Raising vegans

When ethics and parenting collide

Family Cooking, Family time, Happy Family

According to the Statistic Brain Research Group’s latest data, there were 7.3 million vegetarians and 1.62 million vegans in America in 2021. Three percent were children. What is going on? If there are that many people choosing to avoid animal consumption for moral, ethical, environmental or health reasons, why are there so few children?

Aren’t parents choosing what to feed their kids like they choose their religion? Are vegetarians and vegans unwilling to enforce their dietary choices upon their children, especially if only one parent follows that path?

“Hundreds of times a day each of us, as a parent, is making choices,” writes Joanne Farb, author of Compassionate Souls, Raising the Next Generation to Change the World. “The stories we read, the words we use, the way that we offer comfort, the foods we make available, the outside influences we bring into our homes (toys and TV for example), every one of these choices is an element of enculturation. Individually and moment by moment, each choice by itself is probably inconsequential. But together they suggest a path, they create a paradigm. Together they communicate to our children what we value most, what we stand for, what we believe in our hearts.”

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Difficult to bend beliefs
“It’s hard for parents,” admits Roni Shapiro, a long-time vegan and owner of Healthy Gourmet to Go, a vegan gluten-free meal home delivery service based in Saugerties. “I know a few vegan parents who feed their children vegan diets at home but when the kids go to birthday parties they let them eat what their friends are eating.”

Courtney Skeen of Red Hook agrees.

“At first I restricted anything from my son’s diet that wasn’t vegan. Now that he’s older I try to be more laid back and let him have cake at social events.”

According to Roberta Schiff, coordinator of the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society and Hudson Valley Vegans, people choose to become vegan for three main reasons: health, environment and animal cruelty. Vegetarians do not consume animals. Vegans take it further—including animal byproducts such as eggs or dairy. Many embrace a complete vegan lifestyle and won’t wear or use anything made from animals, such as leather. Most are doing this as a stand against animal cruelty rampant in food industry practices. For those vegans it’s hard to bend even a little.

Healthy Gormet to Go, Roni Shapiro

Roni Shapiro, owner of Healthy Gourmet to Go,
an organic, vegan, gluten-free meal home delivery service based in Saugerties.
Shapiro hopes to change the world “one meal at a time.”

Empowering kids to make their own choice
Schiff advises, “Let your children know why you’re choosing a vegan lifestyle and why it’s important. Communicate it to them at age-appropriate levels. Just do the best you can. No parent can control everything a child eats when not at home. But if you’ve educated them on why then they can make their own choices.”

Violet Batycki of Poughkeepsie was raised a vegetarian and became a vegan 25 years ago. She is raising her son, Warren, now 14, vegan. She is clear that being vegan is an ethical choice she shares with her family.

“Warren has volunteered at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary and is attending a week-long camp for teens this summer at the Woodstock Animal Sanctuary,” she explains. “When Warren was in kindergarten, his dad even brought his rescued farm animal friends Franklin the piglet and Peewee the goat to visit him in his class!”

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Trying not to feel left out
This idea of educating children so they can understand and feel empowered to make their own choice is key to successfully raising a vegan or vegetarian child. “I felt like I was the only vegetarian in the world,” Batycki says, recalling her childhood in the 1970s and 80s. “I would be eating natural peanut butter and apple cider jelly on whole grain bread. I would bring black beans to Girl Scout campfires and everyone would say, ‘what’s that?’ I felt alone and different. But I was different in so many ways anyway.”

When Batycki entered college, she did her own research into the food industry and became vegan.

“To me it was the only ethical way to eat,” she say. “When my son was younger I worked really hard to provide him with a vegan option equivalent to anything that might be served at a party so he wouldn’t feel left out.”

Shapiro says she often advises her customers to find or make foods reminiscent of meat and dairy equivalents.

“At Healthy Gourmet To Go, our untuna salad, unchicken salad, mac n’ cheese and quesadillas are some of our best sellers, especially in households with kids.”

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Vegan-friendly Hudson Valley
“Children who are continually educated about animal factory farming, health implications for people and environmental implications for the planet often develop their own belief system about veganism,” says Shapiro. “Some end up encouraging their friends to do the same.”

It’s also important to feel part of a larger community, a need often met by joining organizations and meetup groups.  There are 269 members of the Hudson Valley Vegans meetup. There are also events put on by the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary and the Catskill Animal Sanctuary.

“There are so many products and options, even in mainstream grocery stores now. And so many great restaurants in the Hudson Valley that offer vegan options. Things have changed a lot since the days I had to bring a can of beans to Girl Scout camp in order to have something to eat. When we travel we have to plan ahead, but so does anyone with dietary restrictions.”

‘Our friends understand’
Twelve-year-old Brooklyn and 10-year-old Jaiden Meyle of Kingston were raised to make healthy eating choices. A few years ago they decided on their own to become vegetarians.

“We didn’t like the idea of eating animals anymore,” explains Jaiden, who followed in her older sister’s footsteps.

“When we go to our friends’ houses or parties, we don't make a big announcement that we don't eat meat. At parties there are usually several dishes to choose from, and we just try to make healthy choices that don't contain meat,” says Brooklyn. “Close friends know we are vegetarian, so often they have something to offer us without meat. When we are invited to someone's house, sometimes Mom prepares coconut vanilla protein balls or peanut butter protein squares to take along so we can share with everyone.”

“Our friends don't make fun of us,” adds Jaiden. “They understand it's our decision. We love animals and they understand that we don't feel good about eating them. Some of our friends have food allergies, so they understand what it's like to have dietary restrictions.”

“We don't go to fast food restaurants,” Brooklyn says. “They don't have healthy choices really.  Often we go out for Japanese or Thai food.  We love Soba noodles, Miso soup and rice balls with seaweed.  We went to a few Japanese cooking classes and learned how to make these things at home.  It's a lot of fun!”

 “It's not hard being vegetarian because there’s a big variety of good healthy food that we love,” concludes Jaiden. “We don't miss eating meat at all.”

Linda Freeman is a freelance writer, yoga and swing dance instructor living in Marlboro.