Meat-free zone

Is your child veering towards vegetarianism? Here are some suggestions of ways to develop a healthy and adventurous meat-free diet that works for the whole family.

Vegetarianism raised its green head sooner than we anticipated when our 7-year-old said she no longer wanted to eat “chicken that looked like a chicken” and “fish that looked like a fish”. I was open to the idea because I respect her developing belief system and I enjoy preparing and eating vegetarian food myself. Little did I know it wouldn’t be quite as simple as just making a few more meatless meals each week.

I laid the ground rules early: “You have to be open to eating more adventurously to stay healthy if you don’t eat meat,” I said. Easy, I thought.

We tried spinach and cottage cheese balls, Dahl, ratatouille, wraps, bakes, tofu, vegetarian sausages … the list goes on. Being obliging and well-behaved, she ate everything without a fuss, but nothing got more than an “it’s okay”  when I asked if she liked it. I didn’t expect her to love everything, but I did want to unearth a couple of favourites so meal times didn’t become a chore. Worse still, what if I put her off being a vegetarian by making the experience so unpleasant (as tempting as that was at times!).

I was focused on doing it right – combining legumes and grains to create complete proteins, beefing up her leafy greens to prevent her iron levels plummeting, and trawling vegetarian cookbooks for appealing new recipes. I quickly felt like a short order cook: basic meat dish for my son, plain vegetarian dish for my daughter and adult versions of one of the two for my husband and I.

It had to stop. The enjoyment I got from reading cookbooks, following food blogs and actually doing the cooking was being buried under a pile of discarded Dahl-splattered recipes. The eureka moment came when I remembered that kids prefer simple food. Separate piles of carbs, protein and vegetables appeal to most young children and mine were no exception. The step up from this to my offerings of adventurous meatless one-dish meals was clearly too much. I realised the vegetarian meals of curries, bakes, salads and stir-fries were not well received by my two, but neither would the same meals featuring meat have been any more popular.

It was time to reintroduce the three small mountains of food. (And with none of them touching each other, thank you!) So from then on, I rolled out meals such as chickpeas, rice and cherry tomatoes, and boiled eggs with potatoes and carrot sticks as an antidote to the more adventurous vegetarian dishes that I preferred. And we were away. Now we have a growing menu of meatless meals that we all enjoy and share, and some plainer vegetarian meals for my daughter for the nights the rest of us hanker for a juicy steak or roast.

And the twist in this tale … our 5-year-old, who previously turned down meals with even the slightest fleck of green showing, now claims spinach filos as one of his favourite meals.

kidfriendly meatless meals to try

  •   Wraps with four bean mix, cheese, diced tomatoes and grated carrots.
  • Tofu fried in a honey, soy and garlic sauce on rice.
  • Anything in filo!
  • Bolognaise made with a lentil and tomato sauce.
  • Macaroni cheese.
  • Vegetable frittatas (great for using up leftovers) and risottos.
  • Pita bread pizzas.

important considerations

Once you’ve worked through the logistics of including kid-friendly vegetarian meals into your weekly menu plans, you need to get your head around how to do it healthily. A good place to start is visiting the Ministry of Health website (www.health.govt.nz).

Beware of filling up children’s small tummies on fibre-rich food and not leaving enough room for the quantity of other foods they need to stay healthy.

Learn the rules around which foods work together and which don't, such as: combining iron-rich food with vitamin C to maximise iron absorption; avoiding meals that include both calcium and iron because, together, they minimise iron absorption; and learning how to combine your legumes and grains to create complete proteins.

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