Don't Have a Cow, Mom

Ben Calman prepares a stir-fry dish while sharing the kitchen with his mother, Leslie Calman. She supports his decision to avoid meat, a choice that seems to be increasingly common among young people.
Ben Calman prepares a stir-fry dish while sharing the kitchen with his mother, Leslie Calman. She supports his decision to avoid meat, a choice that seems to be increasingly common among young people. (Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post)

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By Jennifer Nelson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

When Leslie Calman's 16-year-old son, Ben, came home from school one day last year and announced he was going vegetarian, Calman and her partner, Jane Gruenebaum, did what few families do when a child decides to stop eating animals: They immediately supported his decision.

"I like a family meal ritual, and so embracing rather than fighting it seemed like a good idea on every ground," remembers Calman.

While statistics are scarce, Ben appears to be part of a growing cadre of kids who reject the meat-eating habits they grew up with. A poll conducted in 2000 by the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit group dedicated to educating the public on vegetarianism, estimated that 6 percent of American youths ages 6 to 17 don't eat meat; 2 percent skip fish and poultry, too; while 0.5 percent are vegans -- they also forgo dairy and eggs.

The American Dietetic Association believes those numbers are on the rise, which fits with my experience: My 18-year-old daughter is trying a no-red-meat diet, and increasing numbers of her friends are choosing variations on a vegetarian theme.

And while Ben's family's reaction may be unusual, the story of how he reached his decision turns out to be fairly typical of teenagers. A student at Wilson High School in the District, Ben took a class with former Post columnist Colman McCarthy in which students discussed alternatives to eating meat. "We also saw a video that showed slaughterhouses and how people eat different animals around the world, like household pets," Ben says. Disturbed by those images, Ben made an ethical commitment to leave everything from sirloin steak to Chicken McNuggets off his plate.

Dietitians suggest that, although many families initially find the news tough to swallow (it sure put the kibosh on many a favorite meat meal in our house), a child's choice to be vegetarian may ultimately make eating well a family affair. The ADA says that a well-planned all-veggie diet for children and adolescents can be nutritionally sound. And Jennifer Tender, a pediatric attending physician at Children's National Medical Center whose three children are all vegetarian, says that families with vegetarian kids often seem more conscientious about fixing balanced meals. They experiment more with unusual vegetables such as squash and rutabaga. "One of my children's favorite foods is spinach, tofu and mushrooms," Tender says.

Reaching the point where a family embraces vegetarianism can be a slow process, though. When Cathie and Dean Winters's son, also named Dean, of Boulder City, Nev., started refusing meat around age 7, his parents differed in their responses. Cathie Winters was more accepting, having experimented with vegetarianism in her youth, but, she says, "my husband is a meat-and-potatoes man, so he went nuts."

Part of his reaction, she thinks, was pure machismo: Just as men don't eat quiche, boys aren't vegetarians. But her husband was also worried about their son getting a balanced diet: Was Dean missing out on protein? Would he grow?

The Winters's disagreement caused some friction in the family -- until Cathie suggested they seek their family physician's opinion rather than turning the dinner table into a battleground. When the doctor didn't find anything wrong with a balanced vegetarian diet, her husband eased up -- a little.

A visit to the doctor can do more than ease tensions, according to Marilyn Tanner, a pediatric dietitian at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Understanding where kids are coming from and making sure there isn't an underlying problem is crucial, she argues.

Could be their best friend is a vegetarian and they want to try, too; or the child has just made the association that eating beef really means eating the cute cow, a realization that frequently happens in seventh-grade life science class. By high school, vegetarianism is often an issue of ethics or of wanting a more nutritious diet in the hopes of lessening teenage problems such as acne or weight gain. More rarely, eliminating meat is the beginning of a complex eating disorder.

If a child is going to be a vegetarian, Tanner says, "helping him do it the right way is very important, rather than arguing against it." Because Winters didn't know exactly what to feed Dean, she began researching protein and B vitamins online and asking vegetarian friends for recommendations.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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