The veggie kid

A young family member who says no to meat can be served without making meals a tall order.

Posted: June 28, 2007

No carnivore parent wants to hear the words uttered by my eldest daughter one night last summer.

We were about to dig into one of my family's favorite chicken dishes - a nice Marcella Hazan number, garlic, rosemary, good stuff - when an anxious look crossed Aislinn's face.

"What?" I asked.

"I'm a vegetarian!" she, then 11, blurted out.

"Not tonight, you're not!" I blurted back.

The next day, we revisited the issue. She came prepared. "What about your health?" I asked. She whipped out books on how growing children could safely go vegetarian.

"But you don't even like vegetables all that much," I argued.

She promised to try.

My biggest fear was harder to clear. My husband and I both work full time. We barely manage to pull off a good dinner seven nights a week for ourselves and our three girls. Were we now talking multiple entrees? What did I look like? A caterer?

Aislinn just looked at me with those brown eyes of hers:

"I'll help."

Nearly a year has passed. Aislinn is indeed a vegetarian, and I have not been reduced to kitchen slave. Having a vegetarian kid in an otherwise meat-eating household has proved to be quite doable. In fact, we've discovered great dishes we probably wouldn't have if not for this veggie thing.

My kid is not unique. According to a 2005 poll conducted for the Vegetarian Resource Group, an estimated 3 percent, or 1.4 million, American 8- to 18- year-olds are vegetarian.

While VRG doesn't have the data to prove there has been an increase in kid vegetarians, consumer research manager John Cunningham said he believes the number has grown, in part because of more acceptance by society.

"Ten, 15 years ago, a parent would have just forced the kid to eat meat," he said.

Some kids don't like meat. But vegetarianism is also hot with lots of preteens and teenagers for moral, ethical and health reasons. When your child goes to the trouble of researching the nasty things done to animals en route to our tables and then commits to changing behavior so he or she is not supporting inhuman treatment, it's hard not to support that.

In addition, vegetarian diets can be associated with good things like lower body mass and decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

At the same time, you don't want your children to suffer some weird nutritional deficiency. As a parent, it's important to teach your children how to eat properly so that doesn't happen.

Take proteins. Meat and fish contain so-called complete proteins. Plant foods don't. Vegetarians need to eat a variety of protein sources - legumes, nuts, seeds, soy products, eggs and dairy, according to Dawn Jackson Blatner, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. But they don't need to be combined at the same meal, as previously believed.

Young vegetarians also need to make sure they're getting enough calcium, iron and Vitamin B12.

Sage advice: "It's not just about what you take out of your diet," Blatner said.

You won't have any trouble finding sources of more information. There are Web sites like www.vegetarianteen.com and www.vrg.org., and plenty of books. The one Aislinn gave me when she made her pitch was Vegetables Rock!: A Complete Guide for Teenage Vegetarians by Stephanie Pierson (Bantam, 1999). Written by the mother of a vegetarian, it is readable, useful, and even has some pretty good recipes.

The next step is coming to agreement on what kind of vegetarian your kid will be. Aislinn made it easy. She went for lacto-ovo-vegetarianism; she eats eggs and dairy besides plant foods. Vegans, who eat only plant foods, have to work a lot harder to get all the things growing bodies need.

At first, Aislinn even agreed to include shellfish - something quote-unquote real vegetarians would call cheating. It soon become a moot point. While vacationing on Cape Cod, we spent a morning clamming and then whipped up some linguine with white clam sauce she'd wolfed down the summer before. A couple of minutes into dinner, I noticed her fork was moving the bits of clam in various directions around her plate, but none were making it to her mouth.

"You're not going to eat that, are you?" I asked.

"I feel bad for the clams," she said.

I tried to make the case that clams fell well below the food-with-a-face radar, but that didn't cut it with my principled daughter. The rest of the family ate a lot of white clam sauce the next couple of days.

(Strict vegetarians might not approve, but Blatner, a registered dietitian, said she's seeing interest in the more relaxed versions of vegetarianism, including "flexitarians." They're vegetarian most of the time, but will occasionally eat animal foods.)

Once you get the ground rules down, you can move on to the preparation of food. A vegetarian diet can be very healthful, but not if it's mostly pizza, chips and sweets. Stock up on stuff like fruits, crunchy vegetables, low-fat cheese, nuts, whole-grain snacks and yogurt, if you don't already.

On to the real challenge. I repeat: You do not want to prepare two completely separate dinners every night. Adolescence is enough to put up with; you don't need to feel like you're running a restaurant out of your kitchen.

The way we get around this most nights is pretty simple. Either we make a vegetarian entree everybody will eat and round it out with a salad and good bread. Or we make a vegetarian entree and use it as a side dish for non-veggie family members.

For example, early on we found a great recipe for anchovy-less puttanesca sauce that everybody loves. Those nights, no one misses meat. Check out the accompanying recipe.

Some weeks, we make a couple of pots of different bean dishes to freeze in individual portions.

Cuban black beans come to mind. Aislinn has them over rice. Everybody else will have a smaller portion with whatever meat and vegetable we're having (see accompanying recipe).

Well-spiced, stewy bean dishes are great to have on hand. A lot of kids love to make their own tacos. Whip up some seasoned ground meat, and thaw and heat beans for your vegetarian. Aislinn's little sisters like the beans so much they eat them along with the beef.

As with any new kind of cooking, part of the challenge is hunting down recipes. There are some great vegetarian cookbooks out there. We owe former White Dog Cafe chef Aliza Green big time for her volume The Bean Bible (Running Press, 2000). It's not a vegetarian cookbook, but it has many wonderful no-meat recipes that everybody in my house loves.

Two recent cookbooks had several recipes that struck our resident vegetarian's fancy.

Pure Vegetarian (Kyle Books, 2006) by Paul Gaylor is for foodie home cooks with recipes like vegetarian pho and steamed Asian buns. Quick-Fix Vegetarian (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2007) by Robin Robertson features dishes that take 30 minutes or less to make, like Thai noodle salad with peanut sauce and potato dosadillas. (See accompanying recipe.)

Of course, you needn't start a new cookbook library. Many of the world's cuisines have great meatless dishes found in ethnic cookbooks you already own.

Then there's the actual cooking. Any kid who can advance a convincing case for becoming a vegetarian is old enough to help with the cooking. Aislinn helps with prep work, and there are dishes she does solo quite nicely. She does a decent omelet, she's made pasta for herself and her sisters more than once, and I have a soft spot for her Caesar salad.

And you never know. This veggie thing just may catch on with your family. The other day, Ciara, one of Aislinn's 9-year-old sisters, told me she and some friends wanted to do things to help animals and save the rain forest.

I gave the requisite parental reinforcement.

Then she looked at me with her brown eyes:

"So would you let me be a vegetarian?"


Potato "Dosadillas"

Makes 4 servings

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons minced

scallions or onions

2 cups mashed potatoes

(see Note)

1/2 cup frozen baby peas, thawed

11/2 teaspoons curry powder or paste, or to taste

4 large whole wheat tortillas

1. Heat the oil in a small skillet. Saute the scallions until soft. Add the potatoes, peas and curry and mix well. Cook until hot. For a spicier mixture, add more curry.

2. Spread the mixture evenly over half of each of the tortillas. Fold the tortillas and heat them, two at a time, in a large nonstick skillet or griddle over medium heat. Cook, turning once, until lightly browned on both sides. Keep them warm while cooking the remaining dosadillas. Eat them with your hands or with a knife and fork.

- From Quick-Fix Vegetarian by Robin Robertson

(Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2007)

Note: My kids loved these but suggested buttering the tortilla and adding more butter to the mashed potatoes.

Per serving: 297 calories, 10 grams protein, 55 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, 2 milligrams cholesterol, 336 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.


Spaghetti Puttanesca

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1/4 cup olive oil

12 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

2 teaspoons oregano

Fresh ground pepper to taste

1 cup pitted black and green olives (Kalamata, Nicoise or Picholine), chopped

1 (31/2-ounce) jar small

capers, drained

1 cup minced fresh parsley

1 pound spaghetti, angel hair, or pasta of your choice

1. Bring a large stockpot of water to boil for the pasta.

2. In a 3-quart saucepan on medium heat, heat the oil. Cook the garlic and pepper flakes for 1 minute. The garlic should be pale. Add the tomatoes, oregano, pepper, olives and capers; cover loosely to prevent splattering and simmer for 20 minutes.

3. Cook the pasta barely tender, drain thoroughly and return to the pot. Add half of the sauce; toss to coat. Freeze the remaining sauce for another day.

- Adapted from Vegetarian Classics by Jeanne Lemlin (HarperCollins, 2001).Per serving (based on 8): 323 calories, 9 grams protein, 51 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, no cholesterol, 727 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.


Cuban Black Beans, Vegetarian-Style

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 pound dried black turtle beans, soaked overnight

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 bunch scallions, sliced thin

1/4 cup chopped roasted red bell pepper, or to taste

1 green bell pepper, chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, chopped

2 tablespoons minced garlic

7 to 8 cups vegetable stock

2 teaspoons each: ground cumin, dried oregano, and smoked Spanish paprika

2 or 3 bay leaves

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped cilantro

1. Drain the beans. In a large pot, heat the oil. Add the onion, scallions, the red, green and jalapeño peppers, and garlic. Cook until soft but not brown. Add the stock, cumin, oregano, paprika, bay leaves, salt and pepper.

2. Add the beans. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a low simmer and cook for 2 hours, loosely covered. Taste; adjust seasoning. Cook until beans are tender, about 1 hour more, adding more stock if needed. If desired, serve over rice.

- Adapted from The Bean Bible

by Aliza Green (Running Press, 2000).

Per serving (based on 8): 274 calories, 13 grams protein, 44 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, no cholesterol, 834 milligrams sodium, 16 grams dietary fiber.


Steamed Asian Buns

Makes up to 16 buns

For the dough:

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3/4 cup warm water

For the filling:

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 pound shiitake mushrooms, chopped

1/2 large clove garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon sugar

4 tablespoons peanut butter

1 tablespoon hoisin sauce

2 tablespoons sweet chili sauce

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1. For the dough, stir the flour, baking powder and sugar in a bowl. Stir in the oil and water to make a soft dough; shape into a ball. Knead on a lightly floured surface until smooth and pliable, 3 to 4 minutes. Return to the bowl, cover with a towel, and let rest 10 to 15 minutes.

2. For the filling, heat the sesame oil in a wok or skillet, add the mushrooms and garlic, stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the remaining 5 ingredients, mix well and cook until thick and sticky. Remove to a bowl to cool.

3. Roll the dough flat. With a 3-inch cookie cutter, cut up to 16 rounds. Roll or hand-flatten each round thin. Place a generous tablespoon of filling in the center of each, gather up the edges and twist firmly to secure the filling. Put the buns (twist up) in a foil-lined bamboo steamer. Be sure they don't touch. Steam over a pan of simmering water until firm, about 15 minutes. Serve warm.

- From Pure Vegetarian by Paul Gayler, (Kyle Books, 2006).Note: The recipe says it makes 16 buns; we got 12 with filling left over to freeze for use later.

Per serving (based on 16): 141 calories, 4 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, trace cholesterol, 108 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.

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