"Oh - really?"
I've never been against veganism and I'm all for eating a mostly plant based diet, but did I want my eleven year old to become vegan?
To be honest my initial reaction was no, I didn't. On a selfish basis I knew to eat well (nutritionally well), I'd have to start cooking differently for her and that would mean more work for me to make sure she was eating all the nutrients she required as a growing girl. I was (and still am) concerned that it was a nutritionally good path for an eleven year old to follow, plus there's always the fear that any very specific food diet can lead to an unhealthy obsession with food. Yet another part of me knew she didn't like meat very much so why make her eat it, also I was already eating a non dairy diet, so maybe this might not be so difficult. Plus wasn't it fair enough to let her try?
I did make two strict deals with her from the outset though, first that she would have to make sure that either she was going to eat foods containing the right vitamins and minerals she needs or she'd need to take it in a supplement form. Secondly she'd have to be more open minded about the foods she eats and to eat all the new dishes that I was going to make for her.
Changing to a vegan diet, you do have to be aware of the vitamins and minerals that you might be missing out on. Protein is the most cited of all of them, but actually probably the one you need to least worry about as there are many plant based alternatives, quinoa, tofu, buckwheat, peas, chia seeds, lentils, chickpeas, beans and seeds are all good sources and some vegetables contain protein but in smaller amounts. Variety is the key, to make sure you are getting all the amino acids that make up protein.
People often worry if you don't eat dairy then you might not be getting enough calcium. Yet calcium can be found in plant foods, green leafy vegetables such as watercress, broccoli, sprouts and kale. Calcium is also found in chickpeas, sesame seeds, figs as well as some fortified foods such as nut, soy or oat milks. Often the issue is whether you are actually absorbing the calcium efficiently.
Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption which if you can't get from sunlight, (often the case in the UK), then you will need to get from foods which are supplemented with it or from a vitamin D supplement.
Meat is a very good source of iron, which is needed to make haemoglobin which carries oxygen in the blood and is particularly significant for menstruating girls. Greens and beans are rich sources. Lentils, chickpeas, tofu, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, dried apricots and figs, kale are all good too. Eating vitamin C rich foods with them, will help your body absorb the iron.
Omega 3, is an essential fat, that the body can't make. It can be found in chia and linseed, hemp seeds and walnuts, however the body does find it hard to utilise it in these forms so you may need to supplement with an algae oil.
Iodine, which is mostly found in seafood is important to help you metabolize food and is needed for a healthy thyroid. Kelp and nori (used as a wrap in sushi), both contain idodine, as does iodised salt but you need to watch your salt intake, so you're probably best making sure you are covered with a supplement.
Vitamin A can only be found in animal sources, however we can convert beta carotene found in carrots, sweet potatoes, carrots, squash to make it. To help this add a little healthy fat (olive oil, coconut oil, avocados).
Zinc has an important role in many bodily functions. Plant based zinc-rich foods include beans and legumes, always pre-soak them as per their instructions first to remove phyates which are thought to actually reduce absorption of minerals and cook thoroughly. Nuts and seeds, whole grains, wheat germ, organic tofu, nutritional yeast and oats also contain zinc.
Lastly is Vitamin B12 which can only be found in animal sources too. A few foods such as cereals and non dairy milks are supplemented with B12 but it's probably best to take a supplement to ensure you get enough.
Plenty there to think about. Whilst it can at times feel a bit bewildering, I have to remind myself that actually a lot of children (and adults) diets are very poor, not because they are vegans but because they just don't eat a well balanced diet, consuming little few vegetables, too much sugar, and too many processed foods.
My daughter has been vegan for two months now. I don't know if she will want to be a vegan forever, or just for the next six months or weeks. As long as she's eating the right nutrient dense food she needs and supplementing where necessary then that's fine with me. I'm aware veganism isn't for everyone and some people thrive on the diet better than others, but I think as long as we're both open minded to this, then that's okay.
School dinners don't cater so well for vegans so she makes her own packed lunch for school using leftovers from the night before, falafels, salads, hummus, soups are favourites.
Yes I still cook meat for the rest of us (my son loves nothing better than a juicy steak), though my husband and I have much less of it now, which I'm really pleased about. I'm learning how to change some of our usual family favourites to satisfy all of us, without having to spend too long in the kitchen. Spaghetti bolognaise is an easy one, I make the sauce by sweating the onions, garlic, carrots, celery, mushrooms in coconut oil first. Then add some tomato puree and passata and a cup full of red lentils, a cup of water, season and add some thyme and a bay leaf. Leave to simmer, adding some more water if necessary, then I take out a portion for my daughter for her sauce, add in the mincemeat, stir and leave to cook through. Meanwhile cooking the pasta, courgetti for me.
There are many dishes which you can simply add meat or fish to alongside them. Our most recent favourite dish was kind of an accidental one. I made some chickpea based falafels which crumbled as I was cooking them, turning them into a deliciously crunchy mixture which I mixed together with brown rice. I then drizzled over a lemon tahini dressing borrowed from 'Oh She Glows' : http://ohsheglows.com/2010/12/11/protein-power-goddess-bowl/ served with a side of roasted sweet potatoes and thyme. For my son I just added some salmon.
One thing I do know though, that although it has taken some adjusting to, I now have to plan meals much more carefully to make sure we have the right foods in the house to cook with and to ensure my daughter is getting all the right nutrients she needs to grow and remain healthy; I'm loving cooking all the plant based dishes that I've wanted to try for ages. As a consequence we're now all eating so many more vegetables and pulses than ever before, improving all of our diets, not just my daughters.
Whether she continues or not, we're not only nutritionally eating better, but we have a more varied and exciting diet than before and for that I'm thankful that she decided to be vegan.