t having cheese on her pizza, as the real and honest answer is…er…quite grim. So what I told them, at 6 and 9, is that I wasn’t eating anything that came from animals because I wanted to give the animals a break. They liked this thought, because they adore animals, as children do.
The concept of being extra kind to animals by being vegan appealed to them, and they went through a phase of asking if this food or that food was vegan. It is a great idea to use the natural curiosity children possess to make the transition fun, and a journey of discovery. Before long, they will probably be just as excited as you are to spot the Vegan Society logo or the words “suitable for vegans” on products that have been officially labeled as such.
Now that my kids have been vegan a little while, and are enthusiastic about both the ethics and the newfound menu, I have entrusted them with more information about why we are vegan. Still age-appropriate, but providing more details and making it abundantly clear that animals are not ours to use in the way that society teaches us is normal and acceptable.
Even if your children are completely gung-ho on making changes in order to help the animals, you may still have nagging doubts about nutrition. After all, didn’t we have certain food myths instilled in us nearly from infancy? Milk for strong bones, and the like? Strong bones was actually one of my biggest concerns, as it happens, when the kids followed me into a vegan lifestyle. This is probably due to the efforts of the dairy industry to make us believe we all need dairy, and lots of it, to meet our calcium needs. But I did a little research, and discovered that leafy greens, among other plant-based foods, are an excellent source of calcium. Chia seeds have become a part of our daily diet for their calcium as well as other nutrients. I put chia and flax seeds (which I grind fresh in a spice grinder) on our cereal every morning.
Another concern was protein. We are a protein-worshipping society. Again, this is probably due to food-industry brainwashing (meat industry, I’m looking in your direction…). But it’s really so easy, with a varied combination of whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. I don’t find I have to go to heroic lengths to get enough protein for myself or my kids. Once you read up a little bit on what makes a healthy and complete vegan diet, it really becomes second nature. All of it. So if you are worried about protein for yourself or for your kids, or any other aspect of proper nutrition, take heart and know that it’s really very easy to tick all the boxes.
The key is a varied and healthy diet. And this was important even before you went vegan, so this has not changed. Having said that, however, it’s not as though I am in constant pursuit of major variation. We’re just not eating the same three things constantly, that’s all. I think that as you explore new foods, a healthy degree of variety will just become part of what is natural. I found once I went vegan, with the husband and children following in my footsteps, variety increased because I was learning about new and interesting and healthy foods.
But let me say this, speaking of healthy foods—there are as many ways to be vegan as there are vegans. If you are not a health food devotee, fear not. You don’t have to adopt a macrobiotic diet, or a raw diet, or anything that is far out of your comfort zone. You and your children need not stray at all from your comfort zone if you don’t want to. For every non-vegan food, there is a vegan equivalent. So if you like a dinner of chips and burgers and ice cream as a treat now and then, well, there is a vegan version of that. My advice is start where you are, and learn as you go, and don’t try too hard for perfection. Being vegan is not about being perfect. It’s about doing the best you can with what you know to be true.
The confidence I have now in being vegan and in cooking vegan foods comes mostly from educating myself through reading lots of articles and recipe blogs online. This confidence comes in time, and is important to possess, because you will most likely encounter family or friends who don’t understand being vegan and dismiss it as unsound. Don’t let anyone scare you into thinking a balanced vegan diet is not sound. There are healthy people who have been vegan for decades. If a balanced vegan diet was not perfectly healthy, the evidence would show this to be true. If well-meaning friends or family members express doubt about your veganism or your children’s, they have clearly not put much time into finding out the facts.
Be proud of this new phase upon which you’re embarking. You are doing something really beautiful for yourself, for your children, for the planet, and for the animals. Be confident, and never apologise for being vegan, or for having the courage of your convictions. The world needs more parents like you, and more families like yours!