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Conquering the Birthday Party

by Sabrina Nelson

I don’t fancy myself an expert on vegetarianism by any means. But as a mom of three veg-since-birth children (twin girls, six; a boy, four), I’ve been forced by necessity to learn a LOT about raising vegetarian children, mostly by trial and error. The most important lesson I’ve learned over the last nearly seven years is that it is much easier to raise a vegetarian child than most people imagine. And I’ve actually learned to smile graciously when someone asks me, “But where do they get their protein?” or “What about birthday parties?”

A couple of years ago when I was first confronted with the daunting birthday party dilemma, I handled it by bringing an elaborate vegan chocolate birthday cake to the event. I was so overly concerned that my kids would feel “left out” when the other children were eating the cake that I went to a lot of trouble to make sure they had something very special too. One of the other moms at the party took one look at my cake, and exclaimed with enthusiasm, “What a great idea! A kosher cake!” I didn’t even mention that my kids were vegan -- as soon as I revealed that they didn’t eat eggs or dairy, people automatically assumed it was for religious reasons. We ended up sharing this cake with some other children who would have otherwise been treatless. At this same party, the lunch was cheese pizza. Luckily the host had provided fruit and vegetables as snacks for the parents, so my children loaded their plates with the healthier fare. At the next party we attended, I brought some vegan chocolate chip cookies, and quietly slipped them onto my kids’ plates while the birthday cake was being served. They were perfectly content with the cookies. At the last birthday party of my own twins, I had a cake made by my favorite vegan bakery, one which is approved by the American Diabetic Association. A diabetic child attending their party who NEVER gets to eat birthday cakes was able to happily chow down on a rare treat. In this case, our vegan eating style was far from inconvenient; it was a blessing.

Over time I’ve discovered that my children don’t really care about special cakes, cookies, or whatever -- they’re too busy having fun at the party to think about what they are or are not eating. The truth is, I was more concerned about “What about birthday parties?” than they were. Now that their friends’ parents understand what a vegan is, after they invite my kids to a party, they’ll usually call me up and ask me what my kids would like (or can have) to eat. I try to make it easy for everyone by offering to bring a special dish, an offer which has never been refused.

So much for that “trying” issue. While it may be tempting to answer the ubiquitous, “Where do your kids get their protein?” with “Where do your kids get their phytochemicals?” a simple “There is protein in nearly every food we eat; we’re more concerned about making sure they get enough calories” will suffi ce. I have no interest in getting into arguments about nutrition with other parents or acquaintances -- though I have been known to say when I’m asked, “Is it safe for children to be vegetarians,” that I believe that a burger from the local fast food joint poses more danger to a child than a plate of pasta and broccoli. The fact that childhood obesity now threatens one in three kids with long-term health problems, and that experts believe that this problem is caused by fast and fatty foods combined with couch potatoism, makes me wonder why anyone would worry about my trim, athletic, gloriously healthy children. Obesity is probably a health issue they’ll never even have to think about. My kids’ own pediatrician, who actually did ask me ONCE, “Where do they get their protein?” told me last year that if all his patients were as healthy as my children, he’d go out of business.

My husband and I are very fortunate that our friends and family members are not just understanding of our dietary choices; they are also incredibly supportive. I know that this is not the case for everyone, however. I feel very strongly that it is critically important for parents raising veg kids to take a fi rm stand with those who would undermine their core convictions. When Grandma says, “Just a little piece of chicken won’t hurt you,” you may be tempted to respond, “Get that disgusting piece of rotting fl esh away from my child,” but you should probably politely remind Mom, “You know Junior doesn’t eat animals. Please don’t ask him to.” If she argues, I like the line, “That’s non-negotiable.” It’s also crucial that Junior masters the fi ne art of saying “no” politely. Your child’s teachers and associates at school should also respect your rules, and if they refuse to -- then you are perfectly justified in removing your child from that environment. Your word as parent on an issue like this should be treated like gold.

If you’re straight with your child about the health risks associated with animal consumption, combined with the fact that what they’re being presented with IS really a dead animal, it’s likely they’ll want to say “no” all on their own. I don’t hold with showing young children graphic photos of factory farmed animals, however. The terrible realities of that world will hit them soon enough, and this is not something I want to share with young kids. My four year old son, Willie, loves to lecture his little buddies about how disgusting “cow’s milk” is, though, and always asks me to “read the ingwedients” before consuming a new food. We’ve never terrorized our kids with gross photos to strengthen their vegetarian values. They love animals, love the good food they eat, and enjoy their good health. Gentle honesty goes a long way with most children, and with many adults, too.

I’ve come to believe that the most important thing I can do as a parent raising veg kids is to try to be relaxed about it (even as I’m ever vigilant about “reading ingwedients”), and treat our diet and lifestyle as if it’s no big deal, and perfectly “normal.” I may whip up yet another vegan cake or treat for a birthday party or event, but I will do so out of a desire to share something unique and delicious with our friends — not because we’re “different.” We’re not. My husband and I are just parents like everyone else trying to do the best we can for our children, and that includes teaching them not to eat animal products, and how to be respectful about this choice in a world where this is not YET the norm.

In addition to being the mom of three young vegan children, 10 year vegetarian Sabrina Nelson is the Webwitch at VegSource.com, and wife to EarthSave Board Member Jeffrey Nelson.