Be their reasons for eschewing meat ecological, moral, religious or health-related, parents with a vegetarian lifestyle will at some point have to decide whether to bring up their children as vegetarians, too. This raises a lot of questions. What are the nutritional considerations? How can they explain to a child in an understandable way why it is better not to eat meat?
"Vegetarian upbringings are a hot topic," remarked Silke Bott, executive board member of the German Vegetarian Society. Among the reasons that a growing number of couples are choosing not to eat meat and fish are the many food scandals of recent years, she said, adding that tensions can arise when just one of the parents abstains from meat.
A frequent source of conflict is concern that a meatless diet for a child will lead to nutritional deficiencies. According to Antje Gahl, a nutritionist at the German Nutrition Society, such fears are unfounded, however. "From a nutritional standpoint, a vegetarian upbringing is no problem for children," she said.
Iron intake via breast milk
But Gahl advises against a vegan diet, which also excludes animal products such as eggs and dairy products. "Children on a vegan diet are at risk of developing deficiencies of important nutrients," she warned.
Nutritionist Alexandra Borchard-Becker of the Consumer Initiative, a Germany-wide consumer protection organisation, also gives a thumbs-up to vegetarianism for children, and a thumbs-down to veganism. But parents raising a child as a vegetarian need to make sure of several things, she said, for example that the child gets sufficient iron.
"Iron intake normally comes via the mother's milk at first, and then, starting around the age of six months, from meat consumption," Borchard-Becker said. She pointed out that whole-grain products, legumes and various vegetables such as fennel and mangel-wurzel contained plenty of iron, however.
New problems appear when the child starts kindergarten. While vegetarian meals have become common in many kindergartens, there are differences between urban and rural areas, said Bott, who noted that "it's considerably easier to raise children as vegetarians in big cities."
Parents set vegetarian example
Kindergarten is often the first place that children raised as vegetarians encounter meat-eating peers, which presents the parents with new challenges. Although the first years of life are very formative in regard to children's likes and dislikes, Joachim Westenhoefer, a nutritional psychologist and professor at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, said that "as soon as children come into contact with other children, they adopt their preferences and distance themselves from their parents."
What should parents do when their child wants to try a salami sandwich or hot dog? "By no means forbid it, because that will only increase the temptation," advised Westenhoefer. It is important, he said, to explain to the child why it is better not to eat meat.
Bott has a similar view. "It's no good telling a 3- or 4-year old that meat eaters are responsible for people going hungry around the world," she said. Rather, parents should explain that they prefer vegetarian food. "Food should never be associated with feelings of guilt; otherwise it could become a problem."
Her advice to parents is to set an example of vegetarianism but let the child decide whether or not to try meat.
(Sapa, March 2012)
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