Unfortunately many people, doctors included, mistakenly believe that vegan diets are not suitable for children. The reality is that vegan children are healthier and less likely to develop chronic health problems later in life. This week's post is by guest blogger Vanya Francis who is raising her daughter on a vegan diet. This post originally appeared on Opare Integrative Health Care's Knowledge For Life Blog.
I’ve known since before my daughter Taraja’s conception, I wanted to raise a vegan child. As someone who ate everything growing up, my personal journey to veganism has spanned nearly 15 years. Taraja, on the other hand, is now 5, and her father and I have managed to raise her as a vegan since birth.
Having the right people in place to support our commitment to raising a vegan child has been crucial. Rose Rocker, owner and founder of Sarita’s Playpen, is one of those people. Sarita’s Playpen, an in-home daycare, known for it’s loving environment and vegan menu, accepted Taraja 2 days before I had to return to work from maternity leave. While on maternity leave, I visited no less than 10 daycares in search of a place that supported my commitment to breastfeeding, veganism and a green lifestyle, which included biodegradable diapers. I found this place to be virtually nonexistent in Atlanta. I was doing well to find one that met the basic standards for quality childcare like small student to teacher ratios. I was definitely pushing my luck asking for a vegan menu, until we found Rose. Rose had created Sarita’s Playpen 13 years prior out of necessity for her own vegan daughter.
Breastfeeding as a working mom was challenging, but I knew the benefits of breastfeeding far outweighed any challenges I experienced. As Taraja moved to eating solid foods, I decided to make her baby food. I knew I had no other choice after tasting baby food out of a jar. Like most first-time moms, I was clueless about how to make baby food but I purchased a couple of recipe books that made it fun and easy. “Top 100 Baby Food Purees” by Annabel Karmel is one I recommend to friends and new moms to this day. While not a vegan cookbook, many of the recipes are vegan-friendly, which is true of most baby foods. After a while, I began to experiment with my own combinations. They were delicious, and Taraja thought so too! The most gratifying part was knowing exactly what went into everything she ate. I used organic fruits and veggies whenever possible, and introduced her to exotic fruits, an array of veggies and interesting grains. I truly believe this is how Taraja developed a genuine love for healthy foods.
When Taraja entered a new school at age two, we no longer had the convenience and support of a vegan childcare provider. We did, however, have the option of sending lunch and snacks on the days they weren’t able to accommodate her diet. Overall, this system worked well but there was the one horrifying occasion when someone forgot to inform the substitute teacher about food allergies AND dietary restrictions. This occasion resulted in Taraja eating fried chicken and macaroni and cheese for lunch! This was affirmation that while packing lunches may have at times seemed less convenient than participating in a school lunch program, we would have greater peace of mind and more autonomy in providing it ourselves.
As Taraja has gotten older, I’ve tried to involve her in meal planning and preparation almost daily. As a former marketing professional at a major network and now an entrepreneur, it has been essential for us to find quick, healthy, wholesome meals. A true chef in her own right, Taraja has continued to develop a love and appreciation for natural foods. She will often choose fruit over a cookie or cake. I attribute this to our effort to consistently finding healthy alternatives to traditionally unhealthy foods. It has been my experience that children develop an appetite for whatever you expose them to, but you have to be willing to try it yourself. As parents, we are their first and most influential example with regard to diet. We have the ability to shape their choices. Our dislikes and limitations as adults don’t have to become theirs.
Ideally, as a vegan, you should prepare your own meals. That way you always know what goes into them. The reality is, you won’t always have time, if your life is anything like mine. Gratefully, there are tons of blogs and websites that highlight vegan recipes and cooking, as well as vegan/vegetarian friendly restaurants throughout town. As a mom who is often on the go, it has been key for me to identify vegan/vegetarian friendly restaurants, that may not tout a completely vegetarian menu but at least offer vegan menu items. Taraja and I both LOVE all types of cuisine, so it’s been important for me not to be limited to just vegetarian restaurants. We love to experiment and try new things, so weekly trips to the Farmer’s Market with an international array of foods keeps life really interesting.
Snacks are also an integral part of our lives. I try my best to always have a healthy, vegan snack on hand when I know we’ll be away from home for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, this means my car never stays clean, but it’s a small price to pay for a happy, healthy child. I also make it a point to send Taraja to school with healthy snacks. I’ve noticed as she gets older, she has become increasingly aware of the fact that she is vegan and her diet differs from her peers. However, we encourage her to focus on all of the wonderful things she does eat, as opposed to what she doesn’t. This has been a particularly effective strategy for countering any negative pressure from peers.
One of Taraja’s favorite snacks is roasted seaweed. After noticing Taraja’s seaweed snack packs were returning home with her one week, I asked her why. I could see in her beautiful doe eyes that someone had teased her about eating seaweed. Her father and I decided to use that as a teaching moment and openly shared the seaweed with her classmates after school the next day. The kids were hooked, and now look forward to the days she brings seaweed to school.
Raising a vegan child requires patience, fortitude and a little creativity but it is most certainly possible if it’s what you truly desire for your family!
Thank you Vanya for your words of wisdom! Vanya is a yoga teacher and co-owner of Om Point Yoga.