I've been a vegan for my whole life. I was born in 1988 and my brother was born in 1990, when nobody else was vegan. My parents had to negotiate all the usual stuff of bringing up kids and teaching them to eat, with the added element of explaining a non-mainstream diet choice.
They did a really amazing job. From my perspective as the child, here are 5 things my parents did that I hope will inspire plant-based parents now:
1. They created a strong family culture and taught me that veganism was part of that.
Every family has different traditions and rules; things they do and don’t do. In my family we called ‘family meetings’ to decide which movie we were going to and watched Seachange on Sunday nights while eating spinach and tofu pasties. We didn’t start eating until everybody sat down at the table. We picked a different theme every year for Christmas lunch. We didn’t sit on the kitchen bench or put our shoes on the bed (both rules I now regularly break in my own grown-up house— sorry mum).
We also didn’t eat animals. That was one of our family things. It was okay that kids at school asked rude questions about our lunch or teachers didn’t understand. It was fine that not everybody ate the way we ate and believed the things we did. We grew up knowing that all families are different, and in some ways our family was different to most, but when we got home at the end of the day, everybody there would be vegan and everything would be okay.
2. They explained our family choices to me in age-appropriate ways, and gave me the tools to talk about it.
From as early as I can remember, my parents talked to me in a natural way about the fact that we were vegan. When I was really little, it was as simple as ‘we love animals and we don’t want to hurt them, so we don’t eat them or take their milk’. My dad made up a version of Baa Baa Black Sheep that went:
Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes I have—it’s on my back.
One bit to keep me warm when it’s cold
One bit to keep me dry when it rains
Thank you for asking me about my wool
Now daddy’s going to tickle his little girl!!
(We didn't have any good vegan-themed books, toys or games when I was a kid, so it was on my parents to be creative. Now that I’m an adult, my mum has finally gotten around to writing We're Vegan!, a kids’ booking explaining veganism, and Billy Goes Vegan, a book for older children about a boy who initially freaks out when his mum goes vegan.)
As I got older I had more questions and our discussions became more complex. I tagged along with them to vegan get-togethers and events, listened in on grown-up conversations and picked up pamphlets. I started to gather that it was about more than not hurting animals—I learned to parse arguments about health and diet, the environmental impact of factory farming and how what we eat in developed countries has implications for global food distribution. I started to construct my own answers when people challenged my choices.
I’m still learning. But my current understanding started with my parents entering into discussions with me and answering my questions sensibly and honestly.
3. They taught me that I was not the boss of what I ate, and that was okay.
Yes, I know this one is controversial. I’m not a parent, so I don't presume to give out parenting advice. But I did have the experience of being a child, and I can only talk about what it was like to be parented the way I was. (It was great.)
The dynamic in my house growing up was that mum and dad were the boss of things, and me and my brother were not. At two, three, five, ten or fifteen years old, we did not get to be in charge of the house or the way things ran. That was the privilege of the people who made us, kept us alive and paid for everything. I think that’s pretty reasonable.
This included the kitchen. It was understood that if we wanted something from in there, we usually had to ask. (We were allowed to eat out of the fruit bowl any time.) It was also understood that whatever we got in our lunchbox or on our dinner plates, that was it. There wasn’t anything else on offer and there wasn’t any point complaining or asking for something different.
My parents weren’t mean about it. It just never occurred to us that it was an option to make a fuss about the food; they never gave us that option. It appeared at mealtimes and sometimes we were keen on it, sometimes we weren’t, but usually we ate it.
The point is that this reduced a lot of potential conflict around eating plant-based food. Me and my brother were both happy to be vegan, but we also knew - because our parents told us - that if we didn’t want to eat vegan when we left home, that was fine, but they were in charge of the food and this was a vegan household.
4. They taught me what food was for, and that it wasn’t always taste.
More controversy: the main point of food isn’t always to taste good. (!!!)
Of course it’s nice when food tastes good, and sometimes we eat purely for the fun of it: popcorn at the movies, ice cream, birthday cake.
But sometimes eating isn’t fun. Most of the time it doesn’t have to be. Eating fills our stomachs, gives us energy and nutrients. Different types of food do different jobs - whole grains will make you feel full, fruit is good for a quick sugar hit, avocados help with weight gain (if you need it). From an early age, I learned about these things in the simplest terms.
This meant that ‘I don’t like it’ wasn’t really considered a good reason not to eat something, because liking it wasn't usually the main reason for eating it. I like most food, so I was usually pretty happy anyway.
5. They taught me how to plan and cook healthy plant-based meals.
Although mum and dad were in charge of the kitchen, they regularly encouraged us to help them in it. I learned by watching them. They taught me how to open the fridge and the pantry and see potential meals, then put them together. My dad taught me basic rules of baking so that I could invent things without a recipe. My mum taught me about the plant food groups and how to plan a day of eating around them. (You can download a free chart of the plant-based food groups here, or get a giant fridge magnet version here.)
These 5 things my parents did empowered me to keep living a joyful plant-based life after I left home. I knew how to plan appropriate meals, get the ingredients at the grocery store and make food happen in my kitchen, with minimal time and fuss. I knew what food was for and how to choose what to eat. I knew how to explain my choices to others. And I’m really, really thankful to my parents for that.
If you're raising your kids on a plant-based diet and you’re feeling overwhelmed or inadequate, don't keep feeling that way. I’ve helped lots of families on their journey with healthy plant-based eating and I can help you too. See my services here or email me here if you have questions.
I’m also available to speak on these topics at your plant-based event, parents group or playgroup - contact me if you’d like to enquire.