Helping Vegan Children Enjoy Non-Vegan Parties
by Melanie Wilson
Birthday parties and other get-togethers where food plays a central role are always an issue for vegan families. I’ve discovered over time that there is no tried-and-true solution that is 100 percent successful for all families or for all children. Furthermore, variables like a child’s appetite, what time of day it is, whether or not she’s had a nap, and what foods are being served all play a part in determining how successful families will be in maintaining their vegan diet without disappointment.
When my child was a toddler, it was fairly easy to steer her in another direction or offer a replacement food. She had not tried as many foods and was not completely aware of the variety of tastes and textures out there, so she wasn’t so curious. As she grew older and became more aware, I had to be more creative about my substitutes and quicker on the timing. I had to come prepared and be on the lookout for easy hand-to-mouth foods that were off limits for us.
There have also been plenty of times when I have had to put my foot down and just say no. I temper these denials with special vegan treats, like cupcakes and cookies. We also make sure to take the time to explain to our daughter why we choose not to eat a particular food, no matter how delicious it looks! Sometimes just letting her know that a poor baby cow had it’s milk taken away so that that cake could be made is enough to turn our sensitive child in the other direction – especially if there is a vegan option waiting on the sidelines.
Now that Kalli is almost five, we don’t always have to go to these lengths to keep her happy, though I do often still provide a vegan option for her when I send her to a party. The few times I’ve been too busy to make something or I’ve forgotten, she’s usually pretty understanding and accepting of the situation. Imagine the surprise on the other parents’ faces when Kalli sat down happily with a plate of grapes instead of chocolate cake. It certainly made us proud!
Still, she is a young child, and there have been situations where she was not willing to pass on the goodies, and she made her unhappiness known to all, very loudly. Nothing puts us in the spotlight as parents like making a decision that is not only unpopular with your child but also with others who are watching. Here are a few ideas for things you can do make sure your child’s party experience is enjoyable, before you even head out the door:
Focus on the social side. Talk to your child about the games he’ll play, the sharing of gifts, who will be there, and what he will wear. Count down the days to the party together on the calendar.
Talk to the hosts. Call the parents and let them know ahead of time that your child has some diet restrictions. Offer to prepare an appetizer or dessert, and let them know that simple things like fruit and veggie sticks are always appropriate. If they are open to your bringing a second cake or cupcakes, try to make it similar in flavor and color to the party cake.
Practice saying no. Children sometimes have a hard time knowing what to say when they are put on the spot. Practice a simple, easy-to-remember phrase like, “No, thank you.” Role play the situation and make a game of it: “Kalli, would you like some cake?” “No, thank you!” Go through a list of vegan and non-vegan foods in this way so your child can not only get used to saying no but also learn which foods are questionable.
Eat a delicious, filling meal before you go. Choose one of your child’s favorites meals and, if time permits, sit down and eat together. Use this time to talk about what foods might be offered at the party and remind him why we choose not to eat some of them. Let him know that if he sees something he can’t have that he really wants, you promise to try to make a vegan version for him later in the week, if possible.
Pack a snack. Nothing breaks down a child’s reserve like hunger. Hopefully, there will be some snacks for your child to eat, but just in case, always pack something in a little plastic bag, like nuts, peanut butter crackers, or cookies. You can also include a juice box or a snack-size soymilk box.
Try not to worry. I once heard a story of a young vegetarian girl who ate Jell-o at a friend’s house. The family had told her that the Jell-o was vegetarian. She was so happy to get home and tell her mother about this new Jell-o. Of course, it wasn’t vegetarian; the family just didn’t know that many vegetarians avoid gelatin and why. The little girl was so disappointed-in the situation and in herself. No one needed to berate her for making the wrong choice. Be truthful with your children, but be careful not to make them feel worse when they choose wrongly.
Above all, parties are a time to celebrate, so keep it positive and have fun!