When your vegan kid learns about “nutrition” in school

This week my son started learning about food groups in his kindergarden class. They got the color-coded food group “plate” (an update from food pyramid of my day) with vegetables, fruits, grains and proteins. On the side the “plate” is a little blue circle for the dairy category. It’s so obviously a side thought it makes me think the only reason “dairy” is still a category is because of the powerful dairy lobby.

The kids had little pictures of the foods and sorted them into the categories (as seen in LP’s glorious cutting andP1060479 pasting work of art). It was fun for LP to have something from kindergarden for him to teach us about as he showed us what fit into all the categories. He even told his little sister she needed “more vegetables and protein” when the G-man complained about how she subsisted almost entirely on fruit and bread.

Of course, the minute I heard they were talking about nutrition my hackles were raised. “What are they telling him about protein?” I wondered. Part of me wants to train him to say things like “chicken (one of the “food” items) isn’t a protein. It’s a bird! But I also know that I want him to develop his own awareness of what it means to be vegan on his terms instead of just being my adorable pint-sized mouthpiece. Although, he may be on this path since he heard me and the G-man talking about how the World Health Organization has just classified processed meat as a carcinogen, and how eating meat could lead to increased chances of cancer. LP got confused and asked if “meat would make you die?” We tried to explain that eating meat could make you more likely to get sick. I think he walked away getting it, and I hope so, because I don’t ever want him to think that all wonderful people in his life that eat meat are suddenly going to up and die from it.

But herein lies the tension. I do want LP to fully understand the destruction that meat and dairy and eggs wreak on our bodies, our environment, and, most importantly, the lives of the animals die for human consumption.  I want him to understand that the slab of “beef” on the nutrition chart is part of a body of a cow that was killed for people to eat – the same kind of cows he moos at when we are driving in the country. I want him to understand that dairy is off to the side of his nutritional plate because it actually has NO PLACE in a balanced diet, because dairy has almost ZERO nutritional benefits, and LOADS of nutritional detriments. I want him to understand all these things, but still be able to deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes with watching people whom he loves and respects eat meat, dairy, and eggs.

In a short five years of parenting, one thing I’ve learned is that, no matter how tension-inducing or complex a subject, you have to make decisions and go with them when your child is in front of you. So what did our vegan family do when our son came home with “plate of nutrition?” We had him tell us all the food groups he was eating for dinner, which was luckily very well-rounded (sunflower-artichoke burgers and kale salad with apple on the side). We had him show us what the different categories were and add more foods to his list of vegetables and fruits. We praised him for his pasting ability and new knowledge and told him the dairy category was off to the side because no one really needed it, and sure, his soymilk could go there. We also laughed a little to ourselves when he listed the proteins by naming peanut butter and beans, and then skipped the chicken, said “beef?” questioningly, and, for the can of tuna, said “some kind of fish in a bowl?”


I’m hoping that tomorrow he doesn’t go announce to his teacher that “meat gives you cancer” because I don’t think it’s necessary. But I do hope that, when they focus more on proteins (it is currently “grain” week) he is able to speak up and at least say “my family doesn’t eat animals.” Because, as I’ve found out time and time again, sometimes just being the vegan in the room is enough.

4 thoughts on “When your vegan kid learns about “nutrition” in school

  1. One of the most important things we teach our children is kindness. Not just kindness toward the earth and animals and ourselves but toward each other. When you preach that your friends are wreaking havoc on their bodies and their children’s bodies that’s a very harsh and hurtful statement. Aside from the facts (most healthy and fit people who lived long, healthy and happy lives ate some meat and dairy and eggs), is it necessary? I enjoy your blog, but this post was hostile.

    The “food plate” was not designed in mind of the children whose parents shop at Whole Foods, but of the children who live on food stamps. It’s for the kids who sometimes have to do the grocery shopping for their families. It’s for the kids whose parents work all week; no one in their house cooks and the children need to be fed warm meals that have sufficient calories stemming from of course fruits and vegetables, but also protein that is easy to heat and serve. No one will be making these children sunflower-artichoke burgers and kale salad. They will be lucky if they get three meals per day.

    The WHO reports are based on those people who have diets high in processed meats. They did not report that meat eaters have a higher percentage of developing cancer. When you say absolutes like NO PLACE and ZERO nutritional benefits you lose credibility and virtue. Science doesn’t support this. Science does support a plant based diet, meat is optional, dairy is not necessary for adults, but no credible medical doctor will tell you that if you feed your children yogurt and eggs that you are wreaking havoc on their bodies.

    I grew up spending summers on a farm that housed dairy cows, and across the street was a cattle farm. In the same town was a larger farm with chickens, dairy cows, and pigs. These were more humane farms where the farms loved their animals and and each dairy cow on our farm had a name. The cattle, chickens and pigs ran around free. Farming does not have to be unkind to animals. I choose to support those farms, rather than try to not support any farms.

    You cannot change the history of humanity, the art and the culture of food and dining. Meat and dairy have a place in the human evolution of culinary arts, as well as cultural cuisines. Just be careful that by instilling your values in your children you don’t make the “vegan in the room” too much. Kindness matters most.

  2. Tasha,
    First of all, thank you so very, very much for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you completely – kindness and compassion matter most, and those are the values I (and I think most of us) want to instill in our children. For what it is worth, when the G-man and I were talking about the problems with meat we didn’t realize LP was listening in, and certainly stopped when we realized he was. I agree – I don’t want him or IP to preach to anyone, or hear us preaching to or about anyone. The fact that LP overheard the conversation about the WHO study that the G-man and I were having was a mistake (we’re still working on remember that little pitchers have big ears about everything!).

    As I tried to communicate through the post, what I really want is for my children to develop a values system that is rooted in kindness and compassion, and also to understand what it means to eat healthfully. I have found veganism to be a path to both those things for myself, and I think it could be for them also. However, I also struggle with the tension of being vegan, and raising vegan children, in a world that doesn’t necessarily share or understand those values the way we do, and this post was an attempt to show a moment of that tension and struggle in our lives.

    I will say, in terms of the government food plate/nutrition guide, I do agree that, when we speak about nutrition we need to think about the people in our country who do not have the privileges afforded to me and my family. In fact, I know many of those people well. I teach them. I’m with kids every day for whom the school lunch is their most substantial and healthiest meal of the day. And that meal is often chicken patties, corn dogs, hot dogs, or pizza. There are different ways to be vegan, but shopping at Whole Foods is not a mandatory part of it. I guess my point is this: yes, it is much, much harder for my students and other people in poor communities to eat vegan (or healthfully in general) because of food deserts, and the way food in this country is subsidized. There is a dairy lobby. There is a meat lobby. Because of this the prices of things like milk, cheese and meat are kept artificially low and more readily available to people who are struggling to get by. The problem, in my mind, is not the vegans who are making it clear that you can survive, and thrive, without meat, dairy, and eggs in your diet. Instead, the problem is a government/societal system that subsidizes the meat and dairy industry in part by feeding our poorest kids some of the most unhealthy foods. I know I’m oversimplifying here, but this is my struggle: trying to help my children understand that not everything they hear about “nutrition” from sources of authority are right, all while being clear that being non-vegan is not bad or wrong. If you want to see where I get some of my nutrition info, check out http://nutritionfacts.org/

    That all being said, I never want to insinuate that being vegan makes me, or anyone else, “better” than someone who is non-vegan. That is just simply NOT true, and I certainly want my kids to understand that as well. But we are vegan for several reasons and I want my children to understand those reasons (and eventually decided if they personally agree with them). That is the tension I struggle with, and was trying to communicate in this post.

    Thank you so, so much for the comment! I write these things to share my experiences and to engage in dialogue, so I greatly appreciate the chance to discuss this important topic!

  3. Thanks for clarifying your stance. I fully support anyone’s choice to eat vegan or vegetarian. We eat a plant based diet at home. Meat is purchased rarely. I like to read through vegan and vegetarian cookbooks because it opens up new possibilities for me! But I am also a cook and a baker and a food lover and a traveler. I feed my kids the healthiest food, which includes a wide variety of vegetables and fruits but also some wholesome organic yogurt and eggs and various European cheeses that I enjoyed a a little girl in France (my parents took us to live in Europe when I was 7). They are very healthy, as am I, and as are many non-vegans who enjoy the many joys of good food from around the world!

    Your non-vegan friends are not mindless minions of the dairy and meat industries. The fact that most people in the world eat meat and dairy really has little to do with governments; it dates back much further- millions of years of evolution is responsible.

    From a scientific standpoint, I would caution you to be watchful of how you interpret data. Just because too much of something can be detrimental to your health, doesn’t make it poison in your body. Of course there are nutritional benefits to eating eggs, for example. Break it down in a lab and you have some good nutrients. But do you need it to survive or can you source your iron, vitamin A, vitamin D, phosphorus, calcium, thiamine, and riboflavin from a plant based source? You can get it from a plant based source and at the same time ditch the unnecessary cholesterol. But if you eat the egg, just have it once or twice a week, eat a plant based diet for the majority of the week and you have an equally healthy person. Eat 2 eggs per day every day and you have a health problem. Moderation, moderation, moderation 🙂

    That being said, I do truly think it’s great you’ve made this commitment and have stuck to it.
    I enjoy reading your blog and look forward to reading more posts and recipes!

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