My ten-year-old is flirting with the idea of vegetarianism. How would you explain (to a kid!), the importance of eating complete proteins and making sure that vegetarian meals are nutritionally complete? What are some manageable ways to do that in practice? I was once a vegetarian tween/teenager who basically ate too many processed carbs!
First things first, what is vegetarianism? Vegetarianism is referred to as the practice of not eating meat or fish. Someone who eats this way is typically termed a vegetarian. Vegetarians eat grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruit, and vegetables. Sometimes they eat eggs and dairy products (yogurt, cheese, milk). This definition assumes your child understands the basic food groups, if this is not something they are familiar with then this conversation would include going through examples of what foods are in each food group. It may be beneficial to explore your child’s interest in/reasoning behind following a new way of eating.
Balance and variety are key to any eating pattern. This means eating a variety of foods from each food group daily and including fiber (fruit/veggies, grains), healthy fat, and protein at most meals and snacks. Getting caught in a processed carb trap is something we would like to avoid with any eating pattern!
In general, we focus so much on protein these days. And while it is very important, people who are following a vegetarian way of eating will likely get enough protein so long as they are eating a variety of foods from each food group.
We now know that it is not necessary to follow the “complete protein” rule of the past. A complete protein means that the protein contains all nine of the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein) that our bodies do not produce on their own. Most complete proteins are found in--you guessed it--animal products. There are a total of 20 amino acids, 11 of which our body does produce on its own and come from mainly plant-based foods. The thought years ago was that if you were following a vegetarian eating pattern you needed to combine foods at each meal to create a complete protein. If you are eating a variety of plant-based foods, you will likely get all that you need without the hassle of making special complete protein combos with non-meat food sources.
Beans, nuts/seeds, quinoa, soy milk, yogurt (can be non-dairy), some veggie burgers, tofu, edamame, eggs (potentially), dairy (potentially), and nut butters all provide good sources of protein and can be incorporated in meals and with snacks.
Okay, so what might this look like:
Oatmeal with milk or soy milk, nuts, dried or frozen fruit (note: not all dairy-alternative milks are an equal sub for dairy milk)
Veggie burger with or without cheese on wheat bread with veggies (lettuce, cukes, tomatoes)
PB&J with a cheese stick or roasted chickpeas, an apple and carrot sticks
Tacos with black beans to replace the meat and all your favorite taco toppings
Half a wheat bagel with nut butter and fruit or veggie