When Teens Go Vegetarian, Parents Can Help With Choices

Change In Diet Can Encourage Children To Develop Independence
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Kelly Garbato (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

With an increasing number of teenagers choosing to become vegetarians, some parents may be concerned that their teens won't have healthy diets or that they will no longer wish to share in family meals. Vegetarian diets can be healthy without interfering with family time, though. When teens adopt a vegetarian diet, the change may also provide opportunities for parents to help their maturing children develop independence.

The reasons teens have for choosing vegetarianism are as different as the teenagers themselves. The teens may:

  • Be following the lead of their peers or friends, or they have seen celebrities promote vegetarianism.

  • View this eating pattern as better for their health or as a form of weight control.

  • Be concerned with the broader picture of how food is produced, the welfare of animals, or the costs or environmental impacts of different types of food production.

These reasons offer opportunities for parents and other adults to talk to with teens. Understanding why they want to be vegetarian can help adults meet their needs in the healthiest way possible.

Healthy vegetarian diets

Vegetarian diets range from simply cutting back on or eliminating red meats, to removing all meat, fish, and other animal products such as eggs and dairy. These animal-based foods are rich sources of some nutrients. Initial attempts of teens to become vegetarian often result in them replacing animal products with "favorite" foods of limited variety that may lack the nutrition they need. Nutrients to which vegetarians need to pay close attention include protein, the minerals iron, zinc and calcium, and vitamins D and B12.

Parents may be under the impression their teen can't meet protein requirements without animal sources. However, plant foods also have protein, and with a variety of grain products (such as breads, pastas, oats, or rice), bean and lentils, peanut butter, and nuts and seeds, nutrition-minded vegetarians can meet their protein needs. Many products popular with teens such as enriched grains, breakfast cereals, dried fruits, certain orange juices or soy products are fortified with vitamins and minerals, and are convenient choices to help get enough of these nutrients. Vegetables in a wide range of colors aren't always a teen's first food choice, but are another great way to round out nutritional needs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's ChooseMyPlate.gov resource offers additional tips on healthy vegetarian diets.

Family meals, vegetarian teens and development of independence

Parents and their teens can work together to include vegetarian options in meal planning so family members can enjoy meals together. Perhaps pasta could be served with marina sauce and meatballs on the side. Grilling out can include veggie burgers and vegetable kabobs. Collaborating to prepare healthy meals helps teens develop food preparation skills.

Teenagers are very social, and when they eat out away from home, they can be responsible for a considerable portion of their calories. Adults can help teens find vegetarian choices (bean burritos, vegetable wraps) that let them enjoy their time with friends but still provide the nutrition they need.

Taking the time and thoughtfulness needed to consider vegetarianism can be a very positive experience for families. Teens can take on more responsibility for their food choices and their health, and they can make decisions about how they want to participate in the food system. Changes in dietary habits can be a time for parents and children to talk about the choices they make, what they mean to the individuals, and how those choices help all family members grow as people.

Beth Olson is a nutrition extension specialist with University of Wisconsin-Extension and an associate professor in nutritional sciences at UW-Madison. This article is adapted from an item published by Parenthetical, a resource for parents of tweens and teens sponsored by UW-Extension and UW-Madison School of Human Ecology.

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