For vegetarians, creativity and nutrition knowledge are key

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”My favorite food used to be Chinese spareribs,” says Reuben Solomon, 13, of Lexington. ”That is, until I realized I had ribs, too. I think I was 9 and I haven’t eaten any meat since then.”

Reuben does drink milk and eat eggs. That makes him an ovolactovegetarian.

When someone says, ”I’m a vegetarian but I eat fish,” they are ”semi-vegetarian,” according to Reed Mangel, an Amherst-based dietician advisor to the Vegetarian Resource Group and mother of two vegan daughters. Vegans eat a totally plant-based diet and do not include dairy products, eggs, or honey. Some vegetarians also avoid using animal products such as leather in their daily life.

When children are vegetarians, it adds another layer of concern.

”Parents need to respect the choices their children make, for whatever reason they have chosen a vegetarian diet,” said Dina Aronson, a dietician specializing in vegetarian nutrition. Still, many parents are concerned about where their young vegetarians will get important vitamins and nutrients, such as calcium and protein.

Aronson says the nutritional challenges of vegetarians and nonvegetarians are about the same. She says soy products, fortified foods, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts can provide almost all of one’s nutritional needs. If one consumes enough calories (about 2,000 a day), protein deficiency is not a problem. The problem, Aronson says, comes when a child’s diet is ”almost entirely refined junk food.” That, of course, is not limited to just vegetarians.

So, what to do if your 15-year-old comes home and announces she is a vegetarian?

Mangel suggests you find out more about their decision and work with them on a meal plan that is sound and viable within your family.

”Make your meals vegetarian-friendly,” she said.

Sometimes, one or two sessions with a dietician can provide the objective authority a young person needs and the reassurance parents require.

Aronson asks her clients to keep a three-day food intake record that she analyzes against the Daily Reference Intake established by the National Academy of Sciences. She then advises accordingly, adding, ”The number-one issue is to accept it and not try to force a change.” She urges parents to have their children choose from among three healthy food choices, thus including them in the decision-making process. Done correctly, Aronson insists, the result is a healthy lifestyle.

Dr. Harvey Zarren, a cardiologist, could not agree more. He gave up his successful, 27-year practice of trying to fix the damaging effects of Americans’ bad eating habits (clogged arteries) and now works on prevention with teenagers in public high schools.

”We should be eating a diet of plant-based foods,” he said. ”If you do eat an animal, it should come from the water.”

These professionals agree that a variety of food, exercise, and eliminating or limiting animal sources of protein from the diet are important elements to a healthier diet.

Would that it were so simple. Reuben’s idea of a great meal is three or four slices of pizza. He will also include a handful of grapes, cucumber slices, and carrots. Sybil, his mom, is concerned that he not limit his diet to carbohydrates. Reuben knows he has to eat what is put on his plate and Sybil knows he has great negotiating skills. On the positive side, Reuben is very aware of nutritional issues; he scans food labels and ingredient lists carefully.

When kindergartner Charlie Ramsland of Stowe became a vegetarian in December, it changed his mom, Sharlet’s, life, too. They had visited a farm in Sherborn.

”I picked up a book and saw animals who were alive in the beginning and dead at the end,” said Charlie. ”I felt very sorry for them.”

”He hasn’t eaten meat since then,” said Sharlet, ”and neither have I. It was a very powerful experience for us both.”

Charlie said that his mom lets him pick out his own food; his favorites are macaroni and cheese, and all fruits. For vegetables, he said emphatically, ”carrots and corn, that’s it!”

As with any extreme change in diet, a good idea is to consult a health professional. There is much controversy and conflicting information regarding vegetarianism.

Many folks claim to be vegetarians, but haven’t met a vegetable they like. Getting enough Vitamin B12 is important for the health of cells and is a concern for those vegetarians, particularly children, who do not eat any dairy or eggs. This is usually addressed through supplements and fortified foods. There are many resources available to help anyone be well-informed and well-fed.

Here are some resources for vegetarians:

Vegetarian Resource Group (publications and website); Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203; 410-366-8343; www. vrg@vrg.org

Boston Vegetarian Society (local events, newsletter, website); 617-424-8846; www.bostonveg.org

Dina Aronson(dietician specializing in vegetarian nutrition); www.nutrawiz.com

Sprouts(vegan family support and playgroup); vegsprouts@hotmail.com

Dr. Harvey Zarren(physician); presentations to PTO’s and organizations on healthy diets and lifestyle

Connected Healing Institute; 781-599-4718

Recipes

African stew
Makes 6 cups

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cups vegetable stock or water
2 cups peeled, diced sweet potatoes or yams
1 cup cooked or canned chick peas
1 cup uncooked brown rice
1/4 teaspoon salt, optional
1/4 cup peanut butter
2 cups chopped collard greens or kale ( stems removed)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon pepper

1. Heat oil in a medium-size pot and saute onions for 5 minutes.
2. Add stock or water, sweet potatoes, chickpeas, rice, and salt and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
3. In a small bowl, blend peanut butter with about half a cup of hot water. Stir peanut butter into stew along with kale and cook for five minutes.
4. Add lemon juice and pepper.
5. Turn off heat and cover. Let steam for about 10 minutes, before serving.

Adapted from ”Raising Vegetarian Children – A Guide to Good Health and Family Harmony” by Joanne Stepaniak and Vesanto Melina (McGraw Hill)

Creamy corn noodles
Makes 6 cups

1/2 pound noodles
1 15-ounce can of cream of corn
1 10-ounce package frozen corn
1 tablespoon dried onion flakes
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes (available at health food stores)

Optional garnishes:
additional protein or yeast flakes mixed with parsley
chopped red peppers
chopped tomatoes

1. Cook noodles according to package.
2. Place cream of corn, frozen corn, onion flakes, and yeast flakes in a blender and process until smooth.
3. Place mixture in a saucepan and warm.
4. Drain cooked noodles and place in a large bowl. Add corn mixture to the noodles and toss gently. Sprinkle garnishes on top. You can also serve noodles and then spoon corn mixture over the top.

Roast vegetables

Asparagus spears, trimmed
Sweet potato
Kale
Sesame seeds
Olive oil
Sprinkling of salt

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Lightly grease a baking sheet with olive oil.
3. Place asparagus in a bowl. Drizzle olive oil over asparagus and mix until well-coated.
4. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
5. Place asparagus in a single row on the baking sheet and place in oven. Roast for about 8 minutes. Remove to plate and sprinkle with salt.
6. Slice sweet potatoes very thin and toss in bowl with some olive oil.
7. Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray and spread the potatoes out in a layer. Bake for 5 minutes.
8. Do the same with the kale: Remove the center ”spine,” toss with olive oil, and place on baking sheet. Bake for 5 minutes but check after 3.
9. Place both vegetables on a plate, sprinkle with a little salt, and you have a crunchy stack of Vitamin A, iron, and calcium.

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