I did not embark on my plant-based eating journey until a few years ago. At that time, my boys were 10 and 13. I didn’t have the luxury of being able to mold them from very young ages into perfect little plant-eaters. It was instead a process that we still work at, but I have to admit that it is going better than I could have ever expected and we’re getting closer to being a plant-based family each day.
Imagine, sitting down to dinner, and your kids fight over who gets the last red pepper of their veggie appetizer, then go on to eat a meal of brown rice pasta with stir-fried sugar snap peas, broccolini, and edamame followed by an apple for dessert. I would have never imagined this a couple of years ago. Not in my wildest dreams!
My kids and husband pretty much ate meat, meat, and more meat. Burgers, steak, chicken, sausages, pork chops (I am cringing as I write this) were what they craved, and as a mom who just loved seeing my picky kids eat, I was happy when they ate protein.
Protein over the years has made a name for itself as the macronutrient of choice. Carbs have been demonized and protein put on a pedestal. I had always served up dinners that included healthy grains and vegetables along with some type of animal protein, but the only food gone on their plates was the meat.
That has all changed (phew), but it has taken time and diligence. Plants reign in our house now, and we are all feeling amazing about our choices, so they are here to stay.
Kids don’t listen to much of what we say, but they see everything that we do and that is what I was hoping would happen with this transition to a plant-based diet. I knew they would be watching, and I was excited to be a good role model for them.
I was, finally, after doing crazy amounts of research, convinced that a plant-based diet was the healthiest way to eat. I was also convinced that for the environment to survive, it was the way to go. Being an animal lover, I was very happy to not eat them anymore as well.
I was sure the hubby and boys would all just fall right in behind me as I switched our family of cavemen over to a plant-based diet. It didn’t happen that way, at all. Instead, it took time, patience and a lot of persistence. I learned a lot during the process and love sharing so other people can get their families on the path to great health.
Why I Switched to Plant-Based
After I had been diagnosed with the “bad cholesterol” gene, and told I should go on drugs to lower it, I knew I needed to change my diet. In addition to high cholesterol, I was feeling tired and achy all the time which led to lots of tests for autoimmune disorders.
All roads led to “eat more plants and live longer with fewer health problems.”
I got my Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from eCornell run through the Center for Nutritional Studies, and I also attended every conference on plant-based medicine that I could find.
The Protein Hype
People feel guilty taking meat and dairy away from their kids and families. It is so ingrained in us that this is what we are supposed to eat a ton of. All of the ads tell us to. Protein shakes on top of burgers, on top of chicken breasts are putting kids and adults alike at risk of some serious health issues.
Kids are bombarded even more than we were as kids, by environmental assaults, by the food, water, and the air we breathe. They need the antioxidants and phytonutrients of fruits and vegetables to fight off cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and the autoimmune diseases that we are now seeing starting much earlier in people’s lives.
If kids are eating tons of meat and cheese, processed foods, and sugary snacks, they have no room for fruits and vegetables so we need to help them make a switch. Fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds need to be the basis for their diets. If they are eating those other foods, they should be doing it sparingly.
It is tough for some people to get over the fact that plants have more than enough protein for us to thrive on. When we eat a plant-based diet, we get all of the protective health effects that plants offer. All the cancer fighters, inflammation reducers, and heart protection concentrated in a neat little nutrient-dense package.
The RDA for protein is 8-10% of our daily calories, which is all we need to thrive and function perfectly. Yet most people twice as much of their daily intake of calories from protein, and most often from animal protein that sets us up for a whole host of illnesses.
Kids have small tummies and even shorter attention spans. If they eat a decent-sized chunk of meat, you can almost guarantee they aren’t getting those veggies, beans, or whole grains down.
Carbs vs Protein
Modern-day kids have grown up on convenience foods and have been on the receiving end of the protein hype. We are hit over the head with protein constantly, and I have worked with so many kids now who are deathly afraid of carbs.
Yes, they should be afraid of sugary cookies and donuts, but somehow all carbs have been lumped together as bad. Fruit and vegetables have carbs in them and are amazing foods! So is brown rice and Quinoa. Yet, people are afraid.
The very foods that should be keeping kids moving are shunned because they feel like protein will keep them healthier. And believe me, they are not getting these high amounts of protein from beans and lentils. They are surrounded by more junk and convenience foods than ever.
There is a burger place on every corner, and they are filled with kids who are addicted to this quick hit of saturated fat and salt. I’ve noticed that there is now an entire row of beef jerky and meat sticks up close to every register. Food companies that sell food that doesn’t have protein in it are adding protein to it to sell more of the product. We are protein obsessed! Dairy is another kid crowd pleaser and another food that can wreak havoc on our systems.
Dealing with Fussy Kids
People complain that their kids are fussy and that all they will eat are sugary cereals, fries, mac and cheese and burgers. True, kids are naturally fussy and it is part of growing up. Routine is a huge part of a child’s makeup.
Kids love routine and are not always open to trying new things. However, if healthy food shows up in your home over and over and over again, THAT becomes the habit. I have seen it work. I have been living it. In fact, at first, I felt horribly guilting about pulling a lot of their favorite foods away from them.
I’d feel bad that I was taking this source of pleasure away from them. I didn’t realize that soon beautiful, healthy foods would fill their place and make them even happier.
As I kept serving up the same new foods, I would thank them for at least trying them instead of shaming them, and it was obviously a good tactic because in time they grew to like a lot of the foods that they would barely take a bite of the first time. Fruits and vegetables became the go-to over time, and processed snack foods are now a distant memory.
The other day, they both confessed that they didn’t like soda at all anymore. They used to beg for it at restaurants and now their tastes have changed so much it actually tastes bad to them. Music to my ears.
Nutrition Education & Cooking with Kids
Another thing that worked quite well in getting my kids to try new foods was bringing the boys into the kitchen. My 12 year old (at the time he was 10), as it turns out, loves to cook and will at least try everything he makes.
He started reaching for healthier foods because while we were cooking I was educating him on what all of the foods we were making did for his body. I was amazed that he was asking so many questions, and because he was trying so many things, it was expanding his palate.
He was beginning to eat foods I had never imagined him eating. He would come home each day and ask for lentil and tomato topped lettuce just about every day for a year. I don’t think we give kids, even little kids enough credit that they have the ability to understand what foods do in their bodies.
They are fascinated with their bodies so of course they would be fascinated with what they put into them. Parents are afraid to explain that the flavor blasted goldfish and bright red candy fish have substances in them that can be harmful to little bodies and that we shouldn’t eat them very often, if at all.
In 2008, researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University studied how cooking with a child affects the child’s eating habits. Nearly 600 children from kindergarten to sixth grade took part in a nutrition curriculum intended to get them to eat more vegetables and whole grains.
Some kids had lessons and some got to cook in a cooking workshop. The researchers found that those children who had cooked their own foods were way more likely to eat those foods when exposed to them again compared to the kids who had not had the cooking class.
Teens & Body Awareness
Teens are an interesting bunch. They are just starting to become more aware of their bodies and that food affects them, so in some ways, they are easier to reason with.
That said, peer pressure to eat poorly abounds, and they often end up at fast food restaurants and grabbing convenience food. I do believe that educating them makes a big difference and once they start noticing a difference in athletic performance, clearer skin, energy levels, and weight loss, they are hooked.
My older son runs track and when we first started trying to change our diets around, we would talk about what he ate and how it related to his track performance. He noticed that on days where he ate junk food he would bonk, and on the days when he ate lots of complex carbs he was faster and could run longer.
I even offered to come talk to the track team, but he didn’t want me to because he was enjoying his “secret” advantage. He also noticed that when he cut out meat and dairy, his complexion cleared up. There are some great new studies that prove how acne is affected by diet. We had personally seen several doctors who mentioned that diet does not affect acne. What??
Kids are smarter than we all give them credit for. Have them take inventory of how they feel when they eat nourishing plant foods versus heavy meat-based foods. All of the kids I have worked with feel better eating more plants and less meat.
They have fewer stomach aches, are more alert, perform better in sports, have fewer skin problems, stay more focused, maintain an optimal body weight, and have more energy on the plants.
Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks
Getting the kids to come on board was a heck of a lot easier than my husband, aka Mr. N.Y. Strip Steak. He loved his meat. Every weekend he and the boys would do what they thought guys should be doing. They grilled up meat. Bacon burgers and steaks were a crowd favorite. Ugh.
Adding the cancer-causing compounds heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, through grilling to already carcinogenic meat, seemed like a death wish. Watching them eat it week after week was more than I could take.
If it takes 10 – 15 trials of a new food to get a kid to like like it, or at least accept it, then it takes an additional 10-15 for a husband who is stubborn and set in his ways to accept it. My hubby is a smart man though, so watching all of the videos I sent him from nutritionfacts.org, reading “The China Study” (Amazon Link), and viewing “Forks Over Knives” (Amazon Link) definitely left him wanting to try to switch his diet over to a plant-based one.
I had to figure out what he liked and start with that since to him he was giving up all of his favorite foods of 40 years. He has always liked fruits and veggies, so I served lots of salads. quinoa and veggie dishes and soups.
Incorporating greens into his diet was a bit tricky, I would add kale sliced in ribbons into soups and he didn’t even really notice. Slicing kale and other greens super thin before it becomes a salad or goes into a soup, is key as it makes it more palatable to people who aren’t huge fans.
I had to ease into beans as well. He absolutely hated them before. He could think of nothing worse than eating a bean. I started sneaking them into soups and chili. A very tasty burger made of blended up beans and sweet potatoes was a hit as well, mostly because of the toppings (caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato) and the use of a great bun.
Lentil bolognese with lots of veggies in it was the biggest win and continues to be something he loves to this day. He actually makes it for himself all of the time.
Bottom line, keep dishing it out, make it taste good, and eventually, men will eat it. If they are smart, they will thank you for taking the time to cook for them and for caring about their health. My husband can not thank me enough. Every meal isn’t amazing, but they are all healthy. He sees the effort, so when it isn’t his favorite meal, he still eats it and thanks me.
We have always enjoyed having dinner parties with other families. Once we had fully shifted our diet over to a plant-based one, it got a little dicey. I could not wrap my head around what to do with this one, as none of our friends were vegan and most loved their meat.
“oh, my kid would never eat that”
only to watch them go on to practically lick the plate. We have converted so many families! A lot of them would not even have considered a plant-based diet before, but many of our friends are working towards that now.
12 Tips for Getting Your Kids to Eat More Plants
Here are some real-life insights into how to make this actually happen. Start with the tips that would make the most sense in your personal situation and progress from there.
1. Get the Junk Food Out of the House
If it is there, they will eat it (and most likely so will you), so get rid of it.
2. Make Gradual Changes and Be Persistent
Ease into the transition. Start with Meatless Monday and add more fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole complex grains to your diet. Experiment with whole food vegan recipes. If you have kids, keep giving them a variety, and be relentless about them trying new things. Don’t give up! It can take time and requires persistence.
3. Sneak in Fruits & Veg
Always serve a fruit with breakfast. Serve up some whole grain waffles, pancakes, oatmeal, or cereal with strawberries and bananas. I have found that a lot of kids don’t like fruit on top of other food. Serving it on the side sometimes goes a lot better. Fruit smoothies are a big hit with kids. Just make sure they are straight fruit and use sugar-free plant milk as the base versus fruit juice. Beans, flax, and greens have been making their way into my kid’s smoothies and are often unnoticed (save the greens – the color always gives that away).
4. Take Note of Favorites and Cook Together
Write down all of the fruit, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans, and legumes that your kids like and come up with meal plans including these foods. For kids, a plate of beans, rice, and broccoli can fit the bill perfectly. Simple is just fine and lots of kids prefer that. Other kids may want more elaborate dishes. Know your kid and make it work for their tastes. If you are feeling adventurous, take a few plant-based ingredients and have the kids google recipes using those ingredients. Make them together and enjoy the meal you create.
5. Stop Rewarding Kids with Junk Food
“You can have dessert if you do your homework”, or “You get more candy if you brush your teeth” is only teaching them that these things are amazingly special.
6. Practice Tolerance
If my kids have candy, junk food, and some meat once in a while, I am fine with that. They are kids. I get it. Freaking out has never proven effective in getting my kids to change a behavior. Tolerance, patience, and education work a lot better than guilt trips and shaming.
7. Buy Some Reusable Containers
They are great for kids to take to school and eat lunch out of. The best investment I made was a great reusable metal container for salads, and a great thermos (Amazon Link) to send soups, veggie stews, quinoa dishes and pasta to school in.
8. Grow a Garden
If you have space do it. Kids love eating what they have grown and will try way more vegetables if they have grown them themselves.
9. Shop More Often
Having fresh foods around means more frequent trips to buy groceries, so take your kids to the health food store with you and include them in the process. Let them pick out some new foods. My kids have always loved doing this and will eat a lot of food that they wouldn’t normally eat if I picked it out for them.
10. Prepare Colorful Plant Platters
Put a fruit and veggie tray out every single day after school. Vary it up with nutrient-rich foods like red peppers, hummus, carrots, guacamole, crackers, apples, nuts, sunflower seeds, whole-wheat pretzels. When my boys get home from school (I still do this to this day), I have tons of cut-up fruit and veggies on a big plate. It includes banana with peanut or almond butter, red peppers, carrots, edamame, sugar snap peas, apples, melon, berries, and/or avocado toast. When I first started doing this, they would pick at them, and in time they got over their old snacks (chips, goldfish, cheese etc), and to this day, they dive into them.
11. Stick with Familiar Foods
Kids love the shape of burgers so making burgers out of beans, sweet potatoes, quinoa and spices is fun for them. There are so many recipes for plant-based mac and cheese, vegan meatballs and more out there. Baked fries are delicious and remind kids of fast food fries. Pair that with some greens and you have the perfect dinner!
12. Don’t Give Up
Tastes change! I have realized through my own journey and through watching my husband and kids that taste preferences definitely change! It takes serving up new foods and making them have a bite 10-15 times, but they adjust, so don’t lose hope. I was relentless! Snack foods that are marketed to our kids are manufactured to be super addictive so they crave them, and it takes a while for them to step away from the dark side.
My kids can decide one day whether they want to eat meat at all. For now, they still eat some fish and the very occasional burger if out with their friends, but I am thrilled with how many fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans and ridiculously nutrient-dense meals they eat.
They are eating 90% less meat than they were eating 2 years ago and are very proud of it. They educate their friends and overhearing that is always a great treat for me.
It should not be stressful starting your family on a plant-based diet because you can always ease into it. Serve plant-based dishes over and over prepared in different ways. Sometimes simple and raw are best. Sometimes cooked draws them in.
Don’t give up, because you know you are making a difference in so many ways. Habits that form when we are young often carry out through adulthood. Kids have much better environmental awareness and have a natural love for animals. Knowing that they are helping their own health, the environment, and animals goes a long way for many kids.
Have you been wanting to transition your family to a plant-based diet? What were your biggest struggles and successes? Let us know in the comments below.
Chrissy Roth is a physical therapist, mom of two teenage boys and wife of a husband who only liked to eat meat. She has certificate in plant-based nutrition and both her and her husband have been fully plant-based for over two years – the boys have come around nicely. They all have boundless energy and haven’t been sick in years. She loves to share what she’s learned so other families can feel great, aid the environment, and protect animals too. You can follow her work here.