If your child decided to become a vegetarian, would you be a) Shocked? b) Thrilled? c) Horrified? d) Overwhelmed?

When our daughter Celia was young, her favorite meal was steak. I’m not a big meat eater and as the main family cook, I only made meat a couple of times a week. But if Celia had her way, our dinners would have alternated between steak, pasta and chicken drumsticks.

When Celia was 10, she dabbled in vegetarianism, inspired by a close friend and her own love of animals. When she was 11, she swore off meat and fish completely.  This was a pretty big surprise to us considering how much she enjoyed meat when she was younger. Now 16, Celia hasn’t eaten a bite of meat in 5 years.

When a child decides to become a vegetarian, many parents react with dismay. Two of my friends at first told their daughters that they could not give up meat because it would be too hard to cook for them. It doesn’t surprise me that both of those girls are vegetarians today. It’s hard to dictate what another person can and can’t eat.

Other parents are cautiously supportive but nervous that they will have to cook two meals every night, and concerned that they don’t know how to cook enough meatless recipes to keep their children well nourished. Or, they may worry that their children won’t eat beans, nuts, eggs, tofu, and other sources of protein that vegetarians need for a balanced diet.

In our case, we were very supportive of Celia’s decision not to eat meat, although I was a little concerned about how we would make family dinners work for everyone while making sure that she wasn’t just a pasta-tarian.

As an environmentalist, I know that one of the best things we can do to reduce our own impact on the planet is to eat less meat. As an animal lover I’ve never been totally comfortable with eating animals myself, so I tend toward a veggie-centric diet.

We were proud of Celia for following her heart and conscience, and were determined to fully accommodate her choice. However, I recognize that Celia was fortunate to have me at the helm of our family kitchen, since I am a professional cook and recipe developer with a particular focus on meatless recipes. I understand that for many families, a transition like this can be very stressful.

Over the years we have found ways to make it easy to accommodate Celia’s vegetarianism. I interviewed a number of families with a vegetarian family member, and combined their suggestions with my own for making the transition easier.

  1. Make meals that work both ways: “One of my favorite tips for “mixed” vegetarian/carnivore families is to focus on ‘pop in your protein’ meals rather than meals where everyone eats the exact same thing. Fajitas, baked potato bar and Asian-inspired rice bowls are all good examples. Everyone eats the vegetables and the carb (tortillas, potato, rice), but adds the protein of their choice. Offering a vegetarian protein in addition to your meat doesn’t have to create a lot of work for the chef since canned beans and cubed tofu are nutritious and delicious plant-based options that take less than a minute to get on the table,” according to Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN, author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian.
  1. Focus on the sides: With a healthy carb (brown rice, roasted potatoes, whole wheat tortillas, etc.) and a vegetable, vegetarians and carnivores can still share the majority of the meal. “We’ve found a lot of ‘sides’ that function as a meal for the vegetarian and a ‘side’ for the meat eaters,” according to Jonathan Martel, whose 15-year-old daughter Sophie has been a vegetarian since age 8. One of her favorites is grilled vegetables, which Sophie’s brothers Zachary and Ben eat as a side dish for chicken and Sophie tosses with pasta for her meal.When I do serve meat, I make sure to also serve something healthy that Celia can eat in addition to the sides, such as beans, carrots and hummus, a veggie burger, baked tofu, or egg salad. We can all enjoy the same sides.”We make more side dishes and have tried to stop thinking dinner isn’t dinner without meat,” according to Christina McHenry, whose 19-year-old daughter Caroline became a pescatarian when she was 14.
  1. Eat more meatless meals: Does your family eat meatless meals once a week? This could be a great opportunity to try some new recipes and step it up to at least twice a week. Once her 16-year-old daughter Charlotte swore off meat (which at first Deb fought “tooth and nail”), Deb Ford found that her family actually enjoyed eating eggplant Parmesan or pasta with pesto, and even tried tofu, rather than eating meat and fish every night. For those nights your family does have a meaty main dish, have a few frozen vegetarian entrees on hand (either store-bought or homemade) for your non-meat eater.
  1. Get your child cooking: If your child wants to try a new diet, it is the ideal time to get him or her cooking for the family once a week. Buy or borrow an easy vegetarian cookbook and have your child tell you what they plan to make each week before you do your grocery shopping so you won’t need to make an extra trip to the store.
  1. Time your meaty meals: In our case, my husband and son still wanted to eat meat at least once a week, so I timed our meatiest meals for Tuesday nights, when Celia had a regular evening activity and couldn’t eat with us.
  1. Don’t let your child be a pasta-tarian: If your child wants to give up meat but eats a limited diet already, you may be concerned that they won’t get adequate nutrition. Ask your child to research foods that vegetarians need to eat (or do that together) and ask them to commit to being more adventurous with those foods, including preparing some of them him or herself. One change we noticed with Celia was that she ate more fruits and vegetables once she stopped eating meat.
  1. Embrace the adventure: Look at this new phase as an opportunity for the whole family to try new things. According to Meltzer Warren, “Having one vegetarian family member can also provide a terrific opportunity for the others to experiment with trying new foods. Trying out new-to-you meals that are naturally vegetarian – like an Indian saag paneer and potato samosas, or a Middle Eastern falafel – is a good way to test the waters without the meat eaters feeling like anything is missing.”

While this change in Celia’s eating habits has taken a little more energy and thought on all of our parts, I’m proud of her for making and sticking to her choice. It isn’t always easy for her, especially when she is traveling, going out to eat with friends, or going to a friend’s house for dinner.

Perhaps the best part of our child deciding to swear off meat? We parents can take comfort in knowing that people who eat a plant-based diet generally have a lower rate of obesity and heart disease and a lower risk of cancer and diabetes, among other health benefits. With those kinds of stats, along with the environmental benefits, perhaps the best part of our child becoming a vegetarian is that we all will eat at least a little less meat.

Aviva Goldfarb is a family dinner expert and founder of The Six O’Clock Scramble, an online dinner planning solution for busy parents, a Today Show and Washington Post contributor, and author of the acclaimed Six O’Clock Scramble cookbooks.  Aviva’s fourth cookbook is due out in January 2016 and will be published by the American Diabetes Association. 

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news. You can sign up here for our newsletter. On Parenting can be found at washingtonpost.com/onparenting.

You might also be interested in: