Food & Wine
It was Elliot Grant's idea for his family to try a vegetarian diet for a month based on his environmental beliefs. Two years later and the Canterbury 14-year-old has now led the charge towards veganism with his little brother, sister and mother following suit.
"I like that I'm helping the environment and not polluting the world and saving animals. Sometimes at school I get a hard time about it, they'll try to give me a piece of meat and say I'm quite skinny. I feel quite hurt inside because it is my decision."
The Canterbury teen said he chose to take a further step and become vegan after learning of the pollution caused by the dairy industry.
Mother Jennifer Grant said despite some bullying her children were staunch about their choice. "My middle son is trying his hardest to change his classmates. This is their own action . . . they have taken it and just run with it."
Animal rights organisation SAFE's promotions manager, Amanda Sorrenson, said the number of child vegetarians was growing and she knew of several children who had made the decision separate to their families.
"It's a really good age for children to be in touch with the compassionate side of themselves that naturally doesn't want to be part of killing an animal."
She said young vegetarians had a lot to negotiate in social settings, such as birthday parties, where it was hard to say no to food offered and vegetarians were often not catered for.
There is also the challenge of meeting the needs of growing bodies. Dietitian Lea Stening said children needed enough protein, iron and vitamin B12 which mainly came from animal sources.
"Vegetarians have to be careful with children who are growing and have greater need for those nutrients. Mental development is very important at a young age too. It's hard for children to concentrate well if they are lacking in iron," Stening said, adding it was possible to grow healthily on a vegetarian diet but would take a lot of time and care.
Natasha Clements, 10, said she was vegetarian because her mum and nana were. "I think it is important because I like all animals even if they don't look that nice."
Her sister Zoe, 8, liked being vegetarian because she "wouldn't want to eat dead animals and it is much healthier. My friends sometimes say you're missing out on chicken but I really don't want to try it. When I see my friends eat meat I just think of little baby animals."
Both girls attend an Auckland group, Active for Animals, set up by Sorrenson for 7 to 12-year-old vegetarians and vegans. "We devote a bit of time to strengthening their resolve, their arguments, their thinking, just so they are well armed with knowledge."
Mother Julia Clements has been vegetarian all her life and said there were far more options for her daughters than she had when she was growing up.
"It's massively different, you go to a restaurant now and there are two or three vegetarian choices. There are many more options these days. They go to school camp and anyone with a food preference eats vegetarian."
Clements said when she went to camp her mother had to send along food for her to eat. She made sure her children were healthy by providing plenty of protein and iron for them at meal times.
Dietitian Jennifer Douglas said including protein in a vegetarian lunchbox could be challenging as many schools had restrictions on nuts and a vegetarian "requires large volumes of foods to be eaten to meet caloric requirements for growth".
Vegetarian Society trademark manager Stephanie Lane said vegetarianism was growing and people were becoming comfortable raising their kids that way.
"My kids have had no trouble with it. I have heard the odd bit of teasing and my 11-year-old has just had the first bit of it this year."
Lane said she knew of children who had chosen to be vegetarian at a very young age, against the wishes of their families. "Being the odd one out in your family is quite hard."
WHAT DIETITIANS SAY
Vegan children need fortified soy milk or milk with B12 added. They need fortified yeasts in their diet and supplementation might be needed.
Children should have at least two serves of protein-containing foods per day.
Children need a large variety of different lentils, legumes, nuts and green leafy vegetables in order to meet iron requirements.
A vegetarian/vegan diet is often very high in fibre which can interfere with iron absorption. Parents may need to increase fat content of meals.
Alternative milks must have added calcium.
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