My Kid Just Announced He’s a Vegetarian. So What Do I Do Now?

A pediatric nutritionist advises parents on how to deal with children who don't eat meat
My Kid Just Announced He’s a Vegetarian. So What Do I Do Now?
He'll be fine. Image via iStock.

You’ve been a meat and potatoes eater your whole life, but now your kid refuses to touch anything with animal flesh in it. Don’t worry; it’s not a sign that something is wrong with them. “A lot of kids just don’t like meat,” says pediatric nutritionist Daisy Miller. “Some have a natural taste or texture aversion. Sometimes it’s coming from a place of trying to control something, sometimes it’s a fear, and sometimes there’s a seed in their mind that harm was done to an animal.”

Now that you’ve got a fresh-faced vegetarian in your family, how do you adapt? Miller shares some keen insights to ensure your child stays healthy and you stay sane.

Ordering them to eat meat won’t work

“With selective eating, it’s not the thinking part of a kid’s brain that’s reacting–it’s happening in the limbic system–so you can’t rationalize with them. If something in them decides, ‘No, I’m not going to eat that,’ it’s over. It’s the flip of a light switch. There’s no gray area.”

Bribery probably won’t work either

“I have met parents who have promised kids trips to Disneyland or all the M&Ms in the universe, but the kids won’t do take a single bite.”

Don’t worry so much about protein

“It’s pretty easy to get protein on a vegetarian diet. There’s dairy and eggs, so a kid will be fine. Pasta and a glass of milk has plenty of protein for them.”

Consider what nutrients they may be missing

“Even kids who are eating a lot of vegetables with iron, their bodies don’t absorb it well. An easy solve is a children’s multivitamin with iron. Also, an Omega-3 supplement will help with brain function and the health of their immune system. If they’re eating less than three servings of dairy a day, think about a calcium supplement or a product that’s supplemented with it, like orange juice.”

Learn how to cook without meat

“It’s hard to beat Pinterest when it comes to looking for ideas.”

Don’t cook separate meals

“Keep in common whatever you can. If you’re having rice, broccoli, and chicken, come up with an alternative for the meat–like refried beans or tofu. You want everyone to share the same meal. Not only does cooking something completely different stress out parents, it reinforces to kids that they can’t eat what their parents are eating and they have to eat something special. It’s habit reinforcing behavior.”

Repetition is not a bad thing

“If your kid wants a cheese quesadilla five times a week, that’s fine. If they are happy, that’s all that matters. Billions of people around the world eat the same thing every day and are perfectly healthy.”

Don’t bring special food to restaurants

“You just make do. Even if that means they eat the breadbasket and apple juice. That’s dinner. Parents may say that’s not a healthy dinner, but to a kid, it’s fine.”

Consult with a pediatric nutritionist or dietician

“Get some good advice from an expert. Don’t research online. Google will not bring you what you need.”

Take a look at yourself

“Parents need to identify their own issues, belief system, and desire to control their kids. Before they communicate to their kids about vegetarianism and their food choices, they need to do some self examination to figure out where their opinions are coming from and why. Ultimately, parents need to figure out how to respect this decision their child has made.”

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Parenting writer

Nevin Martell is a parenting, food, and travel writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Saveur, Men’s Journal, Fortune, Travel + Leisure, Runner’s World, and many other publications. He is author of seven books, including It’s So Good: 100 Real Food Recipes for Kids, the travelogue-memoir Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations, and the small-press smash Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip. When he isn’t working, he loves spending time with his wife and their four-year-old son, who already runs faster than he does.