Can Kids Be Healthy Without Meat?

As children say no to meat, parents worry they're making an unhealthy choice.

April 18, 2009— -- When Bill and Jessica Baccus sit down to dinner, there may be meat on the table, but their 11-year-old son Elijah never eats it.

That's because Elijah, like many other American kids, has decided to become a vegetarian. His mom says he made the choice at only 3 years old.

"I had a big, local, organic chicken ... and he saw me cutting it, and it looked like a chicken," Jessica Baccus said. "And his little face crumbled. And he said, 'I thought chickens were our friends! I don't want to eat my friends!'"

Sarah Harlow, 7, has made the same decision -- for the same reason.

"I ask my mom, 'What is this animal?' and she tells me, and then I don't really want to eat it," Harlow said.

Food Wars: Kids vs. Parents

A recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that one out of every 200 American children younger than age 18 is a vegetarian. Like Sarah and Elijah, many of them are not from vegetarian families -- and that can set up a food war between parent and child.

For example, Alana McBane, 10, has wanted to stop eating meat for the past two years. But she is allergic to nuts, tofu and eggs, so her parents are unwilling to allow an all-vegetarian diet.

"It's really hard, because I don't want to [eat meat]," McBane said. "But my dad's like, 'No, you have all these allergies. You have to eat meat.'"

"The explanation is that, because she's in her growing years," said Alana's father, Scott McBane, "and we really do need protein during these years especially. ... It is really important, until she finishes growing, that she get good protein."

Healthy or Not?

Even when parents do allow a child to go vegetarian, there still can be battles over what is or is not healthy.

"Vegetarianism, as a concept, I completely embrace," Jessica Baccus said. "But there have been a few go-rounds where we felt like [Elijah] just was eating toast. So we had to get more insistent."

"If they had their way, they would survive on a couple of vegetables and a lot of carbohydrates," Bill Baccus added. "It's like butter, bread, pasta with butter."

Dr. Russell Greenfield, author of the book, "Healthy Child, Whole Child," said parents of vegetarian kids should be most concerned about making sure their children are getting enough protein and eating enough food overall.

"Usually, vegetarian diets are a little bit high in fiber, and that can get kids really full very easily, so we need to make certain that we balance that out so they get adequate calories," Greenfield said.

He also advises parents to consider giving vegetarian children multivitamins or other supplements to make up for nutrients like iron, calcium, zinc and vitamins D and B-12, which can be low in vegetarian diets.

Keeping the Peace

When it comes to keeping the peace between vegetarian kids and meat-eating grown-ups, a compromise can go a long way.

For the McBanes, that meant setting aside one day per week when no one eats meat. They call it, "meatless Monday."

"It's been a big hit," Scott McBane said. "The kids are reminding us hours before dinner, 'You know, it's meatless Monday.'"

"It's my favorite day of the week," Alana McBane said.