Veggie attytood, kid-style: A 13-year-old is part of the vegetarian vanguard

O'Callaghan has been named PETA's "Compassionate Kid."
O'Callaghan has been named PETA's "Compassionate Kid."
Posted: February 18, 2010

KELSEY O'CALLAGHAN wants to be a chef when she grows up - but not just any chef. Instead of having her sights set on attending the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, this 13-year-old from Bensalem is intent on making her mark at the Natural Gourmet School in Manhattan, an all-vegetarian academy.

Miffed that "there isn't even a vegetarian chef on the Food Network," O'Callaghan figured she'd get a jump on her career, and The Veggie Chef (www.theveggiechef.net) was born.

"I sort of made my own show," said the eighth-grader at Calvary Christian Academy. What started as a blog and Web site for healthy veggie eaters and cooks became a cooking "show" on YouTube, recipe demos starring, produced and edited by O'Callaghan, a two-day process she does in her room at home.

Typically, she'll take a recipe she finds online or in a cookbook and tweak it to substitute plant-based ingredients for animal-based.

"Like, if it says you need one large egg, you can mix two tablespoons of arrowroot and one tablespoon of water to substitute. And I use Earth Balance nondairy spread for butter," she said, adding, "My family lets me experiment on them."

The Veggie Chef hasn't always eschewed meat.

"I tried hamburger when I was 7 and completely hated it. But I did eat fish and chicken up until about nine months ago."

After viewing some disturbing PETA videos, O'Callaghan found herself thinking, really thinking, about where meat comes from. While not completely vegan, O'Callaghan has fully embraced vegetarianism. The difference between the two is that vegetarians don't eat meat, fish or fowl, while a vegan is a vegetarian who does not use other animal products, such as dairy and eggs.

"I just didn't feel comfortable eating food that was killed for meat," said the Veggie Chef, whose stance and subsequent spots online earned her PETA's "Compassionate Kid Award."

Not everybody is so thrilled with her choices.

"Especially when I'm with my friends going out to places or parties, everybody eats burgers and hot dogs," O'Callaghan said, admitting that it's also hard for her to stand by when others - including her stepdad, eat meat. "It's just so much more healthy not to."

While there isn't a glut of research and stats on vegetarian kids and their diet habits, a poll by independent market research firm Harris Interactive showed that 3 percent of Americans ages 8 to 18 are vegetarians. Within that group, about 1 percent are vegan, noted Megan Robinson, a certified diabetes educator and registered dietitian at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"I'll often have a parent come to me and say, 'My teenage daughter is a vegetarian or vegan. How can I be sure she's getting enough nutrition?' "

While there are some risks for deficiencies, especially with iron, calcium, B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, these can be overcome with supplements. "Studies show that kids who are strict vegans grow up just fine when it comes to height and weight," said Robinson.

"Compared to a decade ago, there are endless food and snack options for these kids. But the parents have to be nutritionally aware."

Being a vegetarian doesn't automatically mean eating healthy, she added. "There is plenty of junk food that could qualify as vegetarian. What a parent doesn't want to do is say, 'My kid's a vegan,' and just let them go. They have to be involved."

Parents take note

Lori Klein Brennan is about as involved as a parent can get with her daughter Madelyn's diet. Brennan, a vegetarian for ethical reasons for more than 21 years, decided to raise 20-month-old Maddie as a vegetarian, despite Brennan's husband, Ed, being a big meat eater.

"We talked about it - and we're still having that discussion," she said recently.

A few months back, Brennan consulted a dietitian at DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., to be sure that her daughter was getting all the right foods.

"I came prepared with a full food diary for her, everything she'd been eating. And the dietitian made me feel very comfortable with my decision," Brennan said.

She made all her daughter's food for the first 10 months of her life, relying heavily on a book called "Super Baby Food" (F.J. Roberts, $19.95), which she calls "my bible."

"At almost 2, [Madelyn's] had two colds in her entire life. I truly feel that her diet of fruits and vegetables, soy and whole grains plays a big part in that," said the toddler's mom. "Maddie is very active and healthy. She has tons of energy."

Brennan anticipates that when Madelyn gets older and goes to school, her choice might be more difficult to maintain.

"She'll be going to birthday parties and be exposed to McDonald's and that kind of thing, and is likely to say, 'Mommy I want that.' We'll revisit things at that point. For now, she loves veggie burgers, ethnic foods, and even hot and spicy soup. She's a very adventurous eater, and I expose her to a lot of different flavors to keep things interesting."

Her daughter's diet is still her No. 1 priority - "to the point of obsession, I think!" Brennan said with a laugh. But the one thing she isn't obsessed with is foisting her views on other mothers or friends. "This is my choice for my daughter - you eat whatever you want. It's very personal."

Probing the broccoli forest

Incorporating more vegetables into our kids' diets is always a good idea, whether they're vegetarians or not, said Al Paris, executive chef at Public House Restaurant in Logan Square.

He makes a killer "scrapple" that substitutes asparagus, onions, mushrooms, spinach and garlic for pork, binding it together with cornmeal. "All fine cuisine is vegetarian - we simply add protein to it," he said.

Paris recommends roasting vegetables first before making them into stock for a deeper, richer flavor.

"Kids eat what tastes good," he noted.

Anecdotally, chef Mike Jackson is not so sure that more children are embracing vegetarianism. As chef owner of two vegetarian eateries, Blue Sage Restaurant in Southampton and the newly opened Thoreau Vegetarian Grille at 10th and Spring Garden, he sees mostly adults as dining customers.

As a new stepdad to three boys ages 4, 8 and 11, Jackson is convinced that most kids like "beige food - french fries, chicken nuggets and mac and cheese. Our boys are pretty good eaters, but their mom has to insist on a vegetable at every meal."

Then again, when neighborhood diners came into Thoreau during the recent snowy weather and asked for a booster seat, he was caught unawares. "There are so many details when you open a new restaurant - I just forgot to order it."

Two booster seats and two high chairs are now in house - just in case.

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