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Vegetarian month

March is vegetarian month - and there's an added focus this year after the recent horsemeat scandals with many families thinking more carefully about how much meat they consume and what sort of meat. The number of vegetarians in the UK is estimated at around 3 million, with food scares and consumers' worries over food safety helping to push this number up.

A vegetarian is defined as someone living on a plant-based diet, which includes vegetables, fruit, grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, and may also include dairy products and eggs. Strictly speaking, vegetarians do not eat any meat, fowl, game, fish or seafood. Young children, even babies, may show natural aversion to meat or animal flesh.

Children of vegetarian parents may grow up naturally as vegetarians. Both they and their parents feel comfortable with the diet. The issue is more with non-vegetarian parents whose children 'rebel' by refusing the daily meat dish. If you are the parent of such a child, you may feel baffled, concerned, confused and even frustrated. You may doubt the soundness of a vegetarian diet. Even if you as a parent decide to convert the family to vegetarianism, you may still experience some of these feelings, which are perfectly natural for a caring parent.

Many studies have shown that a good vegetarian diet may significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, high blood pressure and obesity. It may also cut down substantially the risk of food poisoning.
It is important to bear in mind that a vegetarian diet can be a perfectly healthy diet throughout life. Practised properly, a plant-based diet provides all the essential protein, minerals, vitamins, fats, fibres and other nutrients essential for good health. In fact, a good vegetarian diet reflects most of the dietary recommendations for healthy eating, being high in fibre, fresh fruit and vegetables and complex carbohydrates and being low in saturated fat.

The key to a successful vegetarian diet lies in ensuring a good nutrient balance. This is achieved by providing your child with a variety of foods:

  • Vegetables and fruit (40%)
  • Wholemeal cereals (30%)
  • Beans, lentils, peas, pulses, soy products, nuts, seeds and eggs (15%)
  • Dairy products (10%)
  • Healthy fat (5%)

Making life easier

If you are embarking on life with a vegetarian child, there are many ways to ensure a smooth transition to a new way of cooking and eating

  • Invest in a good vegetarian cook book, preferably with a focus on children
  • If your child is old enough, discuss the need to include a variety of different foods if meat is refused
  • Substitute favourite meat dishes with a vegetarian equivalent, for instance Bolognese sauce made with vegetarian mince; vegetarian instead of meat sausages and burgers, lasagne made with tomatoes, aubergines and mozzarella
  • When you are ready to move on from meat substitutes, explore the authentic vegetarian recipes using new ingredients
  • Read and learn about vegetarian eating so you can make informed choices
  • Make gradual changes and go at a pace that you feel comfortable with; reserve experimentation with new food for the weekend, when you have more time on your hands
  • Decide how far you can and wish to go as a parent. A young child may be indifferent to animal foods if they are not recognisable as such (e.g. meat stock, gelatine, gravy). This allows for more flexibility
  • Switch the whole family onto a vegetarian menu twice a week to reduce the work load
  • Spend more time at the fruit and vegetables section of the supermarket, and ensure these foods account for the bulk of your shopping trolley
  • Visit your local health food store for a variety of fresh and dried produce that may not be available at your supermarket
  • Make occasional use of ready-made vegetarian meals and sauces to ease the transition
  • Attend cooking workshops to learn about new foods and cooking methods
  • Talk to friends who eat this way to get practical, hands-on advice
  • Contact the UK Vegetarian Society for information, advice and support

Common pitfalls

When attempting to feed your child a vegetarian diet:

  • Make only moderate use of cheese. Although a good source of calcium and protein, it is also high in saturated fat and salt
  • Limit the use of highly-processed and ready-made foods, They may be vegetarian, but they could still be high in added sugar, salt, unhealthy fats or additives. Instead, learn to cook from fresh.
  • Learn to read labels. 'Natural', 'Healthy' or 'Good-For-You' labels do not guarantee a vegetarian product. Many foods you would never suspect to include animal derivatives do in fact contain them
  • Don't run before you can walk. Learning to cook and eat vegetarian is like learning a new language; it takes time to reach proficiency.

There is more than one way to eat, just as there is more than one way to speak, dress and learn. If your child shows vegetarian tendencies, accept the challenge with grace - it may well benefit the entire family.

Taken from Feeding Made Easy by Gina Ford

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