My family of four was at an aquarium where my older son Leo, then six, spent an hour marvelling at a giant Pacific octopus in a tank.
Minutes later, we were were at a fish market. There, Leo spotted a pile of dead octopus in a display case. He was inconsolable and resolved to stop eating meat on the spot.
After that, Leo’s foray into on-again, off-again ovo-lacto vegetarianism was no big deal. We could always grill a veggie burger alongside the meat or make half the pizza with no pepperoni.
But then this summer, after a visit to the Lansdowne farmers’ market, he wondered what happened to the animals after they’ve given us milk and eggs.
Nothing good, my husband had to reluctantly admit. He dragged an imaginary knife across his own throat as he recounted it later.
Thus, an eight-year-old vegan was born.
“I don’t think it’s fair for us to kill animals to eat because I wouldn’t like to be eaten,” Leo explained seriously one night as I gave him a bedtime kiss.
Lions have to eat zebras and gazelles to live. We have a choice to eat them or not.
I found out that when cows and chickens stop producing milk and eggs, they get slaughtered. You couldn’t make me drink milk. You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
We make him get a flu shot, wear a helmet and be in bed by 8 p.m. even if the other kids are still playing on the street. He claims to be the only one without an iPad.
Some friends told us we shouldn’t let him be a vegan. But forcing him to do something he thinks is wrong didn’t sit well in my bacon-loving gut.
“I disagree with that 100 per cent,” said Susan Macfarlane, a registered dietitian who works with families struggling with healthful eating, athletes and teens with eating disorders. She also happens to be a vegan.
“Telling your child that you have to eat (animal products) is rejecting their moral sense of right and wrong,” Macfarlane said. “I think that can create a lot of resentment in the child.
If you say no, you can’t be vegan, you’re squashing their independence.”
A Harvard study of kids aged six to 10 from meat-eating families who chose to become vegetarians showed they overwhelmingly did it for “genuine moral reasons — the suffering and death that eating meat entails.”
The question of whether to try and make Leo eat meat seemed moot after he subsisted on nothing but trail mix and olives during a week-long trip to spot whales and polar bears on Hudson Bay.
Unless we were going to force-feed him like a foie gras goose, we had to figure it out — even while we hoped it would turn out to be a phase.
The good news: mainstream North American dietetic associations say that while a healthful vegan diet takes planning, it can meet anyone’s nutritional needs.
While one-third of Canadian kids are overweight or obese – making them more likely to be heavy adults at risk of chronic diseases – the Dietitians of Canada note that a healthful vegan diet is linked to lower rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.
“Absolutely children can grow very healthfully on a plant-based diet and also thrive and protect their health into adulthood as well,” Macfarlane said.
I had to wonder whether a life without Balderson cheddar is worth living. But it was manna for a worried mom.
Macfarlane thinks young vegans are part of a trend that will keep growing, with everything from meat-free memes to celebrities extolling the vegan lifestyle.
Macfarlane warns against two common pitfalls – the “junk-food vegan” who subsists on Hot Pockets and cookies still loaded with salt and sugar, and the overly-restrictive raw food diets that she would never endorse for a child.
“It’s all about balance,” she said, suggesting that every meal include protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and a plant milk.
So how can we make and share a family meal – even while the rest of us eat grilled pork chops on the side – that’s actually going to taste good to everyone?
“It may lead to a whole new food journey that you enjoy more than you think,” says Dreena Burton, a White Rock, B.C., mother of three healthy, hockey-playing daughters and the author of a string of vegan cookbooks.
The latest, Plant-Powered Families, includes banana muffins to replace the ones with eggs we make for lunch boxes and “sneaky” chickpea burgers with red peppers and carrots.
Burton says that vegan food often lacks savoury umami, like the parmesan and anchovies in the kale Caesar that’s a staple in our family.
Instead, for a similar taste, vegans can look to olives, capers, mushrooms, balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes or miso.
She also suggested finding some healthful, quick “comfort foods” that can become new family staples.
“Let him lead the way,” Burton advised. “What kinds of food do you want to try?”
Leo’s eighth birthday chocolate cake was my first foray into vegan baking and none of his buddies noticed the lack of milk and eggs. They still screamed for soy “ice cream.”
My husband, the week-day short-order cook, has come up with some new favourites, like black bean and pepper fajitas loaded with guacamole.