March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Teens become vegetarians for many different reasons. Regardless of why a teen stops eating some or all animal-based foods, parents play an important role in helping make sure that their child gets all the necessary vitamins, minerals and nutrients for growth and good health.
"Start by finding out which foods your child has stopped eating. Vegetarianism can mean avoiding all meats, dairy products, and eggs or eating dairy and/or eggs but no meat. Some vegetarians even eat small amounts of fish occasionally," suggests Sarah Krieger, MPH, RDN, LD/N, former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Work with your teen so that you can plan family meals accordingly."
Look together for recipes that can be adapted for the family. Krieger suggests starting with recipes that include vegetables and a whole grain, along with a protein that can be added after cooking, for example, grilled tofu or soy crumbles for the vegetarian and grilled chicken breast or ground meat for other family members.
Encourage a vegetarian teen to try new foods and be adventurous. "Otherwise, it can be hard to meet their needs for nutrients like protein, iron, and calcium," says Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN. "Tofu, kidney and other dry beans, edamame (soy beans), quinoa, dark leafy greens, fortified soy milk, and fortified orange juice are just a few of the many nutrient-rich meatless options." Remind teens to replace animal-based foods with nutritious foods rather than with empty calories from chips, fries, soft drinks, desserts and candy.
Have Your Teen Help
"A vegetarian meal can be a healthy choice for the whole family," says Gans. "Let your teen plan and help create an entire meal at least once a week. Work with your teen to create a menu and shopping list, and go shopping together."
Meatless meals offer an opportunity to introduce family members to new types of dishes and ingredients from around the world. Be sure to seek out books and website resources on vegetarian eating and contact a registered dietitian for additional information and assistance.