Meat & Dairy-free Diets for Children – Right or Wrong?
While on holiday this year with my niece – who still dines from the children’s menu – we became aware of something quite startling. There wasn’t a vegetarian or vegan option in any of the restaurants we visited! It was something we found everywhere in Spain; the children’s dishes were processed and disappointingly fatty. Back home in England there’s usually a vegetarian dish, but it’s often a Margherita Pizza or Tomato Pasta. How boring and uninspiring! Surely thought should be put into the meals we serve up to our children in the same way we do for adults meals?
A person once commented on a blog I wrote that they were disappointed to see eateries serving up processed foods such Chicken Nuggets and Chips or Fish Fingers, rather than encouraging Dinky Diners to eat freshly prepared, smaller versions of the adult meals available. It was something Mr. Canny and I discussed at length afterwards; in relation to our Dinky and what we will feed her once she’s weaned and we dine out.
With Mr. Canny’s veganism we’ve decided Dinky will be raised in the same manner. This has caused consternation from some we know, especially when there’s sensationalist newspaper articles about children being taken into care suffering from malnutrition who have been raised on a vegan diet. There are many children fed on junk food by their parents who escape criticism because of how ubiquitous Maccie D’s and chicken dippers are. Nothing substitutes a healthy, balanced diet. I’m loathe to use the word ‘diet’ because of its connotations, we are not doing this to restrict calories or lose weight. Being a vegetarian or vegan should not be compared following Paleo or ‘clean-eating’ food trends, it is very much an ethical lifestyle choice. People do so because of the meat and dairy production industry, not to feel healthier. It happens to be a by-product of the switch, but only if done correctly. I know plenty of unhealthy vegetarians who think it’s ok to live in a diet of cheese and chips so long as they don’t have a ‘dirty burger’.
Meat and dairy are absolutely not necessary to raise a healthy child. Soya milks are often fortified with calcium and other nutrients, protein can be gained from other sources such beans and pulses. There are meat substitute products of course, which we eat on occasion. This is not because we fancy a sausage, because these items are often nothing like ‘the real deal’. Mr. Canny would argue about the semantics and origins of sausages, but I’m not going there!
The World Health Organisation classed the humble banger last year – alongside bacon and other processed meats – as carcinogenic as cigarettes (see Q&A relating to this on their website here). Why, therefore, should there be raised eyebrows at the suggestion we feed Dinky legumes instead?! There’s a raft of research available suggesting that a vegan diet is the healthiest around, and it isn’t just mung bean munchers who are espousing this. A simple Google search will turn up links to scientific journals which also support this. Not only is going vegan healthy, in terms of the planet & sustainability it is the most sensible option too.
Many children who have a lactose intolerance avoid dairy. Does this mean they have to go without ice cream or milk on their cereal? Not at all. Are people accepting of the fact they don’t drink milk? Yep. You wouldn’t criticise a parent for not giving something they believe, or know, to be detrimental to their health. There are so many fantastic alternatives out there that these children won’t develop rickets, or worse. As a child my parents were told to avoid giving me milk as doctors believed it triggered my skin complaints. In the late 70s it was certainly a lot harder to follow what is perceived as a ‘restrictive diet’ than it is now, although it must be hard to dine out with children if they have severe allergies because of the trust you must place in restaurants. If Mr. Canny has been served up dairy without apology even when we’ve requested it, how scary must it be if you know your child could be hospitalised because of an error?
Being a vegan is easy if you’re just going to eat salad and fruit, but there’s such a diverse wealth of ingredients out there it’s simply not necessary. This is why I get frustrated when I see limited vegan or vegetarian options on menus in restaurants. Surely chefs should embrace the challenge of cooking with fresh, seasonal produce rather than opening packers from catering companies? Some of the tastiest dishes I’ve enjoyed have been meat-free. It shows more skill than whacking a lump of meat on the grill, in all honesty.
So, back onto the issue of kid’s menus. Many of my vegetarian friends say they discovered they didn’t like or want to eat meat as a child, but were ‘forced’ to by their parents. One person I know regaled me of a time he had to eat liver and resorted to hiding it under the pile of mashed potatoes. I believe we shape the palates of our children at a young age by what we feed them during their developmental stage, but for some there isn’t the cognitive dissonance from the cows and chickens they hear about in Old McDonald and the ones on their plate.
I’ve been advised while weaning Dinky to stick to fruit and vegetables, and to avoid jars of processed food which include dairy. Why? In case of allergies and to promote healthy eating from a young age. She loves sweet potato, cucumber, melon and avocado so far, and dislikes broccoli. I breastfeed her and will continue to do so for as long as it is wanted and practical. We know when I return to work it will be more difficult, but there are soy-based formulas available that contain the same nutrients as others on the market. Our health visitor said we could see a dietician if we wished, but said she felt it was unnecessary as we had properly researched all the options and was happy Dinky is thriving. In fact, no one could say she’s fading away with her chubby cheeks and legs 🙂
Children’s nutrition is something that is very important, and I hope restaurants start thinking about what they serve up. Rather than chucking some processed meat in the oven, why not create a fun and interesting dish that’s packed with nutrients instead. My niece is known to be fussy, but while away on holiday with us has eaten all manner of new foods. Some she’s liked, others not so much. What we’ve said to her, though, is we’re happy she’s tried. Maybe Dinky will eat meat when she’s older, but that will be her choice. She’ll do so knowing, at the very least, how animals arrive on her fork. We aren’t going to hide the truth about food production from her, however gruesome some may find that. We feel that, as parents, we are responsible for her education and growth both culturally and physically. While others point the finger of blame at schools for not providing healthy meals to kids as a reason behind the obesity crisis in this country, ask why they serve up pizza and chips now in the first place. Kids will happily avoid eating fruit and veg when offered chips and nuggets, so shouldn’t everyone be promoting a healthier diet, not shaming in the way some are when parents decide to make a stand? There are those who don’t feed their kids properly in both camps, so don’t judge all vegetarians and vegans in the same way. We have the right to follow whichever path we chose, just so long as it doesn’t detrimentally affect others. Vegans believe animals have those rights too. Just remember, 20 years ago vegetarians were seen as ‘kooks’ and, apart from a few exceptions, find veggie options everywhere on the menu. Let’s hope perceived wisdom moves forward enough to allow vegans the same privilege in the future.
Thanks for reading,