Don’t make food a conflict for a vegetarian child

A child eats a garden burger from Whole Foods Market.
A child eats a garden burger from Whole Foods Market.

If you’re raising a child in a vegetarian household, power struggles and awkward social issues are bound to crop up.

Vegetarian parents may produce offspring who are curious about meat but worried that they will get in trouble with their folks if they eat it. That can be a stressful situation for a little kid, says Jennifer Nelson, director of clinical dietetics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“You need to be able to support your child in situations where he is going over to Tommy’s house and Tommy’s family is not vegetarian,” Nelson says. “Are you going to tell the child he can’t go to Tommy’s house, or are you going to raise your child to deal with that so that he doesn’t feel like he’s trapped between two world war events?”

You should offer age-appropriate explanations for why they don’t eat meat, Nelson and other experts suggest. Then give children reassurance and strategies for making food choices when they’re not with you.

“The last thing you want your [child] to do is go into the world and feel distressed that ‘I have to be just like Mommy and Daddy, and I’m not seeing anything here I can eat,’ ” Nelson says. “Early on, you do not want to set your child up for failure.”

As they get older, children tend to try whatever they’re told not to do, just to see how their parents will react, says Meredith Renda, a pediatrician at Doctor’s Pediatrics in Wilton, Conn. Resentment can build up if foods are forbidden completely. School-age children in particular can become anxious when anything about them is different from their peers, including what they eat for lunch.

“There is a lot of stress in the unknown about how other kids are going to react,” Renda says. “Food is a huge area where peers fit in together and bond.”

Deciding whether to raise their children as vegetarians is a sensitive issue that only parents can make. If it’s something parents feel strongly enough about to insist on, they’re going to have to explain to their children why it’s so important to them, Renda says. Then prepare to make compromises -- such as allowing kids to eat meat at friends’ houses or restaurants or packing snacks and lunches that look like chicken nuggets or hot dogs but are actually made from soy or wheat gluten.