The news is constantly filled with tips for healthy eating as many Americans set goals to “eat healthy” throughout the year. Your teen is listening and may be changing his or her eating habits. Vegetarian eating is one popular (and potentially healthy) way to “eat healthy.” Today’s post is about what parents can do to help teens be healthy while following a vegetarian diet.

With an increasing number of teenagers choosing to become vegetarians, some parents may be concerned that their teen won’t have a healthy diet, or that they will no longer wish to share in family meals. Vegetarian diets can be healthy without interfering with family meals. Adopting a vegetarian diet may also provide opportunities for parents to help their teens develop their independence.

Why teens choose to become vegetarian

The reasons teens have for choosing vegetarianism are as different as the teenagers themselves.  They may:

  • Be following the lead of their peers or friends, or they have seen that celebrities are promoting it.
  • View this eating pattern as better for their health, or perhaps a form of weight control.
  • Be concerned with the broader picture of how food is produced, the welfare of animals, or the costs or environmental impacts of different types of food production.

These reasons are wonderful chances for you to talk to your teen. Understanding why your teen would like to be vegetarian can help you meet their needs in the healthiest way possible.

Healthy vegetarian diets

Vegetarian diets range from simply cutting back on or eliminating red meats, to removing all meat, fish, and other animal products such as eggs and dairy. These animal foods are rich sources of some nutrients.  The initial attempts of teens to become vegetarian often have them replacing animal products with other “favorite” foods of limited variety and/or lacking the nutrition that they need. Nutrients to which vegetarians need to pay close attention include protein, the minerals iron, zinc and calcium, and vitamins D and B12.

Parents may be under the impression their teen can’t meet his or her protein requirements without animal sources. Plant foods also have protein, and with a variety of grain products such as breads, pastas, oats, or rice, bean and lentils, peanut butter, and nuts and seeds-teens can meet their needs for protein. Many products popular with teens such as enriched grains, breakfast cereals, dried fruits, certain orange juices or soy products are fortified with vitamins and minerals and are convenient choices to help them get enough of these nutrients. Vegetables in a wide range of colors aren’t always a teen’s first food choice, but are another great place to round out the nutrition your teen needs

Family meals, vegetarian teens and developing independence

Parents and their teens can work together to include vegetarian options in meal planning so family members can still enjoy meals together. Perhaps pasta could be served with marina sauce and meatballs on the side; summer grilling can include veggie burgers and vegetable kabobs. Working together to prepare healthy meals helps teens develop food preparation skills, also.

Teens are very social and eating occasions outside home can be a considerable portion of their calories. You can help your teen find vegetarian choices (bean burritos, vegetable wraps) that let them enjoy their time with friends but still provide the vegetarian nutrition they need. Taking the time and thoughtfulness needed to consider vegetarianism can be a very positive experience for your teen and you. Teens can take on more responsibility for their food choices and their health, and also make decisions about how they want to participate in our food system. This is a time to have talks about the choices you both make, what they mean to you, and how they help you both grow as people.

For more information on healthy vegetarian diets, see Healthy Eating for Vegetarians.

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Beth OlsonBeth Olson in an Associate Professor in Nutritional Sciences, and a Nutrition Extension Specialist in Cooperative Extension at UW-Madison.  She has a BS in Biochemistry from UW-Madison, and her MS and PhD in Nutrition are from UC-Davis.  She worked at the Kellogg Company and with Cooperative Extension in another state prior to coming to Madison.  She enjoys sports, is married, and is the mother of a college senior daughter as well as two teenage boys.