Families with young children have a golden opportunity to help their kids grow up without the taste for meat and dairy products that can be hard to give up later in life, as well as to help them develop a broader taste for fruits and vegetables.
That did not happen in my family, and is one of my regrets as I think back on my parenting. Somehow, I ended up catering to the limited foods that my kids liked, instead of really thinking about how to broaden their taste buds. But I always wondered how much was really in my control. My kids told me (then and now) that taste buds of children are more sensitive than those of adults, since age wears them down (or something like that). They certainly eat much better than when they were young (as do I). But most likely both nature and nurture are in play here, so parents should try to help their kids eat better.
If you don’t have any picky eaters in your household, rejoice! Eating fewer animal products and more vegetables will be considerably easier if you make that commitment. For those whose have mealtime challenges, I have some thoughts of what I could have done better to cater to the kids’ limited tastes, depend less on dairy/meat and include more plants. (Fruit is usually not as much of a problem, so my focus is on vegetables).
It takes a while to introduce new tastes, so it can be discouraging when results are slow. But a good place to start is simply with what kids will tolerate. For my kids, there were not many vegetables they would eat: green beans, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, corn was about the limit, and of those, they liked them with butter or melted cheese. Here is a variety of kid friendly meals I would make with those 4 or 5 vegetables if my kids were still little at home. The goal would be to get used to meat/dairy free meals with typically “kid friendly” familiar foods, then expanding from there.
- Mac n “cheese”. An obvious kid favorite and something I made at least once a week. But instead of using the milk, cheese and butter, try some good tasting vegetable based substitutes. My favorites kinds are made with cauliflower or cashews—a somewhat more expensive but delicious treat with healthy fats. For more seasoned tastes, I add some chili peppers or chili powder, but kids might just like it plain with a little salt. If tolerated, you could add sauteed broccoli or green beans in with the pasta or just serve them on the side. Note: though recipe websites might claim these mock cheeses will “fool any meat eater”, our opinion is that they do not really taste the same as cheese. They taste different at first but not terrible—now we like them a lot. Have you ever moved from whole milk to 2%? At first it is not so pleasant, but soon you get used to it so you don’t miss whole milk. The same with substitutes for milk and cheese. With any change, it takes time. I might not mention to your picky eaters that you are not using real cheese at first, and see how it goes!
- Nachos. My son found a great “ nacho cheese” substitute made with potatoes and carrots that is very thick like any other nacho sauce. He grills onions and green peppers and adds black beans, cumin and chili powder. Layer chips and the veggies/beans, then pour this sauce on top.
- Soup. This is a wonderful way to to add in more vegetables in a gradual way. Cook up tolerated veggies in broth and add oregano, basil, salt, and pepper. Use vegetable broth that you make from peelings. To make a “cream of” soup, blend the veggies with an immersion blender or in a regular blender. Add the spices kids like, and use coconut milk for the cream. Coconut milk does not have a strong taste but has saturated fat to give soup a nice consistency. Think about the color of the veggies you use, as sometimes this does not look too appetizing when blended. Over time, you might try adding in spinach, sweet potatoes, kale or turnips, either blended or with chunks. If tolerated, black beans or chickpeas are good additions too. Beyond Meat “chicken” strips are a good addition to soup if meat-like consistency is desired.
- Chili. Make any familiar recipe, but use soy crumbles or Beyond Meat beefy crumbles instead of meat. Spoon over baked potatoes, or serve with other non-dairy toppings—non dairy sour cream, onion greens, nutritional yeast blended with almonds, chives, etc.
- Mashed potatoes with a turnip added in (use about 6 potatoes to 2 turnips). Use coconut milk and Earth Balance (a butter substitute similar to margarine) instead of milk and butter. We have asked many meat eaters if they can tell the difference and no one can (or taste the turnip).
- Smoothies. Today I would give my kids one of these every day. I made them often when they were home, but now, of course, I use non-dairy milk and yogurt. In addition to fruit (frozen berries, apples, oranges, etc), I now include greens of some sort since it is really good to have some raw veggies. I also like to add flaxseed and chia seeds. I had never heard of eating chia seeds (as opposed to making chia pets!), but saw them at Costco one day and found they are packed with good stuff: a 3 tablespoon serving has 150 calories with 5 grams of protein, 6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, no sugar and provides 20% RDA of calcium and 15% RDA of iron and 11 grams of fiber!
- Pizza. When my kids were home I made homemade pizza at least once a week with my bread maker. Now I still make it , but instead of using cheese, I often use pesto as the base with sauteed veggies on top. We also use a “Parmesan” substitute made with nutritional yeast and almonds ground into fine crumbs. Favorite sauteed veggies are green pepper, onion, spinach with cut up tomatoes. Julie Hasson actually wrote a cookbook called Vegan Pizza! Lots of options for meatless and dairy free pizza.
- Soft tacos or quesadillas. This can be made with omitting the hamburger meat or using a mock meat. Grill onion and green pepper and season with cumin and chili pepper, salt and pepper. I use either canned vegetarian refried beans or just add in black beans and rice in with the peppers and onion. Use non-dairy sour cream, salsa or guacamole for the toppings.
My last tip, especially for older children and teens is education. Many kids and teens are leading the way in thinking about and caring for the environment. I hope you will consider the impact of animal products on the environment and discuss these matters with your kids if they are old enough. It is their future that is at stake. I believe my kids would have been willing to make changes if we had been more aware. As it turned out, it was our kids that moved us to a plant based diet!