vegetarian-teenA vegetarian diet is a way of life for Emily Marcovitz. Yet when her 13-year-old daughter, Ella, announced that she wanted to adopt a vegan lifestyle—giving up eggs and dairy products as well as meat, poultry, and fish—parental concern popped up like a red flag.

“My husband and I were worried about Ella getting enough protein and calcium,” says Marcovitz. “In addition, we have a number of vegan dishes in our repertoire, but I was afraid that I wouldn’t have enough to make and that I would end up spending a lot of extra time cooking meals.”

The Marcovitz family isn’t alone. According to a 2010 poll by the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group, “How Many Youth Are Vegetarian?” 3% of children between 8 and 18, or approximately 1.4 million young people, never eat meat, poultry, fish, or seafood, and one third of these preteens and teens are vegan. If you’re among the parents of these young people, here are four ways you can support your kids’ dietary preferences:

•  “Don’t go it alone,” says Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, nutrition advisor for the Vegetarian Resource Group. “Make an appointment to speak with a registered dietitian.” That’s just what Marcovitz and her daughter did. “Ella and I met with a nutritionist to get a better understanding of the nutrients she needed to eat a
healthy diet. We also brainstormed food and meal possibilities. It’s definitely something I’d recommend other parents do,” Marcovitz says.

•  Educate yourself about nutrient needs. “Eating enough protein is the biggest concern that I hear from parents,” says Mangels. “It’s ironic because there are so many good plant-based sources of protein such as hummus, dried beans, veggie burgers, tofu hot dogs, and peanut butter.”

Beyond protein, says Ruth Frechman, RD, a Burbank, California-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA), “It’s important for teens and their parents to seek plant-based sources of nutrients that are especially needed at this time of life, such as protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, and B12. Learn to read labels and look for fortified foods. For example, enriched breakfast cereals are a good source of iron; there are calcium and vitamin D-fortified soy milks; and many soy-based meat substitutes contain added B12.

Parents can enjoy peace of mind that a well-planned vegetarian diet actually offers some nutritional advantages over the typical teenage burger and fries diet. Studies referenced in the ADA’s position paper on vegetarian diets indicate that vegetarian adolescents consume more fiber, iron, folate, vitamin A, and vitamin C and eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer sweets, fast foods, and salted snacks than do nonvegetarians.

Even so, says Mangels, “Encourage your teen to take one vitamin-mineral supplement daily. It’s an easy way to help eliminate any worries on the nutrition front.”

•  Cook together. There’s more to being vegetarian than simply avoiding meat, says Frechman. “It’s important to focus on what your teens include in their diets, not what they exclude. There’s a wealth of variety in plant-based foods, such as different types of fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans,” she notes.
For inspiration, Marcovitz and her daughter checked out a couple vegan cookbooks from the library and searched the Internet for vegan recipes. “We sampled several new dishes and tried to find some that Ella likes and some that we all like. We did discover some quick meal options for the nights when there is no time to cook,” says Marcovitz. “Ella has even joined me in the kitchen, and we now enjoy cooking together.”

•  Venture into the community. “Take advantage of community educational opportunities or join a local vegetarian support group,” says Mangels. Support for parents and teen vegetarians can be as close as the grocery store or a local restaurant. For example, some supermarkets, such as Whole Foods Markets,
offer vegetarian cooking classes. In addition, more and more restaurants are offering meatless options. A National Restaurant Association chef’s poll of what’s hot in 2010 even ranked vegetarian and vegan main dishes as the 11th and 13th, respectively, top trends in the entree category.

The red flags of fears that once troubled Marcovitz have all turned green. “With all these resources available,” she says, “it’s a great time for Ella to be a vegan.”