Feeding picky kiddos can be daunting — all the more so when they’re used to hot dogs and hamburgers, but your pantry’s stocked with chickpeas and quinoa! Whether your vegan kid has an omni-friend play-date, or your family has just gone vegan, or (like me) you sometimes find yourself cooking for nieces and nephews with fast-food palates, finding something everyone’s happy with can definitely be a challenge! After extensive R & D on this topic, I’m ready to report my findings. With a few kid-friendly kitchen strategies up your sleeve, you’ll be surprised how quickly omni kids can come to enjoy a vegan table!
Why It Matters
So what if they want a hot dog, you say? If my nephew is only at my house for the afternoon, or my niece is just visiting for a weekend sleepover, why not go with the flow? I could take him to Burger King, or give her that plastic-orange macaroni product in the microwavable bowl, or buy those 30-ingredient ‘Pop-Tarts’ they like… right?
Here’s the thing: for all the reasons I eat vegan, it matters to me that children I love aren’t ONLY offered (what I consider to be) crap food. So much of taste is habit — we crave the familiar, the comforting, the known. Food habits and preferences are set during childhood, creating eating habits that affect health and wellness for a lifetime — and the influence of trusted adults plays a vital role in this process.
If I think megaprocessed edible foodlike substances made from stuff scraped, sliced, squeezed, or otherwise extracted from tortured animals within an industrial animal-ag paradigm constitute health, environmental, and ethical disasters-in-progress — and I do — why would I feed them to anyone? Why (especially) would I ever feed them to a child who looks to me for guidance about how to navigate the world?!
Knowing how profoundly food choices can influence health, and knowing exactly the kind of cruelty I’d be supporting in order to offer her that (unhealthy) hot dog — or whatever — what good arguments exist for doing so? Ease? Convenience? ‘Because she says she wants one’? In what other venue besides food choices would we ever disregard so much, in trade for so little? Or assign a child so much responsibility for his or her own well-being?
Some parents frequently hear the argument that feeding omni kids vegan fare somehow ‘pushes their values’ onto the children in question. I find that to be rather ludicrous, since THAT IS WHAT ALL CARING ADULTS DO – they teach and model the values they deem important, to the children in their care.
I don’t think hitting or screaming insults at people represent good conflict resolution strategies; so I don’t model those behaviors when spending time with children (or anyone else)! Does that ‘push my values onto them?’ Ok, fine: so be it. I will still not punch people out while screaming insults at them, in order to resolve personal disagreements; and I’m not sorry even one teeny little bit.
I approach food issues using those same rules – anything else would be (to quote my sweet niece) just plain silly! I strive to make my actions in the world reflect my values; if anything, I work for MORE consistency in modeling those values, not less, when an impressionable child is nearby!
So if you love vegan cooking, it seems to me there’s no need to make whole new household rules for kids with omni habits who come to visit! If your best ethical self celebrates the kindness, compassion, and nonviolence of vegan eating, there’s value in being open and unsorry about those ideas – maybe especially when children are watching.
So that takes care of the ‘why’ of vegan cooking for omni kids – now for the ‘how!’
All families — and all children — are unique. Magic bullets are few and far between, and what works for one family may go nowhere for another. However, there are certain trends in child development that offer some fairly typical and predictable patterns:
- kids want to do what adults do; younger kids want to do what older kids do.
- especially between the ages of 2ish and 8ish, many children tend to be picky eaters — if it’s not an already-familiar food, often they want no part of it.
- young people take exceptional pride in things they make themselves.
In addition to these factors, most children who normally eat a standard American diet consume a lot of sugar, salt, and fat, but not many other flavorings such as herbs or spices. Due to the prevalence of fast food restaurants and processed freezer-food as staple dishes, many kids growing up in our SAD food culture have never (or have rarely) been involved in kitchen activities beyond placing pizza rolls in the microwave.
With all’a that in mind — with our raw materials understood — how can we build happy and healthy (vegan) kitchen fun for our young (omni) guests? Use these strategies to inspire exploration, next time you need to feed a child who’s deeply suspicious of kale and tempeh!
1. INVOLVE THEM!
Make bread together, and any sandwich will be delicious — roll simple bread dough into ‘ropes,’ and it becomes perfect for making baked shapes or name-letters. Encourage kids to participate in picking out berries or fruit they like, and make ‘shish-ka-bobs’ or ‘fruit swords’. Let them be in charge of adding ingredients to the blender, for making smoothies. If they’re old enough (say, 8-10ish) teach them how to safely use a cutting board, and let them help make an exotic fruit salad with kiwi, pineapple, strawberries, and starfruit.
Most young kids love art projects. Use cookie cutters to make fun shapes with sandwiches, veggie burgers, pancakes, or potato cakes. Build a log cabin out of carrot sticks, with broccoli-floret hedges… mix up some mustard-agave dip and play giant: eat the whole house! Have a ‘wish party’ — who says it’s just for birthdays?! Make strawberry or blueberry mini-muffins, put a cake-candle on each one, then light it and make a wish each time you eat one. Let them stir the batter, and ask if they want to lick the bowl (one of the great perks of vegan baking!).
FACT: if a kid helps you make it, they’re much more likely to eat it! (And love it!)
2. KEEP IT SIMPLE AND FAMILIAR.
Noodles, nuggets, and sandwiches tend to sneak under the radar pretty easily. Udon or Ramen-style noodles often work well with a mild peanut sauce*; spaghetti with TVP or ground seitan (pulsed in the blender or food processor until crumbled) in marinara sauce offers similar success. TVP or seitan crumbles also do well in kid-friendly chili — just don’t use too many colorful or ‘strange’ ingredients. Beans, TVP or seitan, mild salsa, cumin, mild chili powder, and a bit of nooch are all you need — don’t get carried away!
Try putting things in bread bowls… no kid I know can resist this trick! Something about eating the dishes just tickles ’em silly. Any thick stew, chili, or soupy casserole in a bread bowl stands a good chance of being messily but happily devoured.
Many vegan foods are already ‘normal’ to most omni kids — oatmeal, peanut butter* and jelly sammies, (vegan) pancakes or waffles, (vegan) blueberry muffins, carrot sticks, celery sticks, corn on the cob, orange slices, pineapple chunks, ‘cuties’ or tangerines, and all kinds of berries enjoy very positive kid-polling numbers — often even among picky omnivorous eaters.
Play with smoothies — it’s a great way to sneak nutrition into picky eaters! Also, if you call it ‘The Hulk,’ or ‘The Green Monster,’ or (especially in the fall) ‘The Witches’ Brew,’ kids in my research pool absolutely WILL happily guzzle down the green smoothies. Spinach is especially mild — it’s invisible in all but color — and if you add an extra handful of fruit, and maybe another dollop of real maple or agave, everyone involved says MMMMMM!!
When all else fails, remember the golden rule of feeding omni kids: if you shape it like a nugget and dip it in ketchup, they will generally eat it!
3. DON’T LIE, BUT…
So I made a tortilla wrap with Beyond Meat Lightly Seasoned Chicken-Free Strips, plus mustard; she scarfed it down and asked for seconds. Later — when she was happily full — I said, ‘Hey, you wanna see something cool? Check it out: no actual chickens were harmed in the making of that chicken!’ … we checked out the ingredient label to confirm it (she’s 9, and a good reader). She said — and I quote — ‘Cool!’
Only the primo stuff works in this context, though: vegan hot dogs, tofu scrambles, or pizza may seem too ‘weird’ to omni-kid palates. And save vegan cheese for the grownups: at least according to my research, it’s not a love-at-first-bite deal for most young omnis.
Also, it is TOTALLY ok to refer to minced sautéed vegetables as ‘herbs and spices,’ vs. ‘broccoli and zucchini and yellow squash,’ before sprinkling them over pasta or baked potatoes with gravy…. Just in case you were wondering!
4. A WORD ON MILK
Go for chocolate almond milk, vanilla soymilk, or similar — for kids used to cow-mama milk, the plain nondairy versions tend to not go over as well. Better yet, throw some soymilk, banana, vanilla, cinnamon, and maple or agave into the blender, and have a cinnamon toast smoothie instead of a glass of milk with breakfast!
How much to say about why you don’t have any meat or eggs or milk in the house depends on you, the child, and the context of that discussion. If your family is leaning vegan and you want your kids to understand why, find some resources here:
- Raising Children Who Are Glad to Be Vegan
- 5 Tips for Talking About Veganism with Kids
- Vegetarian Resource Group: Raising a Vegetarian Family
- Boston Vegetarian Society: Resources for Raising Vegetarian and Vegan Children
If it’s just a play-date with a very young child, you may not want to say anything other than, ‘Well here you go, sweetie!’
If it’s a friend of the family, or a relative — your child’s cousin, say — who’s likely to be a repeat visitor, I think it’s best to address it. Kids generally don’t have much control over what their parents feed them, so be careful not to go into negatives. With younger children, it’s possible to say what YOU like to do, and leave it there — you can frame it as ‘different people like different foods,’ or, ‘that’s just what I like to eat!…. want another waffle?’
When asked by my sweet niece if I had any sausage for breakfast, I happily said, ‘Nope! I have a strict rule: only live animals allowed in the house! … do you like strawberry pancakes?’ It hasn’t come up again. If you’re happy and confident about what foods you offer young folk in your care, they’ll go with it. You’re the grownup — act like it’s no big deal, and it won’t be.
Last time we spent the weekend together, my sweet omni niece — in the grocery store — had a brilliant idea. In the produce department, when I asked what we should make together that weekend, she said, ‘I know: we can make a rainbow feast!!!’ She chose purple cauliflower, yellow bell peppers, blackberries, strawberries, green cauliflower, pineapple, red-white-and-blue potatoes, and multi-colored carrots.
That evening she learned about cutting boards and safe chopping, and she created the beautiful rainbow (raw vegan) platter pictured above — All By Herself! (ok, well, technically there was maybe a tiny bit of supervision and/ or standby assistance… but…whatev! Don’t, like, mention it if you see her or anything…)
Would we have enjoyed the weekend as much, if I’d just given her the d*** Pop-Tarts? O I THINK NOT! Vegan cooking for omni kids might take a little more effort than putting those bright orange feaux-pasta thingies in the microwave…
But you guys: IT IS SOOOOOO WORTH IT!
Images by the author.
*Be sure to talk to kids’ parents to rule out allergies before offering peanut-based sauces, etc; and most pediatricians recommend introducing peanut products after age 2, to decrease risk of allergy emergence.