Growing up in Omaha eating a vegetarian diet was a little tough on Danielle Kavan who now lives in Lincoln. She felt different from the other kids at school, especially at lunch time.
“I hated being the kid with the blue corn chips and lentils while everyone else had Lunchables and Capri Sun drinks,” she said.
As a college student, she began appreciating the food her parents had provided. The dollar pizzas and ramen she could afford filled her up but did nothing for her nutritional well-being or her general unease about eating meat and processed food. After college, she eliminated meat from her diet, and a few years ago, after watching the documentary, Food, Inc., she’s embraced a vegan diet.
“I love the vegan diet. I’ve never had so much energy, and it caused me to try a collection of new foods I had never even heard of like nutritional yeast, tempeh, baba ganoush, daiya, cheeseless pizza and sweet potato sushi rolls,” Kavan said.
Food, Inc., also played a role in Kyla Miller’s decision more than two years ago to stop eating meat. She was 14 years old at the time and was helping out at the Haymarket farmers market at her aunt and uncle’s booth, Squeaky Green Organics.
Her parents, Steve and Jana Miller, took it in stride as their older daughter Hannah had embraced a vegetarian diet two years earlier.
“We supported Kyla just as we had Hannah,” Jana Miller said. “Our only stipulation: Kyla had to do her research and make sure she was getting the right nutrition combination.”
Because the Millers didn’t eat much meat anyway and had mostly stopped eating grain-based carbohydrates, many of their meals already relied on more fresh fruits and vegetables than meat, so there was usually something Kyla could eat. When chili was on the menu, Miller says it was easy enough to make two pots, one with meat and one without.
When Kyla transitioned to a vegan diet, it made it a little harder to partake in family meals. She’s now old enough to drive and shop for herself, and she does most of her own cooking.
Miller and her husband initially thought Kyla’s foray into vegetarianism wouldn’t last, but Kyla is now interested in pursuing a career in nutrition sciences and wants to go to a school with a pre-med program in the field.
“She has taken complete responsibility for her nutrition and has educated us, as well,” Miller said. “We have become much more aware of ingredients in the food we purchase, and we eat cleaner and healthier because of Kyla. Steve and I are extremely proud of Kyla for her passion and for educating herself about the food we consume.”
High school students and young adults who are vegetarians and vegans generally eat enough of a variety to meet their nutritional needs. Parents often wonder if it’s possible to provide the necessary nutrients to raise infants and toddlers on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics fully support vegetarian and vegan diets for infants and toddlers and have issued guidelines to help parents make sure their very young children consume a nutritionally sound diets.
Caitlynn Gillaspie, who has a bachelor’s degree in education and human sciences with an emphasis in dietetics and is a nutritionist at Good Life Fitness and a dietary aide at Lincoln Surgical Hospital, said as long as parents pay careful attention to what their children are eating, it’s entirely possible to raise healthy infants and children without meat and/or dairy.
“Getting the daily required amounts of vitamin B-12, calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and zinc, which are typically found in meat, seafood and dairy, is important for proper growth and development,” Gillaspie said. “With planning, parents raising ovo-lacto vegetarians, or those who eat eggs and dairy, will be less likely to experience deficiencies in calcium, vitamin D, and B-12. Parents raising vegans will most likely need to supplement these nutrients with fortified soy and cereal products and dairy-free milk alternatives. All of those nutrients are available in leafy greens, broccoli and kale; in fortified cereal grains and/or vitamin and mineral supplements.”
Although local chef and restaurant owner Maggie Pleskac (Maggie’s Vegetarian Café) was raised on a meat-intensive diet, she embraced a vegetarian diet in high school after reading John Robbins, “Diet for a New America.” When her daughter Iris was born, she was milk and soy protein intolerant (MSPI). Pleskac was breastfeeding, so she switched to vegan diet, and Iris was a vegan for the first three years of her life.
As a 5-year-old now, Iris is developing her own tastes and expressing her likes and dislikes. “I am confident if she is eating the colors of a rainbow in a day, she is getting all the nutrition she needs,” says Pleskac. “She’s has been tested recently for her kindergarten entry requirements, and we tested her hemoglobin for iron levels. She came out on the highest end of the spectrum.”
Consuming this variety of foods, namely fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, is one of the benefits of a vegan/vegetarian diet, Gillaspie said. It’s important, though, to make sure children who do not eat meat supplement their diets with soy products (tofu, tempeh and veggie burgers), beans, legumes, fortified cereals, nuts and seeds. Parents of children eating a vegan diet will have to pay special attention to their calcium and vitamin D intake.
Green leafy vegetables contain calcium, but some children balk at eating spinach, broccoli, and kale. When Kavan’s son, 2½-year-old Owen, started leaving spinach on his plate, she started blending it into his morning fruit smoothies or tossing it with pasta.
“Problem solved,” Kavan said. “If Owen doesn’t like a vegetable one way, we’ll prepare it a different way.”
Pleskac’s daughter Iris is not a picky eater, either, and among her favorite foods are chickpeas, lentils, peanut butter, all berries, broccoli, daikon, apples, noodles, tofu, pineapple, raisins, kale, black beans and most nuts — cashews, almonds and pistachios.
On the advice of her pediatrician, Kavan started feeding Owen solid foods when he was 6 months old, and the first thing he ate was an avocado. Now, she feeds him a variety of fruits and vegetables, and even though she adheres to a vegan diet, she prepares meat for him.
“I want to expose him to all foods so he has a well-balanced diet. I cut up the meat and let him cook it while I supervise. He loves to cook and seems to be much more interested in his food if he helps prepare it,” Kavan said. “While sticking to a vegan diet allows me to feel best about how I impact the world, as well as physically, I realize that’s not the best decision for everyone. As long as Owen is eating a well-balanced diet, he can choose to eat whatever he wants at any age.”
Pleskac and her husband also intend to let Iris make her own decisions regarding food when she gets older. In the meantime, they’ll continue with their mostly vegan diet, preparing every meal at home using whole, non-processed foods.
“We are a vegetarian household, and I feel we are laying a healthy foundation for her growth and development,” Pleskac said.
Kavan and Owen’s father are divorced, and both parents share a desire to feed Owen nutritious meals. He may eat meat the entire time he’s with his father and veggie burgers at home with his mom. Kavan is philosophical about it, “As I’ve always said, it’s all about variety, moderation and fueling your body the best way you can.”