Encouraging Your Teenage Vegan
by Tammie Ortlieb
I was vegan for three months. Religiously, I loaded my plate with leafy greens, deep reds, soy this, soy that, and a sprinkling of nuts and berries any mother would be proud of. I experimented with egg substitutes, dairy alternatives, and even a sampling of foods I couldn’t pronounce. I was beaming from my newfound accomplishment and noticeably healthier. It was the drive-thru that did me in.
Four kids in the back of the van and baseball practice to get to, I would attempt to concoct some sort of creation from the inevitable “meat and potatoes” menu. Usually my dinner consisted of buns and veggies, tacos with beans and lettuce, or supersized fries and a pop. Boring to say the least. And where was the nutrition in all of these white paper bags? Was I missing something or just creatively constipated?
This frustration with the fast food business caused me pause and motherly reflection. If I, an experienced, self-assured adult, found myself stammering at the burger joint order window how must my teenagers feel as they step to the counter with a group of friends? How must they feel when they frantically search a menu where the one or two vegetarian options are loaded with cheese? How do they make smart choices when they feel that every eye in the restaurant is on them and the clock is ticking?
Adolescents are by nature social creatures gifted with the talent of maturing physically almost at the speed of light. They eat. They hang out. They party. They eat. Then they browse the mall and eat some more. Friends are the lifeblood that keep them running. Food is the medium with which they cement their relationships.
My older two were dragged into the herbivorous lifestyle by their militant animal rights activist cousin. Quick converts to the plant based ways, they now shun companies that employ animal testing, choose book report topics decrying common circus practices and the fur trade industry, and absolutely refuse to wear any clothing made of leather, wool, or silk. Understandably I was not surprised the day my fourteen year old asked for soy milk on her Cheerios.
But asking Mom to use bananas instead of eggs the next time she bakes a batch of cookies is a far cry from interrogating a minimum wage employee on the ingredients of a bun. And most likely he doesn’t know any more than you do anyway. Even the best of intentions can go awry when the heat is on and the steaks are down. Oh, I believe I meant stakes.
My struggling herbivores have learned to do a little web surfing before visiting a new eating establishment. By clicking onto websites of local restaurants, they can learn not only menu options, but all sorts of nutritional information including ingredients. This lessens the stress of going to an unfamiliar place and helps them establish a few “safe” foods beforehand.
As a proud mama, I must say that my children’s’ friends have been so impressed with their strong convictions and obvious self-confidence that a few have even been converted themselves. This has only served to reinforce the benefits of the vegetarian lifestyle. Not only do my teenagers now enjoy a renewed sense of competence and a deeper relationship with their friends, but they are experiencing the more grown up feeling of pride in contributing to the well being of the planet and those who live on it.
As parents we should not underestimate the incredible impact of peer pressure and significance of exploration in the development of our child’s identity. You may occasionally find your daughter taking two steps forward in her quest toward veganism only to fall back three more steps when confronted with a dairy laden menu on a marching band stop over for dinner.
Encourage your teenager through these fits and starts. Remain positive and avoid pressure at all costs. This is not a contest. Slipping back to scrambled eggs and grilled cheese is not failing or losing the race. Instead, reward a successful switch to soy milk and tofu scramblers. Applaud your teen for filling her subs with more veggies and less cheese, topping her toast with jelly instead of butter. She is coming to terms with the big question of life at this stage: Who am I when nobody else is looking?
And who are we as adults to expect perfection from our children? After all, didn’t we get to where we are through years of research, trial and error, and occasional, or not so occasional, slip ups? Why should we expect any less from our own sons and daughters?