When we started our journey towards a plant based lifestyle, my eldest kids were 2 and 5 years old. Of course they already had their food preferences and - more noticeable - a very strong personality! I started slow, also involving extended family (every summer we spend 4-6 weeks with grandparents in our home country), letting them know we were changing to a more whole foods, plant based diet. Luckily they had some hands-on experience seeing my eldest go ballistic after a chemical-sugar filled ice lolly once so they saw the benefits of making your own ice-popsicles!
We made the shift gradually, introducing (even more) fruits during the day & at least 3 different vegetables with dinner, vegetables with lunch and then vegetables at breakfast a few times a week in a smoothie. We phased out meat first, then meat products, then fish at home. We replaced things like store bought cookies for homemade ones and granola for home made muesli. (Mind you - once again I’m telling you we’re definitely not perfect because right now we do have store bought granola that we eat sometimes because you know, time is an issue when you’re raising 3 kids and they all have different school timings and you’re also trying to keep your house somewhat clean!) As I got more interested in the zero waste movement about the same time as turning plant based, it was easy to give up lot’s of things because of their excessive packaging. And to be honest, for kids the ‘snack’ principle is just about having something to eat, and apple slices with cinnamon or raisins are as satisfying for them as store-bought crackers.
When my little one was about 6 months, we were at the point of being vegetarian at home. Actually, the first 18 months of her life she didn’t have any animal products apart from some formula we tried (but was refused). I breastfed her as long as I could / wanted to and after she went on to drink water and get her nutrients from other sources. I clearly remember the day I had to change her at the playground next to school as she played in the water and 2 Japanese friends of mine saw her and noticed how ‘chubby’ she was (I use ‘ ‘ because I didn’t think she was chubby, just a cute baby with some baby fat) and wondering out loud how that was possible when she didn’t eat meat or drink milk. When talking about this further, they told me they were raised with the idea ‘that you should eat a lot of red meat and drink milk to be tall and strong like western people’ and they were now raising their own kids with this same idea.
I understand how 30 years ago this was the truth people knew, but I was surprised that they weren’t aware of the latest scientific research, that, in short, shows that ALL animal products cause inflammation / fat in your arteries etc. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t want to explain this in more detail, but if you want to know more I definitely refer you to Dr Michael Greger, who wrote the bible I always go back to (see here)
Anyway, long story short; I learned a lot more about raising plant based kids through the Plant based nutrition course I took and was reassured that if you give them an abundance and wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, you can’t really go wrong. But also - and this stuck with me - that if they would just eat brown rice & broccoli every day, but eat enough calories from that, they will also thrive. Another positive; the absence of meat especially will free up so much energy for their little bodies to put to better use to grow, be active, etctera, basically because meat is very hard for our bodies to break down and usually takes several days. During that time it actually sits rotting in your intestines (sorry for the visual). Learning that kind of put me off meat for ever (not even mentioning how animal lives matter).
Right now the situation for my kids is, I would say, 80-90% plant based. My kids occasionally have yoghurt, cheese and eggs, and my oldest when he gets the chance outside of our home chooses fishy sushi or a bread roll with bacon bits. I allow this and have peace with it, not because I don’t believe 100% plant based is the ultimate goal (because I truly believe it is the best way), but because we still need to live our lives in the circumstances were in. The Japanese society is not build for plant based people and I also don’t want to take things away that they truly enjoy like cheese on pasta or treats from their friends. I’m really proud though of the 90%, it is fantastic for them. They are happy, healthy kids (with the occasional snotty noses) and grow according to the growth charts. They never have any tummy issues (knock on wood) and have very regular bowel movements (going plant based will do that to you, all that fiber!), no allergies or respiratory issues. I understand these things are not always related to nutrition, but I feel that in many cases, they can be or that at least plant based nutrition can make a difference in the symptoms or disease.
I’m very open towards the kids and I keep reminding them why we are doing this. They know all about how nuts have fats that are good for brain development, especially walnuts. That we don’t want to drink cow’s milk because we’re not baby calves and it is sad that they take calves away from mother cows so we can drink the milk (just need to get that amazing plant based yoghurt alternative here in Japan for those 2 times a week they eat yoghurt!!) That fish belong in the ocean because otherwise the ocean will be empty, and anyway, that we shouldn’t eat fish as they accumulate heavy metals like mercury and probably have stomachs filled with plastic. That it is wrong to love a dog but eat a pig, who is said to be more intelligent than a dog. And so on. I think kids are never too young to understand this, I actually think the opposite: they think it is logical. They also know about the world’s problems and how the Amazon is taken down to make space for cows and how the Earth is in a dire state because we keep taking away nature and creating more CO2. I strongly feel that knowledge is power and this way they will do everything in their power to make a positive change, now and when they grow up. To be a steward of the Earth.
For us moms it helps to find a tribe with the same ideas and values as you have. Both my online and real life communities are very much geared towards families on the same journey as us. Although of course I still have meat-eating friends too :-) But finding people on the same path definitely helps to grow together and share information, tips & tricks.
A few practicals to end this rambling piece of text! I got a lot of good ideas from the book Veggie mama (this one) and this PDF document about Early Years Nutrition. My favorite Vegan inspirations for kids on Instagram are EarthyAndy and Chloeandbeans. If you’re looking for more serious advice, I recommend Dr Jackie Busse and Dr Vivian Chen.
Lastly - yes I do give my kids vitamins; in the winter months they get a multivitamin and throughout the year (whenever it crosses my mind) B12, which I take too. B12 is the only vitamin that doesn’t come from food, but from microbes in the earth. Nowadays we are living very clean lives, and therefore not eat that much dirt! Even if you’re a meat eater, you could be B12 deficient.
PS; Maybe someone will ask if I’m worried about my kids getting enough protein? I’m not. The only thing I do think about with regards to elements of their nutrition is to ensure they get enough fats for their brain development (avocado, nuts and seeds every day). Protein comes from plants originally, if you think you get it from meat it’s only because the cow ate it! So depending on the type of feed the cow had during her life, this might not even be very good protein. Food for thought!