Raising a vegan (or nearly vegan in my case) child is contentious. Bizarre as it seems to me, but choosing a diet for your family that is low-carbon, ethical, cruelty-free and very healthy if adhered to with consideration, can strike panic – even anger – in the hearts of family, health professionals and celebrity chefs alike. In 2015 I had a twitter exchange with celeb chef Gizzi Erskine (who BTW I usually really dig) about this after she posted photos of two malnourished vegan children alongside a barrage of pretty ignorant, inflammatory commentary. Sorry Gizzi, but it was.
Now don’t get me wrong, the case of the two children is tragic. But the parents needed professional support to nourish their children back to health, as other non-vegan parents would get from the health services if their child’s nutrition wasn’t on track. The NHS and the American Academy Of Pediatrics say it is absolutely possible to raise a perfectly healthy vegan child – you just need to know what you’re doing. I couldn’t agree more.
It would be very easy for me to post a thousand pictures of similarly tragic obese, toothless, diabetic, rickets suffering children whose diets have led them down a path of dire ill health – but this would be a horribly inappropriate thing to do. These children and their families need nutritional help and guidance – not public shaming.
In August the vegan persecution reached dizzying heights. An Italian MP (with no nutrition or health credentials BTW) tabled a motion to jail parents who ‘imposed’ or ‘forced’ a vegan diet on their children.
Rewind a second. “Forced.” “Imposed.” Interesting. So in the abundance of choices parents make for their children – religious/atheist, racist/multicultural, conservative/liberal, private school/state school, TV/books, junk food/wholefood – the one act of being vegan is “forced” in a way incomparable to any other essential part of a child’s life? And is such a heinous act parents that do this belong in jail along with rapist, pedophiles and murderers. WT*?
As a vegetarian then vegan of 28 years and counting, raising a thriving nearly vegan child (he eats eggs – more on this later) and co-running an award winning organisation inspiring people to cook and eat more 100% plant-based meals for the sake of people and planet, I take this nonsense not only seriously, but personally.
Let’s get the facts straight. We urgently need to eat less industrially farmed animal products. By ‘we’ I don’t mean Inuit’s and nomadic tribes who clearly get a free pass, but ‘we’ in the so called ‘developed’ nations. If we want to feed the globes rapidly expanding population, AND, reduce our carbon footprint, we have to one, stop wasting so much food, and two, start eating a more plant-based focused diet. Experts say so too (see UN and PNAS. In my opinion the 80:20 approach would be a great, realistic goal (80% vegan, 20% whatever) but the skewed vegan bashing is not helping the cause one bit.
To readdress the balance a little I’ll tell you my story. I’ve been veggie since the age of 9, vegan since 19. I’ve had no major health problems and generally experience great health and high levels of energy. People routinely say to me, “Oh, you look really well for a vegan” (implying vegans are all pale and waif-like) for whatever empty worth there is in the idea of, “Looking healthy.”
Despite my years of success I did however have a wobble about whether I was getting everything I needed when I got pregnant. Rather than blindly carry on, I did what all Mama’s and Papa’s should do vegan or otherwise – my research. It turned out for me with a baseline of a very healthy, varied plant-based diet all I needed to do was up my dark leafy greens, ensure I was eating fermented foods to aid digestion and ensure maximum nutrient absorption, and take a daily folic acid and vegan pregnancy supplement – things that all expecting Mama’s should do anyway.
Proof in the pudding came when my homebirth midwife texted me my HB count results (showing levels of iron) and said they were some of the highest she’s ever recorded and had been excitedly telling her colleagues I was vegan. Power of the plants right at ya! Following this I gave birth to a bouncing baby boy in the 95% percentile in weight and height and that’s where he stayed for the first year of his life. (Not sure where he is now on the growth charts but age 2 I call him, “Big man,” as he’s well, pretty solid)
As much as I want my story to inspire, I don’t want it to wrongly give the impression raising a vegan child can be done without care, consideration and hard work - because it can’t.
You’ve got to breastfeed (or use a reputable organic infant weaning formula) for as long as possible. You’ve got to cook from scratch three times a day or have a batch cooking system going on. You’ve got to assemble hearty, healthy, inspiring snacks pots, especially when traveling. You’ve got to duck and dive around your little ones completely normal but at times infuriating eating fads. And you’ve definitely got to be prepared to take supplements and get them into your child. But then this is true for every conscientious parent today, vegan or otherwise, including the supplements part.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is, if I’ve found it challenging at times (and I’m someone who sprouts mung beans and spends their Saturday nights in making sauerkraut) – then it’s a fib to say anyone can easily raise a healthy 100% vegan child. It’s not only a fib - it’s potentially bad for a child’s development. If adult vegans who eat a poor to OK diet think they can feed their growing child the same way they eat but with a few cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks and glasses of almond milk thrown in then they need to seriously think again. Growing children need different nutrients to adults to thrive and what’s adequate for you isn’t necessarily adequate for them.
Also as a vegan parent, you need to pay extra close attention to your child’s nutrition (and take an active interest in learning about nutrition) not just because the diet’s vegan, but because you’re not likely to get the support you need if something goes wrong. I’ve spoken to many NHS dieticians through my work and although they’re very knowledgeable, many of them simply aren’t aware of the fantastic vegan products on the market today.
I’ll list some of mine, and my thriving two year olds, food staples that might seem a bit ‘wacky’ and not appear on your average household’s shopping list. Hemp protein powder (used in porridge and smoothies) containing all 18 essential amino acids. Liquid aminos. B12 enriched nutritional yeast. Ground flaxseed. A variety of enriched milks including oat, hemp, almond and coconut. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, sauerkraut crackers and water kefir (kefir is strong tasting drink good to hide liquid supplements). Chia seeds. Chickpea flour pasta. Nori sheets. Buckwheat. Essex grown Quinoa. Iron, B12, vitamin D3 and EPA & DHA supplements. Freshly picked organic herbs and greens from the garden.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Our plates and cupboards don’t look like your average households.
And it’s not just about the food itself, but the way your little one learns to eat it that will start you off on the right foot of raising a thriving vegan, or non-vegan, child. I highly recommend all parents-to-be to read the Baby Led Weaning book by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett. Besides being surrounded by a strong food culture at home, I attribute much of my little’s one’s readiness to eat kale and copious Brussels sprouts (I know, weird!) down to us reading this book.
In essence it ditches the spoon-feeding mush phase and instead encourages parents to put real, handheld size pieces of food (think avocado, steamed vegetables) in front of their babies from the get go and let them feed themselves. No coercing. No battle of wills. You provide the food. And baby lobs it everywhere. And throws it on the floor. And mashes it into their hands. But then eventually, yes eventually, they start eating everything and anything of their own volition. And what a joy and essential thing that is for getting good nutrition into your bubba.
Finally I’m going to end this post with a confession and realisation. Your baby/child is not you. Although I’m 100% committed myself to being vegan and this suits me perfectly, I came to realize it might not be ideal for my child. So from age 1 my little one started eating eggs. (Would that be an ovo-vegan?)
This minor sounding thing was actually a huge deal for me that involved a lot of soul searching prompted by reading Evie’s Kitchen by vegan raw food guru Shazzie. In thought provoking, honest detail she tells of her attempts to raise a thriving child on a 100% raw, vegan diet and the pitfalls she came up against. Although we’re not a raw family (I enjoy the recipes, especially the cakes!) I learnt that there were nutrients rarely talked about such as K2 and Choline that were tough to get from a vegan diet. It’s totally possible (and I applaud all 100% vegan mama’s and papas that are ensuring their kids get these nutrients from plants alone), but’s it’s not easy.
Surprisingly to me at first Shazzie resolved the K2 issue by feeding Evie butter and raw milk from grass fed cows. The horrors of the meat, fish and dairy farming industries I could never overlook by feeding its products to my child (except perhaps slaughter-free Ahimsa milk?), but I totally get why Shazzie made this choice. For plant-based K2 options that left us with natto – an intensely (some would say horrible) tasting fermented bean product, or a supplement. We went for the supplement. The choline we deliberated on.
On the plant-based front Choline is found in shiitake mushrooms and brassica greens – but how much of those would baby realistically eat? First we used soya lecithin (with choline) and added it to porridge and smoothies. But I really don’t think we, especially growing little boys, should be regularly eating soya for a huge variety of reasons. So that led us to the, er, yeah, vegan-bombshell of eggs.
I already knew the awesome Growing Communities farmers market and veg box scheme sold organic, biodynamic eggs. Eggs are loaded with choline - and iron, and protein. And in the case of these eggs we can visit the farm and see the chickens batting about having what looks to be, without proposing I know what’s going on inside a chicken’s head, a good life. So why was I so resistant?
I didn’t like the honest answer. He was my gorgeous, thriving, vegan poster boy – evidence a cruelty-free, ethical lifestyle can be done. And what would my vegan friends think if he ate eggs? And what would MIH’s vegan supporters think? (will I get trolled!) Would it then be a slippery slope into eating lots of awful animal cruelty products? It was my turn to say WT* to myself? I dug deep. The eggs are in - but only organic eggs where we can see exactly how the chickens are treated with our own eyes. Little one loved them – instantly.
It was weird at first (especially when he offers me his egg and I pretend to eat it – ‘hmmmm, thankyou yum yum’), and I did ring my husband and utter the classic phrase, “How long do you boil an egg for?”, but I got used to it after a few weeks.
So yeah, like I said at the beginning, raising a thriving vegan child (or nearly vegan child) is contentious. Even for yourself. But it’s totally possible. Eggs or no eggs.