© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD
Leslie wanted to know:
Dr. Roy, do you have any advice about a preschooler who wants to be a vegetarian? A few days ago at a family party an older cousin decided to tell my four-year-old aspiring veterinarian, who loves animals so much she sobs if she accidentally steps on an ant, what her hamburger was made out of. She…did not react well to the information, and has since steadfastly refused to eat any type of meat. Thankfully she’s too young to know that veganism is a thing so she’ll still eat dairy products and eggs and such, just not meat, which I’ve always heard is a pretty important part of a growing child’s diet. Is it safe for a kid so young to *never* have meat? Should I get her on some special vitamins or supplements or make sure she eats plenty of certain other foods to make up for it? Or do I just need to put my foot down and insist that she eats whatever I make? All of the advice I’ve found so far basically boils down to that, but it seems like that would be so traumatizing and send her the message that I don’t care about how she feels or what she values. I just want to keep her healthy, physically AND emotionally, but I don’t know what to do!
This reminds me of a Simpsons episode…
Lisa: “I can’t eat this. I can’t eat a poor little lamb.” [pushes her plate away]
Homer: “Lisa, get a hold of yourself. This is lamb, not a lamb.”
Lisa: “What’s the difference between this lamb and the one that kissed me?”
Bart: “This one spent two hours in the broiler!” [takes a big bite]
From a nutritional point of view, meat is a great source of easily-digested protein and bioavailable iron. But, really, very few American kids have a problem with not getting enough protein in their diet. All dairy products are complete proteins, as are eggs and peanut butter and delicious bacon. I mean tofu.
Homer: “Lisa, honey, are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?”
Homer: “Pork chops?”
Lisa: “Dad! Those all come from the same animal!”
Homer: [chuckling] “Yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.”
Iron, though—iron might be another story. Iron can be found in some vegetables, especially those dark leafy green ones that Lisa loves, and beans and grains. But that kind, called non-heme iron, isn’t easily absorbed. The heme iron found in meat and seafood really does get into your body better. Absorption of non-heme iron can be increased by consuming foods with vitamin C (like citrus fruits), eating your non-heme iron with a little meat (not Lisa’s first choice), or cooking with a cast-iron pot. If none of that is practical, it’s easy enough to get an iron supplement to replace the iron in meat.
Lisa: “Uh, excuse me? Isn’t there anything here that doesn’t have meat in it?”
Lunchlady Doris: “Possibly the meat loaf.”
Lisa: “Well, I believe you’re required to provide a vegetarian alternative.”
[Doris picks up a hot dog, shakes the wiener out, and slaps the bun down on Lisa’s tray]
Doris: “Yum. It’s rich in bunly goodness.”
Lisa: [dryly] “Do you remember when you lost your passion for this work?”
I’m assuming, here, that the child is willing to continue eating dairy products—without those, it’s difficult to get enough calcium and vitamin D. I think a family can easily follow a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (including dairy and eggs) without much worry, and in fact such a diet is almost certainly more healthful than that of many families. But strict veganism, with no eggs and no dairy, is tricky, especially with younger children. I suggest any family who’s raising vegan kids spend some face-to-face time with a registered dietician (NOT a “nutritionist”! Don’t get me started on nutritionists.) That way they can learn what they need to know to ensure an adequate diet and correct use of supplements. It can be done, but it requires some work and planning.
Paul McCartney: “Linda and I both feel strongly about animal rights. In fact, if you play ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ backwards, you’ll hear a recipe for a really ripping lentil soup.”
Lisa: “When will all those fools learn that you can be perfectly healthy simply eating vegetables, fruits, grains and cheese?”
Apu: “Oh, cheese!”
Lisa: “You don’t eat cheese, Apu?”
Apu: “No, I don’t eat any food that comes from an animal.”
Lisa: “Oh, then you must think I’m a monster!”
Apu: “Yes, indeed, I do think that.”
Leslie asked if she should just put her foot down, to force her daughter to eat meat. I don’t think that’s the way to go. I can respect her daughter’s wish to not harm animals, and she can have a perfectly healthful diet that fits her own moral philosophy. Yes, even four year olds can and should have a sense of right and wrong, and I’m not so sure we meat eaters are in fact morally superior to a vegetarian preschooler. Or Lisa Simpson.