For parents of kids who are picky eaters, introducing any new food item into their diets can be a challenge. That challenge gets even more complicated when parents try to introduce kids to vegan or vegetarian diets—especially when they’re doing it at older ages.
The good news? There are a lot more options now than in the past. Carolyn Scott-Hamilton, a holistic nutritionist, vegan chef, cookbook author, and television personality, points out that plant-based food products have improved in accessibility and taste over the years.
“I’ve been vegan for 23 years, and it is insanely simple now,” she says. “There’s an alternative for pretty much anything—ice cream, meat substitutes, [and] the cheese substitutes are amazing. Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, non-vegans eat that and many think it tastes the same while also being healthier and better for the planet.”
The variety available now obviously includes the food itself, but information is prevalent now, too. Scott-Hamilton notes that there are websites, apps, influencers, and personalities on social media platforms—and even recipes from large companies and restaurant chains that are plant-based or vegan.
“Information is out there and prevalent, and you don’t have to dig anymore,” she says.
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For kids, especially older kids who have previously been eating meat, Scott-Hamilton says those options make it much easier to introduce new foods or replace old ones.
“Kids still have developing palettes, so it’s easier to do the switch,” she says. “You can make meatballs and burgers and Bolognese sauces, and fun stuff like that with the alternatives, without them feeling like they’re missing out on the flavor or the texture.”
We asked Scott-Hamilton for some other tips for parents who are trying to introduce kids of all ages to the benefits of plant-based diets.
Start slow and get strategic
If a kid has been eating a non-plant-based diet, it will likely be difficult to change all aspects of their diet overnight.
“Kids are going to be kids,” Scott-Hamilton says. “They like what they like, so it’s really hard to go full-tilt with them.”
Finding some vegan substitutes for kid-friendly foods is a good starting point. There are vegan versions of kid staples like chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese. For parents trying to move away from processed foods entirely, it can also be a challenge to get them to switch or give up the convenience. But there are also ways to make fun, kid-friendly foods that have hidden healthy ingredients in them.
“There are ways to sneak veggies into their food,” Scott-Hamilton says. “You can make really yummy smoothies and hide some green veggies in there, you can turn smoothies into popsicles. Kid-friendly foods can be easily manipulated without them knowing.”
Their age is also a factor. As is the case with any of us, as kids get older it can be harder to change habits or make lifestyle changes.
“If they’re, let’s say, 10 years old, it’s going to be harder to get them to switch,” Scott-Hamilton says. “When it comes to just each individual kid, you have to do it slowly and in a smart way—swapping out nuggets for the vegan kind, or not going completely vegan immediately, doing it little by little, swapping things out, getting them used to the flavors. The older they are, the tougher it might be because they’re more set in their ways. It’s easier when they’re younger, but that’s not to say they won’t switch. The foods are so delicious now, they can’t tell the difference in a lot of cases.”
Especially with older kids, parents can start slow by having things like “Meatless Mondays,” where they start with one day per week with vegan food. Scott-Hamilton also suggests swapping out ground beef on “Taco Tuesdays” for plant-based taco meat each week or even on a bi-weekly basis to get started.
“Start with things they already like to eat and then show them alternatives,” she says.
Understand the staples
Plant-based diets aren’t much different than non-plant-based in one respect when it comes to kids: The staple foods kids need are still the same. Lots of fresh vegetables and fruits are vital.
“Vegetables are huge and whole grains, trying to stay away from processed things like pastas and breads,” Scott-Hamilton says. “The earlier you can get a kid used to eating clean, the easier it is to maintain those habits as adults. Get them started on balanced meals heavy on vegetables and making snack time healthy with fruits and nuts, homemade trail mix, things like avocado; the more whole, plant-based it can be with a smattering of fun stuff here and there, the easier it will be for them to make those healthy decisions on their own.”
Avocados are a good example of the type of nutrient-dense and versatile food that can be a key part of a vegan diet for kids. They also have a lot of fiber—and many kids don’t get enough fiber in their diet whether they are eating plant-based or not. And if the texture or color of an avocado is unappealing to a kid, it is something that can easily be hidden and combined with other foods.
Spinach is another nutrient-rich food that kids may not like much on its own but can easily be hidden in smoothies or baked into other dishes.
Make kids part of the process
We’ve previously covered the importance of parents cooking with their kids, and Scott-Hamilton recommends taking that even further than just cooking.
“Especially with older kids but also younger kids, it’s important to bring them into the kitchen to really start to get grounded on food preparation and where their food comes from,” she says. “A lot of times, kids grow up just kind of being fed and don’t value the time it takes for food to be prepared or think about where it comes from, what it does before, during, and after to your body.”
In addition to learning basic cooking and kitchen skills, involving them in the process of how food is selected at the store or even grown is also important.
“Even as adults, people are so disconnected from the process of food that they don’t value the time it takes for one strawberry to be made,” Scott-Hamilton says. “To see the process from start to finish helps kids see the bigger picture instead of, ‘This is just food on my plate that’s served to me.’ It gives them a more well-rounded view, and they’re going to take more of an interest going forward for their own health, or for sustainability, or for animals—whatever they latch onto.”