Family in Transition: Making the switch to a vegan diet
My 9-year-old son runs toward me. "Did you see me hit the ball, Mom?" he shouts excitedly. "Did you see me run home?"
by Misty Pilgrim
"I did indeed see you. Now, what do we have here?" I poke gently at the "treats" in my son's baseball glove. Although I've asked the coach politely to let other parents know that one of the players does not eat animal products, my son is usually provided with snacks at each game such as cheese- or ranch-flavored chips or snack cakes.
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Four years ago, I lost two aunts and a grandmother to cancer, and two years later I held my mother's hand as she lay dying from heart disease that was related to a lifelong struggle with obesity. I vowed that I would never put my children or my husband through that.
I started reading everything I could about factors that shorten life expectancy, and eventually the research on vegan diets. I ordered and read, "Vegan: The Ethics of Eating" and "Mad Cowboy". Athough I'd initially just been interested my health, learning how food animals suffered brought tears to my eyes, and to my husband's eyes, when he read them.
Together, we made a pact. We vowed that we really did want to grow old together, and that we would no longer support a cruel, exploitive, manipulative and destructive industry. We also decided that we wanted the boys to realize how important our beliefs are, and to stand up for them.
What can you expect from boys who have eaten meat all their life, suddenly told that their parents have decided that they will never eat animal products again? Where do you draw the line between teaching a valuable lesson and allowing them some of the carefree aspects of childhood?
We're somewhere beyond transition. For now, we have a system in place. My 9-year-old, Jon, shows me snacks he's received and we look at the ingredients together. If there are animals products in there, or if there is no list of ingredients, it goes out to feed the birds or in the trash. Then mom (me) provides a yummy vegan treat--of his choice. Such treats might include a Luna Bar, Corn chips, or a Chic-o-stick (tastes like a naked Butter Finger), and some juice or soda. It's not health food, God knows, but at least he knows that adopting a vegan diet doesn't mean he can't have fun.
Besides, in the greater scheme of things, I believe overall that the dietary habits we've adopted will make up for any occasional "lapses", such as my husband and my's weekly soy mocha lattes at Starbucks!
But there have been challenges. I feel that we're living in the midst of a cult. The public school system is bombarded with unhealthy dietary messages. The first two weeks of school they provided free breakfasts to get the kids to join the breakfast program. Even though I provide a good breakfast at home, my 9-year-old snuck behind my back and ate the breakfast. He eventually confessed this to me, and I was as horrified as if he'd eaten out of a garbage can.
(I was overly sensitive and embarrased, too, because I was afraid people would see it as a sign that I was "starving" my son.)
Likewise, until I told them, his friends mothers had no idea that he was NOT to eat at their house without my permission. I simply told them he was on a special diet and left it at that. Also, my youngest refuses to drink soy milk on his cereal, or eat tofu. However, I remind myself that he was an extremely picky eater before the big switch, and so instead, he drinks calcium-fortified orange juice and V8 Splash.
My most recent battles? Last week, my son was invited to a popular hamburger chain. According to an article I've read on-line, even their french fries have beef-based flavor-enhancers! Plus, this particular chain was against everything we believed in.
I said no. A tantrum ensued. I held my ground, wondering if I was being unnecessarily rigid, but decided I'd rather err on the side of my son's health and well-being than not. How could I not, when I've read that children start developing plaque in their arteries as young as ten years old?
Recently, my son's class was recently awarded a "pizza party". I try to maintain open communication with the teacher and principal. It helps that I'm a teacher in the district, because it gives me "street cred", but even if I wasn't I'd be sure to volunteer and make myself known as a normal, every day mom who happens to not eat any animal products, instead of the unseen, unknown zealot who shows up only to complain. I'm going to buy my son an organic, non-dairy pizza at the local coop for his class's pizza party. It's a little pricey, but it's not like stuff like this happens every day.
Things are gradually getting easier. The cub scout den leader was polite, and respectful. He asked for, and I provided him with, some guidelines, including those that explained why Jon would never go on a field trip to a circus, rodeo, or try to earn a badge for fishing.
Meals. Well, for school lunches, we pack, of course. The 9-year-old is a creature of habit. He's happy enough to have peanut butter and all-fruit spread on soft whole wheat bread, a lite fruit cup or soy pudding, some corn chips, and some V8 Splash. In fact, both my boys are. I usually eat leftovers or a Romaine salad and some dressing that I make with herbs, silken tofu, and a sprinkle of vegan parmesan. My 15-year-old will eat anything in front of him--he's easy.
My meat-loving, vegetable-hating husband? He likes his daily "chile cheese burger": a Boca or Lightlife burger with vegan cheese and green chile on it; soy pudding, pretzels, and a banana.
Making the switch was daunting at first, because we both love New Mexican cooking, and that includes lots of cheese. Well, I love to cook and I love science, so I treat cooking as a great big chemistry experiment. I have fun making food taste like some of the things we used to eat. With help, I've managed a dip that tastes remarkably like queso. My three most oft-used cook books are "the un-Cheese cookbook", "Cooking with Peta", and "the Soy of Cooking".
I laugh when I hear about "thin, anemic" vegans. One of my students, upon hearing that I was a Vegan, asked me how I could ever gain any weight when all I eat is lettuce. We've discovered that there's so much good food to eat, that we could easily become overweight vegans! We have to control ourselves, lest we gorge on Luna bars and popcorn. Meanwhile, my son is a stocky, energetic ball player. He has too much energy, if you ask me...my husband is a strapping, 6'2" ex-Marine who lifts weights. I lift weights, too, and we've all spent Sunday afternoons scrambling up mountains and the sides of ancient volcanos.
Hardly the anemic weaklings you'd expect.
Is being vegan more work? Of course it is! Our meat-eating culture has taught us to sacrifice the lives of beasts and our health in exchange for convenience, and when we give up that culture, we give up some of our convenient ways. It is also more expensive, if you are a working family that can't grow their own food and needs to quick eats every once in awhile. We know it's worth some inconvenience. We plan to be old and active and healthy, and we're banking on the belief that our healthy boys will grow up revering life all around them, including their own.
Also, I know that attitudes are changing. More and more restaurants are offering vegan options on their menus. We have several that we frequent, and I know that the vegan movement is gaining momentum.
Last week we went to our favorite coffee house and ordered our standard weekly treat: a tofu scramble for me (no cheese), a breakfast burrito for my husband (substitute scrambled tofu for the eggs, please) and two large soy mocha lattes. The young man behind the counter popped a grin and it widened, from ear to ear, as we explained our order to him, carefully detailing the animal products that were to be left out. This happy young vegan was delighted to take an order that made sense to him. As he rang it up, he grinned again and said, "Man, you guys ROCK!!".
(My husband wonders, is it better to "ROCK" or to "RULE"?)