”But what does your child eat?!” is a question I often hear when I tell someone we don’t eat meat and dairy. Now 14, 10, and 6 our daughters have never eaten chicken wings or string cheese. Instead they love foods like lentils, quinoa, avocados, sweet potatoes, and cashew cheese!
Whether you’re raising your kids plant-based, or you’re on a mission to make eating more plants a healthy, normal part of your family meal routine, there’s never been a better time to get started.
Eating a plant-powered diet means eating healthful, whole plant foods that are nutrient-dense. While some talk about what they don’t eat on a plant-based diet, this lifestyle is far more about what we do eat. When you transition to plant-based foods, you quickly realize that there is a wider range of foods, flavors, and cuisines to enjoy.
When it comes to raising children without meat and dairy, the same holds true. Diet is learned, and children grow to love the foods they know. Start as early as possible, introducing things like sweet potatoes, zucchini, quinoa, and beans as first foods, and expand on plant-based offerings as children grow and develop.
In my own experience, I have seen our three children develop an understanding and appreciation of real food, and a fondness for home-cooked meals. It’s especially helpful to start children from the beginning, but don’t be discouraged if you are getting started later—it’s truly never too late to start.
Here are some of my top tips for creating and sustaining a plant-based family:
1. Make whole foods your dietary staples.
Plant-based substitutes for meats, cheeses, and other foods are fine to include in our diets, and can be helpful when transitioning from a standard diet. Strive to make the focus of your diet whole plant foods (grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits), and products made from whole foods (whole-grain flours, nut/seed butters, sprouted whole grain breads, whole grain pastas, etc.). You will naturally consume a nutrient-dense diet that is energizing and satisfying!
2. If you’re new to a plant-based lifestyle, begin with familiar foods and family favorites.
If your family loves spaghetti, experiment substituting a plant food for meat in your fave spaghetti sauce. You don’t have to rely on store-bought vegan meat alternatives like veggie ground. You can use cooked green or red lentils, grated or minced tempeh, chopped chickpeas, or sautéed chopped mushrooms. All of these plant foods will add a hearty texture to your favorite sauce. Love ice cream? Try a healthier vegan ice cream made from almond, coconut, or cashew milk. Or make my Cashew Banana Ice Cream or 5-ingredient Chocolate Gelato (no ice cream makers needed)!
3. Once you have some familiar favorites in rotation, it’s time to introduce some new recipes or cuisines.
Again, choose ingredients you already love as a starting point. If your family loves potatoes, select a potato recipe that welcomes a new ingredient, perhaps quinoa or leafy greens. Or, be ambitious with a new cuisine that uses that same ingredient – such as an Indian dish with potatoes and chickpeas.
4. Don’t give up on plant-based substitutes because you don’t like one particular brand.
I often hear from people that try rice or soy milk as their first experience with a dairy-free milk. They don’t like the flavor and decide they can’t give up cow milk in their coffee or cereal. However, plant milks vary greatly in flavor and texture—between brands and also by base ingredient (cashews, almonds, coconut, rice, soy, etc.). Try, try again!
5. Bring your kids into the process.
This doesn’t have to be cooking. It can be choosing a recipe to try, or selecting a new vegetable, fruit, or grain at the market or deciding which family dish to “transform” next! When children are involved, they are more invested and more likely to try (and enjoy) the new dish.
6. Role model.
Diet is learned, and children learn the most from us as parents and caregivers. So, be sure to be the change you want to see for your whole family. Embrace plant-foods and get creative using them in snacks and meals. Model those healthy eating habits, and your kids will be inclined to follow your lead into school years and beyond.
7. Talk to your children.
We talk to our kids about everything from school to sports to online behaviors, yet food is rarely discussed. Children need to know why our food choices are important, why we choose to eat plant food instead of animal foods, and also learn food skills like shopping and food preparation. These discussions do not take place in school, so we need to champion these conversations at home.
8. Accept some dislikes.
Remember that as adults, we all have foods we really love and really don’t love! Our children are entitled to have the same. These preferences may change over time. But, remember to celebrate the food successes, rather than the frustrations. Whether we have a big or small family, with young or grown children, we can all eat more plants more often. These choices are healthy, compassionate, and far gentler on our planet than meals with meat and dairy. And remember, plant-powered eating is not about perfection, but rather practice. The upside? The more you practice, the easier it becomes –and the more delicious!