Your teen is idealistic, health-conscious, and, suddenly, a vegetarian. For a parent that's used to providing protein the old-fashioned way, this can come as a shock. But, while the vegetarian diet presents special challenges, it is possible to accommodate your child’s preference without sacrificing family mealtimes or compromising her health.

According to Sarah Krieger, MPH, RD, LD/N and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, teenagers who consume at least 2 – 4 servings of non-fat dairy, 2 – 3 servings of eggs, beans, nuts and soy, 4 – 6 servings of grains, and 5 – 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day will meet all their nutritional requirements. Nonetheless, soy is the only plant food that provides a complete protein on its own. “Protein is extremely important for growing teens in terms of a range of functions including growth, immunity, hormones, mental function, etc,” says Bonnie Beezhold, MHS. So, combine legumes with grains to create whole proteins – for example, serve beans with rice.

Another issue is getting enough of the long-chain omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA, which are found only in animal foods, predominately in seafood,” says Beezhold. “Low intake of these very important fats can adversely affect mood, cognition, skin, immunity, and hormones.” She recommends that all vegetarian teens get omega-3s in the form of fish oil or algae capsules, eat eggs, and purchase fortified foods. A vegan diet (one without any animal products) is not recommended for teens.

Of course, to many kids a vegetarian diet means an endless stream of French fries, cheese pizza and ice cream. Don’t panic if your child isn’t ready for tofu, but do make healthier substitutes. “Teens will have a great time making pizza as a group activity,” says Krieger. “Use whole wheat pita, store bought dough or make your own. Add favorite veggies, tomato sauce, fresh basil, cheese if you like and experiment with new toppings: soy sausage, a variety of fresh peppers, exotic mushrooms, etc. Try baking oven fries, including sweet potatoes: slice, spray with cooking spray, season and bake at 400 for around 20 minutes.”

While it won’t hurt you to eat more vegetarian meals, it shouldn’t be difficult to plan meals that will please everyone.

  • When making soups, stir fries, and pasta sauces, cook the meat separately. Set a meat-free portion aside before combining.
  • Peggy Turner, MS, RD, LD suggests meals that family members “build” themselves. Set up a baked potato bar with broccoli, cheese, and chili, a taco station with a choice of crumbled beef or just beans, or a make your own salad bar with tuna salad on the side.
  • Experiment with meat substitutes like textured soy protein, soy hot dogs, and gardenburgers. Some of them may surprise you.
  • When planning a meat-free meal, try hearty favorites like bean and cheese burritos, vegetarian lasagna, black bean chili, or omelettes. No one will miss the meat.