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Tuesday, May 19th, 2015
Have lunch with a group of friends and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone around the table who’s not following a special diet, whether it’s vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, Paleo, or simply “clean” eating. I get it: We’re all trying to figure out the way of eating that’s best for us, and my own diet has undergone its fair share of tweaking too. But the recent controversy over a Paleo baby food cookbook got me thinking: When we change our diets–whether it’s going meat-free or cutting out gluten–should we take our kids along for the ride?
In some cases, your diet could represent moral, religious, or ethical values that you want to pass along to your kids. “Being vegetarian is part of our moral map, similar to being a gay ally or supporting environmental causes,” says a vegetarian friend of mine. “We want to teach our son why we believe that having a vegetarian diet is a morally conscious choice.” If there’s a person in the family with a food allergy, intolerance, or medical issue like celiac disease, that might also mean everyone in the family must abstain from certain foods (at least at home).
But what about diets we follow because that way of eating simply makes us feel (and, let’s face it, look) better? A friend of mine switched to a Paleo/Primal diet, avoiding processed foods, grains, refined sugar, and dairy. “I eat this way because my body responds the best to this type of diet,” she says. “I have more energy, I’m happier, I sleep more soundly, and it’s easy to maintain my weight.” Though she now serves fewer grains with dinner and cooks more bacon-and-eggs breakfasts, her son and daughter don’t follow her diet (and neither does her husband). “My kids drink milk for protein and simply love bread and cereal. Their bodies seem better able to process those food categories better than mine can,” she says. She’s also okay with keeping some processed foods in the house, including granola bars for their lunchboxes and chips for her husband.
When changing up the family’s way of eating, it’s smart to keep these things in mind:
- Watch out for signs that your child is distressed or negatively impacted by the diet. If your kids seem fixated on foods that aren’t allowed or are sneaking or hiding food, it’s time to talk with them and think about relaxing the rules. Even “clean” eating, which simply focuses on whole and unprocessed foods, can be hard on children if it’s restrictive. Read my post on the topic, “When Healthy Eating Goes Too Far”.
- Avoid using extreme language when talking about any food. Words like “poison”, “dangerous”, or “fattening” can be alarming for kids and create negative associations with food.
- Consider giving your child a choice. “We have been clear with our son that once he is old enough to make his own fully formed moral decision, probably age 10-12, he will be allowed to decide if he wants to eat meat,” says my vegetarian friend.
- Allow your kids to learn how foods make them feel. You’ve had decades to figure out that soda makes you sluggish or that gluten triggers your headaches–but your child is still learning about food and eating. Obviously, medical issues may make certain foods off-limits, no questions asked. But otherwise, letting a child experience, say, a bellyache from too much candy on Halloween isn’t the end of the world and is actually an important learning opportunity. “As they age, I’m certain my kids will try different ways of eating and settle on one that they like best,” says my Paleo/Primal friend. “I’d rather they experience this for themselves so that they’ll make healthier choices because THEY want to, not because mom said so.”
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.
Image: Family eating together via Shutterstock
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Friday, May 1st, 2015
How many meatless meals a week does your family eat?
Padma Lakshmi, the host of Bravo’s Top Chef, a mom, and cookbook author, wants that number to go up. She’s working with MorningStar Farms to help inspire families to eat less meat.
Recently, MorningStar Farms began asking people to take the Veg of Allegiance. This initiative sets out to encourage anyone who wants to lead a more meatless lifestyle, no matter what the reason may be. By pledging, I #VegAllegiance to go meatless for (any number of) meals per week, participants can join the discussion about the perks of consuming more veggies and less meat.
Parents recently spoke with Lakshmi about her own choice to go meatless and how you can do the same.
P.com: What are some of the benefits to going meatless?
PL: I feel lighter, healthier, more energetic, and it’s good for your body… but it’s also good for the planet. The amount of carbon footprints you leave by eating a steak or lamb-chop is so much more than if you were to eat tofu.
P.com: What tips do you have for families who want to go meatless?
PL: Start with five meals a week, and make three of those meals during the weekends… and preplan! Rather than reading a gossip magazine during a pedicure or while you’re lying in bed, think about what you will make. And get your children involved in cooking—they’ll feel a sense of pride and they will be more likely to eat better for the rest of their lives.
P.com: What about families who feel they’re too busy to eat at home?
PL: Make meals ahead of time—I find myself taking a cutting board to the coffee table to prepare whatever I can while watching TV.
P.com: As we all know children can be picky, and might resist making the change to being meatless. Do you have suggestions for parents who are struggling to get their children on board?
PL: It’s important to be strict with yourself and set a good example—make one meal for the whole house rather than catering to everyone’s preferences. My daughter is a vegetarian, so I will substitute certain things for her, but if she refuses to eat altogether then she’s out of luck. Children will eventually get hungry and come around.
Related: 5 Myths About “Going Vegetarian”
Padma also stresses the importance of talking to your children about food. Rather than exposing them only to bright-packaged candy in the grocery store, bring them to the butcher, farm, or fish market, where they will have the opportunity to talk to the people that produce their food. “We used to be educated about the food we eat, but we’ve become so removed from that. We need to get back to the basics,” she said.
By eating “clean”, and focusing less on meat-based meals, we can improve the planet. According to MorningStar, having more plant-based meals can reduce the emissions of carbon and greenhouse gases as well as save water—and you might just feel better too.
I don’t know about you, but I say bring on the veggies! I #VegAllegiance to go meatless for three meals a week… what do you say!?
Caitlin St John is an Editorial Assistant for Parents.com who splits her time between New York City and her hometown on Long Island. She’s a self-proclaimed foodie who loves dancing and anything to do with her baby nephew. Follow her on Twitter: @CAITYstjohn
Image: John Minchillo/AP Images for MorningStar Farms
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Saturday, December 14th, 2013
By now, you’ve likely heard that Beyonce is on a well-publicized diet ride with her husband, Jay Z. On December 3rd, the power couple embarked on a 22-day vegan diet. They’re not alone. Other celebrities who have been reported to follow a purely plant-based diet include Natalie Portman, Ellen Degeneres and Alicia Silverstone. But just because the stars seem to be aligning to ban meat, fish, dairy and eggs from their diets, does that mean you and your family should as well?
Although a healthy, well-balanced diet can certainly include both plant and animal foods, there’s burgeoning evidence that following a vegetarian diet—even a vegan diet that is rich in plant foods and excludes eggs, dairy and other animal products—has some appealing perks. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), vegetarian diets are associated with lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. And just this week, a new (albeit small) study published in Nature suggests that switching from vegetarianism to meat-eating, or meat-eating to vegetarianism changed the number and kinds of gut bacteria and how it behaved within one day of making the switch. Researchers aren’t sure what these changes mean for human health. But, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), gut bacteria are thought to play a role in digestion, immunity and possibly even body weight.
According to AND, vegetarian diets tend to be lower in nutrients we should limit in the diet—these include saturated fat and cholesterol. They also tend to pack in more fiber (many fall short on this) and vitamins and minerals including magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate and several important plant chemicals.
But along with the perks of eating only plant foods come a few possible perils. According to AND, those who follow vegan or vegetarian diets may also have lower intakes vitamin B-12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. That’s no surprise since these nutrients are found abundantly in animal foods—the foods excluded from vegan diets. Here are some plant foods that are good sources of vitamin B-12, calcium, vitamin D and zinc:
Vitamin B-12: fortified soy and rice beverages, ready-to-eat fortified cereals and meat analogs
Calcium: bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, calcium-fortified orange juice, calcium-set tofu, fortified soy milk, fortified rice milk, fortified ready-to-eat cereal, soybeans, cowpeas, white beans, navy beans, instant oatmeal, English muffins and white rice
Vitamin D: fortified soy milk, fortified rice milk and fortified ready-to-eat cereal
Zinc: fortified ready-to-eat cereals, oats, soybeans, white beans, tomato products, lentils, spinach, kidney beans, barley, chickpeas, lima beans, navy beans, potatoes, peas, mushrooms, sweet potato and collards
According to Sharon Palmer, MS, RD, author of The Plant-Powered Diet, vegans and vegetarians (unless they eat eggs) get essentially no long-chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA). She says, “We do know that you can convert omega-3 fatty acids from plants (ALA) to the more potent kinds found in fish (EPA and DHA) at modest levels, so it’s good for kids to consume ALA-rich plant foods such as walnuts, flax, soy, chia and hemp. But that might not be enough to support all of the important functions that the long chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, have in the body.” Although Palmer says there’s not enough research to give us really firm guidelines on intake of EPA and DHA during childhood, she feels it’s prudent, based on current evidence, for children to take small amounts of vegetarian EPA/DHA supplements, about 200 mg of DHA/EPA every 2 – 3 days.
In her article, Feeding Vegetarian and Vegan Infants and Toddlers, Dayle Hayes, MS, RD points out that iron, protein and fiber are a few other nutrients to pay attention in infants who follow vegan diets. She says although infants are born with enough iron stores to last 4 to 6 months, after that they need iron from iron-fortified cereals or supplements. According to Hayes, because infants can only meet their protein needs with breast milk or formula for about 8 months, after that time they need to derive additional protein from beans, cereals and fortified soy milks. To meet fiber needs, Hayes suggests frequent meals and snacks that include some refined grains like fortified cereals, breads and pasta, and higher-fat plant foods like avocado and sunflower butter.
Besides the risk of not meeting nutrient needs, following a vegan diet can make eating a bit of a challenge for kids when they’re at school, at friends’ homes, at camp or when eating out. It can also be a challenge for children who are more “picky” with food choices and don’t try, accept or enjoy a wide variety of plant foods.
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and AND concur that a well-planned vegan diet can be a healthy diet that provides all the nutrients kids need to meet their needs to grow and develop. But because foods and food groups like dairy foods, lean meats and poultry, fish and eggs are excluded from the diet, parents who want to fed their kids a vegan diet will need to make sure it provides enough calories and nutrients to meet their needs for growth and development. Seeing a registered dietitian nutritionist well versed in vegan diets is a great place to start to get science-based and practical guidelines.
Whether or not you think a vegan diet is too restrictive or you simply have no interest in eliminating animal foods from your family’s diet, including more plant foods in the daily diet is likely a wise dietary strategy for parents and children alike. It’s a good idea especially for those children (and parents) who fall short of current recommended intakes for nutrient-packed foods such as fruits, vegetables and legumes (beans and peas). To help you work more plant foods into your diet, check out How to Help Vegetarian (and All) Children Eat Their Vegetables. You can also visit Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group and Tips for Vegetarians.
Would you ever try a vegan or vegetarian diet?
Download our guide for Baby’s first solid foods and finger food recipes. Then check out these no-fail snack foods for kids (and parents).
Image of white dinner plate with different healthy vegetables via shutterstock.
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Wednesday, May 8th, 2013
How would you feel if your child’s school swapped out meat and fish in favor of tofu, beans and other plant foods? According to a recent article on NBCNEWS.com, P.S. 244 in Queens, New York recently became the first public elementary school in New York City—and perhaps in the nation—to provide all-vegetarian lunchtime fare.
When I initially heard about this, I asked myself a few questions. Would the children feel that they were being force fed a vegetarian-only menu? Would the move send a message to the school’s faculty, students and parents that going meat-free was necessary to optimize the health and wellbeing of the students?
I’m all for improving the quality of school lunches. For some students, school lunches may be their best, most complete meals of the week. And for all students, having regular access to foods and meals that are palatable and presented in an appealing way is key. Not only does it make children willing—even excited—to eat, but it provides them with key nutrients. Being well nourished helps children perform optimally whether they’re taking a test, learning a new lesson or participating in gym class or in after-school sport or activity.
As a registered dietitian and nutritionist—and one who applauds the Meatless Monday campaign and other initiatives that push more plant-based diets—I’m well aware of the many nutritional and health benefits associated with a diet rich in plant foods. Plant-based diets are linked with a reduced risk of several chronic diseases and healthy body weight. Incorporating more vegetables and fruits, grains (especially whole grains), beans and peas, and nuts and seeds provides growing children with protein and fiber as well as an array of vitamins and minerals.
Being offered vegetarian fare only can also expose children to a wide variety of plant foods they might otherwise not know about. Seeing peers (and even faculty) enjoy such meals may also have a ripple effect and inspire some who are reluctant to try such foods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says supports a well-planned vegetarian diet as a healthful, nutritionally adequate option for children.
Despite the possible health and other perks of going vegetarian, a recent study suggests that a plant-based diet with small intakes of red meat, fish and dairy products can improve health. Including small portions of animal foods that are prepared in healthful, low-fat ways—for example, broiled or grilled lean beef, skinless poultry and baked, unbreaded fish—provides high quality protein and other vital nutrients. Lean beef and poultry boast selenium and several B vitamins, and seafood—especially fatty, oily fish—provides potent omega-3 fatty acids.
While leaving meat, fowl and fish off of school lunch menus everyday is not, in my opinion, a reason to revolt, I think it’s unnecessary. There’s also a risk that children—especially those who are reluctant to try new foods or are ‘picky’ or particular in their taste preferences—perhaps they don’t like beans, tofu or edamame—won’t get enough protein. Having adequate protein at meals can help children fill up faster, stabilize blood sugar levels and support growing muscles.
Choosy children may also be at risk for eating nutritionally-imbalanced meals, especially if they have extra helpings of pasta, rice, bread and fruit because they don’t like or are unwilling to try other foods.
Only time will tell if an all-vegetarian lunch will come to a school near you. For now, I advocate that children should be offered a lunch menu that’s heavy in plant proteins and colorful produce, and lighter in meat, poultry, fish and low fat dairy foods. It’s all about providing a variety of healthfully prepared foods to please different palates.
Would you support an all-vegetarian menu at your child’s school?
Image of students in cafeteria via Shutterstock.
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