Almost every parent has had to deal with a child who refuses to eat a particular food. Whether it’s vegetables, “yucky” meat, anything brown or food that has touched another food on the plate, kids have particular ideas as to what is and what isn’t acceptable when it comes to eating.
What happens, though, when a child decides to become a vegetarian? How does a parent plan healthy meals that whole family can and will eat?
There has in fact been an upswing in vegetarianism, according to www.news.therawfoodworld.com: In 2009, only 1% of the U.S. population reported eating vegetarian or vegan. Now, 5% of the United States population, or 16 million people, are vegetarian.
Andy and Gina Burke, Fairfield County residents and parents to three girls, Katie, Bridget and Maggie, faced just such a particular food challenge when Bridget, who was in 7th grade at the time, declared herself a vegetarian.
“Bridget always had a lot of food sensitivities, particularly when it came to texture, until finally, when she was in the fourth grade, she gave up meat and fish entirely,” Gina, a teacher, recalls.
Gina and Andy’s main concern was their daughter’s development… how would they know if she was eating enough of the right foods to make up for the animal protein she was eliminating from her diet?
The couple met first with their pediatrician, who assured them that a vegetarian diet was safe for children and gave them some nutritional guidelines to follow to ensure that Bridget would have a healthy, vegetarian diet.
“Initially, she ate tofu, salad and a lot of beans, while Katie and Maggie had certain foods that they didn’t like,” says Gina. “One of our biggest challenges was making meals that everyone could eat.”
Andy, a caterer and owner of Old Greenwich-based Burke Catering (burkecatering.com), did much of the cooking, making separate meals for each daughter, while Gina stuck to basic pastas. “I was busy working and simply didn’t have time to make a different meal for everyone,” she recounts. “Andy loved making Bridget fancy cheese sandwiches, and she was one of the few kids I know that enjoyed French cheeses and other more sophisticated foods.”
One of the most challenging aspects of the vegetarian diet is knowing exactly how much protein is needed, and what constitutes the correct amount. Maria Tripodi (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Westport-based registered dietician, explains, “A regular recommended daily diet should consist of 50% carbohydrates, 25-30% fat, and 15% protein. Foods like legumes, milk, quinoa, eggs, cheese, yogurt (Greek yogurt contains more protein than regular yogurt), ravioli, tortellini, veggie burgers, and some foods like waffles and cereals, contain protein.”
Maria adds that a protein exchange is equal to 7 grams of protein, which is what is found in an ounce of poultry, meat and fish, as well as an entire egg. “Typically, a 3 oz. protein serving, or 21 grams, is average for lunch. Dinner is anywhere from 3 to 6 oz. Read labels carefully, and look for products that contain protein so you can be sure you’re getting the recommended daily amount.”
As Bridget got older, she learned how to approach a vegetarian diet more independently. “The biggest challenge of maintaining a vegetarian diet, I learned, is getting enough protein,” she explains. “Vegetarians have to be more attentive about getting all of their nutrients because we don’t eat a lot of the foods that have large amounts of protein and iron in them. I realized that just pasta or grilled cheese for dinner wasn’t giving me the nutrients I needed. I find that it’s helpful to plan the meals out ahead of time, which makes you think about what it is that you’re eating and whether or not it has enough protein.”
Bridget, who will be attending the University of Connecticut as a freshman this fall, has opted for a vegetarian meal plan. “Initially, I was concerned that there wouldn’t be many options for me in college, but I have been assured by other UCONN students that there are plenty of vegetarian choices,” she says. Hopefully two of her favorites — eggplant parmesan and veggie burgers — will be on the menu.