By JoAnn Farb - Vegetarian Journal - Sep/Oct 97
I believe with all my heart that some day people will look back on this period in time as the "Diet Dark Ages." Children of the future will wrinkle up their faces in disgust as they learn of our cannibalistic eating of other beings, and their mouths will drop open in disbelief upon learning that once upon a time we actually drank the milk of non-human animals.
Until that time, however, we live in an alien culture. In front of my child I proudly ask endless questions of waitresses and the people whose homes we visit: "What is in this?" or "Can I see the label?" To my daughter Sarina I whisper, "This is not vegan, so we won't eat it." Yet privately I wonder if the rigidity required to follow a healthy vegan diet in this society might somehow damage her. The last thing any parent wants to do is to set a child up to feel deprived. Being overly isolated is not healthy either. That is why I would encourage anyone raising children vegetarian to build yourself a support system -- you need to be part of a community.
It was by chance (and my willingness to share with others the benefits of eating a plant-based diet) that I ended up in a playgroup with other vegetarians and vegan wanna-bes. The woman who taught my Bradley Birth class approached me one day with an invitation to join a newly-forming playgroup for mothers who were making less traditional choices as new parents. Some of these women had home births, some were taking a stand against common but dangerous medical procedures, some spoke of the benefits of nursing a child for two or more years, some were in favor of the family bed, and some were planning to home school. At the outset, I was the only vegan, and only one other mom was vegetarian. But what united all of us was our search for a more healthy and wholesome way to nurture a baby in a culture that pushes materialism and conformity as an antidote to separateness.
At our weekly gatherings we discuss books and scientific journals. We share our different areas of expertise, and we always bring food. Over time we've all evolved, incorporating new ideas that make sense. The potluck part of playgroup is always vegetarian, and most of the offerings are egg- and dairy-free. (I guess raising children to love a plant-based diet makes sense to all the families!) We even get together on the weekends occasionally when the dads can be with us. We celebrate the children's birthdays with healthy, food-filled parties, and when a family in our group welcomes a new baby, we take turns bringing them dinners -- vegetarian of course! Having this wonderful support system in place makes it easier to deal more comfortably with the not-so-utopic rest of the world.
At 18 months of age, my daughter was invited to attend a birthday party for a one-year-old (not in our play group). The thought of toddlers racing around with cake, cookies, and candy was a definite concern for me, so I shared this with my friend when we RSVP'd. She offered to postpone the food portion of the party for a bit while the children played. I prepared my toddler ahead of time by telling her that we would only stay for a short time, because Grandma and Grandpa were expecting us. We went, played, opened gifts, and then left to visit grandparents before the eating became widespread.
Recently, a playgroup family was planning a party for their three-year-old, and, because the mother was almost nine months pregnant, she was going to buy a cake rather than make one. She warned me ahead of time that the cake would be store-bought (meaning dairy, eggs, and sugar), and so I offered to make the cake. She was delighted. It was a small effort to make sure that my 2-1/2 year-old could participate fully, and it reinforced for my child the concept that the way we eat is "normal." By the way, Lorna Sass's recipe for Carob Devil's Food Cake from Recipes from An Ecological Kitchen is easy and terrific. We layered our cake with Soy Delicious Carob Peppermint frozen non-dairy dessert for an "ice cream" cake.
Another time we attended a party where I expected ahead of time that there would be lots of "junk food." About two hours beforehand, I made my daughter a meal of something that she liked. After she had eaten as much as she wanted, I brought out another food, one that she liked even better. When she grew tired of that, we played a bit and then I offered her some high-fat vegan cookies that she loved, but which I seldom had around. After she had eaten even more, and we were about 15 minutes away from leaving for the party, I suggested we nurse (she always has room for this). By the time we arrived at the party, her tummy was quite full. She nibbled on some fresh fruit, and ignored the cake, cookies, ice cream, and popsicles.
We are fortunate to have two sets of grandparents living in our town. One set is mostly vegetarian. The other set is not. While I was pregnant, their well-meaning questions about "What will you feed the baby if you don't give (cow's) milk?" gave me ample opportunity to educate them about our dietary choices.
While they still don't fully "get" why we eat this way, and why some foods are acceptable while others are not, they honor our lifestyle. Our visits to the non-vegetarian grandparents are always between mealtimes. I always send soy milk and a variety of tasty, interesting foods. For holidays like Thanksgiving, we take the initiative and invite everyone over to our house (where meat, dairy, and eggs are not allowed). We do occasionally join them at a Chinese restaurant for dinner. At one such dinner, I looked over just in time to catch Grandma feeding rice from her plate ("It wasn't touching the meat ...") to my daughter. Now when we go to restaurants, our toddler always sits right between my husband and me, and I always pack some never-before-seen knick-knacks to entice her to stay seated until all the food has been cleared away. Then she is free to get out of the high chair and sit on Grandma's lap.
Occasionally I talk to Sarina about the fact that we are vegans, and that that is something to be very proud of. I tell her that the world is changing and that one day most people will value their health and the well-being of the planet, too. I tell her that we love animals, and so we don't eat them. When we drive by cows in a pasture, I point out the mother cow nursing her calves, and mention how much mommy cows love their babies -- just like I love her. Sometimes I even mention that some people actually take cow's milk away from the babies and drink it, but that I think that is yucky. "Can you believe that?" I ask her -- and she laughs.
We don't watch television, not just because it would diminish the time that she is engaged in creative, coordination-building activities, but also because the programs and the commercials set a standard for what to buy, how to look, and what to eat, that does not reflect our values.
Sometimes I do struggle with the fact that in our city, we are the only family I know that never consumes dairy or egg-containing foods. That is why we make a point at least once each year, of attending some national vegetarian conference, like the NAVS vegetarian Summerfest. There we meet, play with, and eat with many other vegans. I often point to other children and say proudly to my child, "That's Sarah, and she's a vegan, and there goes George, he's a vegan, too ... just like you." These other children provide needed role models for my daughter, and the whole experience lets me, for one wonderful week, live out my vision of a vegan world.
JoAnn Farb and her family reside in Kansas. If you like to read more articles like this, please subscribe to the Vegetarian Journal. Call 410-366-VEGE, or write to Vegetarian Resource Group, P.O. Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203.
Bad News on Milk
Is your child chronically constipated? The cause may be a common allergy to milk. Italian researchers report that constipation cleared up in 68% of children ages one to six who switched from cow's milk to soy. - by Janice M. Horowitz