Note: This is a guest post by Brigitte Gemme, a busy mom of two who tries to feed her family as many home-cooked, made-from-scratch vegan meals as possible. To save time and the planet without losing her mind, she created many templates and resources that have helped her and hundreds of others. She welcomes other parents on her website, Vegan Family Kitchen.
Like so many other vegans, the only regret I have about veganism is not embracing it earlier. Going vegan in my mid-20s would have been so much easier. Back then, I was living with roommates and mostly cooking for myself. I even ate a lot of accidentally vegan food, just because it was cheap.
Unfortunately, it was only in my mid-30s that I became truly aware of the many uncomfortable truths of animal agriculture. I was raised on a farm, so I knew where meat and dairy came from. It took me two years of breastfeeding my own child to start seeing things from the cow’s point of view. As a bike commuter and mindful consumer, I previously thought I lived an eco-friendly lifestyle. I am grateful to have stumbled upon a few philosophers who forced me to reconsider my definition of a good citizen… and to the cookbook authors who taught me to feed myself differently.
Except that my food game was now a lot more complicated than ten years earlier. I was the primary home cook for my foodie husband and my growing toddler. Up to that point, my husband had enjoyed cooking. He prepared a meal or two every week, but they were always meat- or fish-centric. I felt that, if I wanted us to eat all plants, I would have to take control of the kitchen. As for my 2-year-old, her favourite foods were rare steak, lamb curries and plain yoghurt. What would she eat now? My gourmet daughter was not impressed with “chickn” nuggets and other meat substitutes.
I commend those new vegans who, like Michael and Masa, go 100% plant-based overnight, but it is certainly not how it happened for us. For almost two years, I progressively eliminated meat, dairy and eggs from our family meals. I am not sure what I feared, but I did it stealthily, without talking about it. Oddly, nobody noticed, so I grew bolder. We ate a lot of chickpeas, and I discovered that my daughter enjoyed raw tofu. Really. I started opting for the veg option at restaurants, and my husband enjoyed it too at times. So far, so good.
Things went very public, and suddenly highly conflictual, when one night I casually said “no, thanks” to a steak my father-in-law had barbecued for me. My husband was shocked. “But you love steak!” I did, but I am now deciding not to eat it. “What do you mean, you will no longer cook meat?” Well, my dear, I haven’t cooked meat in over a year. “What?! You introduced me to gourmet cheese!” Too bad.
I have now been fully vegan for about two years. My husband mostly embraces the idea of a plant-based diet, but often strays in the candy aisle, at lunchtime and at his mom’s table. Our first born still eats meat outside the house, but hardly ever at home. Our second child spits out the fish my in-laws occasionally put on his plate and is practically vegan. But because my husband isn’t comfortable calling himself vegan, I do not feel that I can legitimately enforce an all-vegan lifestyle on my whole family. We embarked on the family adventure before I started my vegan journey. Empathy fuels our progress even if we can’t achieve perfection at the moment.
If you have also embraced veganism at a stage in life when you were primarily responsible for the loving care and feeding of others, you may feel torn and conflicted in many ways. Here are ten suggestions based on my experience.
Define your boundaries.
Once I committed to veganism, I decided I would no longer cook or buy meat. Over time, I stopped buying milk or eggs for my daughter too. I was OK with my husband cooking his own, but he hardly ever did. My daughter is adapting to almond milk in her morning cereal (with some whining). My husband still buys her dairy-laden desserts when they go out without me, but I trust that those will be phased out eventually. Every relationship is different, so you may choose to set your own boundaries elsewhere. I suggest revisiting them every few months to see if you can take a few more steps in the right direction.
Talk about it (but not over a meal).
In an ideal world, two people who choose to live together for love and who go as far as having children would know how to talk about their feelings and beliefs. In practice, embracing veganism can come across as such a radical change that communication may break down. Don’t be surprised to find yourselves honking at each other like cars in a crowded intersection. The V word challenges people in how they see themselves as good persons and makes them defensive. In a post, Michael writes about how to talk with your loved ones about your life change. Follow his advice!
… but don’t talk about it all the time.
My husband and I first bonded over food. We spent a lot of time and money cooking at home and visiting fine eateries. A big fear of his was that we no longer would have that part of life in common. Could we still be a couple if we didn’t enjoy cheese together? We found it soothing at that point in our relationship to focus on other things to do. Instead of going on dine-out dates when we had a chance, we subscribed to a local theatre. Next on my list is bowling. Go for a walk in the park!
Get educated about nutrition for yourself and the kids.
Don’t be stubborn about it. Learn lots from reputable sources. But, especially with the health of your children at stake, you’ll need to dig deeper. Reading the book Becoming Vegan is a great place to start. Dr. Greger’s nutritionfacts.org has the answer to every odd question. Dreena Burton’s Plant Powered Families is a great cookbook with tasty, easy-to-cook, kid-approved dishes that include nutrient-packed ingredients.
Start with the sweets.
… but wait before telling them they’re cruelty-free. Show them that vegan food doesn’t have to mean deprivation! Get a solid baking cookbook from Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s collection (cookies, pies or cupcakes?). One battle at a time: you can start cutting back on sugar in a few months.
Keep it simple.
Stick with classic dishes that you already know how to prepare: soups, stews, curries, stir-frys, burgers (using veggie patties), loaded potatoes with beans, and so forth. Choose whole foods and fresh seasonal produce, and make them shine with the addition of one of a great sauce.
Stop preparing two completely different meals.
You didn’t sign up to provide restaurant-grade omnivore dishes. Start with the vegan dish and then let them add the animal ingredient on the side if they insist. You’d probably prefer if they did it themselves but I understand it doesn’t always feel possible. Small steps are better than staying stuck. Bulk-cooking the meat will prevent your house from smelling awful every day. If you are the one cooking it all, consider subtly reducing the meat portion over time and increasing vegetables proportionally.
Veganizing favourites may backfire.
The familiar dishes’ comforting taste and texture are etched in your spouse’s taste buds, and they may not be fooled so easily. Cheesiness is harder to replicate than old-time vegans would like to believe. Set aside favourites for a little while and get back to them with a veganized version later. Instead, explore dishes from cultures where meat and dairy aren’t so central. For example, Asian-flavored stir-frys can include familiar noodles, fruit and nuts. Give the new dishes some friendly names. My daughter loves a dish I call Korean Princess Glass Noodle Soup! It may be surprising to adults, but many kids love iron-rich foods like tofu and red lentils (just hold back the chilli a bit, and add coconut milk for extra fat).
Connect with other vegan families in your areas.
There is probably a Facebook or Meetup group for your vegans in your city, and if you are lucky, even a sub-group for parents. My area has regular gatherings, which is an excellent way for kids to normalise their vegan experience. Finding your tribe will help you get to know local resources even better.
Think twice before asking a question online.
On online vegan parenting groups, every single question has been asked… many times. Unfortunately, the crowd’s answers can sometimes be harsh for no reason. How discouraging! Use the search function to avoid unnecessary hurt feelings and consult a health professional such as a dietitian, nutritionist or vegan-friendly doctor instead of asking for nutritional advice online. Some do Skype consults!
What did you fear the most when you started transitioning your family towards a vegan lifestyle? How did it turn out?
I look forward to learning from your experiences!