When you picture an average American child’s diet, you may see visions of chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly on white bread dance in your head. Despite your best efforts, little ones can often have a narrow palate that may not be providing them with the optimum nutrition to grow strong and avoid disease. Starting your children on a whole-food, plant-based diet can provide them with all the nutrition they need without any of the junk and processed ingredients that can harm them.
The standard American diet (aptly abbreviated as SAD) is high in animal fats, dairy, and processed foods that contain preservatives, artificial ingredients, and an abundance of sugar and sodium. This way of eating has led our country to widespread chronic illness, heart disease, cancer, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Research has shown that the groundwork for these diseases starts in early childhood, while some say it even begins in the womb. The good news is, studies show that switching to a whole-food, plant-based diet has the power to reverse, stop, or slow down these chronic diseases.
We enlisted Rip and Jane Esselstyn, the brother and sister team behind The Engine 2 Cookbook, to explain to us the benefits of incorporating a whole-food, plant-based diet into your family’s lifestyle. As leaders in the movement with over 30 years of plant-based eating under their belts, they share the methods behind how they are raising passionately plant-based kids.
Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet for Kids
Inspired by their father Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr.’s groundbreaking research on plant-based nutrition and disease, both Rip and Jane are raising their children on a whole-food, plant-based diet. “We now know from a lot of extensive studies that are out there. Kids start laying down the foundation for heart disease from ages 3, 4, and 5 when they’re eating the standard American diet,” explains Rip. They both agree that the earlier you can get your kids to eat plant-based whole foods, the better off they will be. Furthermore, they say it will give them the foundation to create healthy choices towards plant-strong foods (a term coined by Rip) and away from weak foods, like dairy and meat.
Make the Switch, Easily
While transitioning to a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle can seem daunting, Jane and Rip have learned to streamline the process. Tactics like batch cooking your grains and potatoes or doubling a recipe for sauces and dressings can supply your brood with a solid base for the week. For Rip’s family, prepping their kitchen equipment and ingredients beforehand, so that all they have to do is turn the stove on, is key for their mealtime success. It’s now easy for Jane’s high school kids to be vegan while outside the house. She says, “In the last 10 years, the world has changed in such a user-friendly way, even at their school where they serve lunch, they can find food there and navigate their way around things.”
Get Your Kids Onboard
It’s likely that your kids already enjoy a lot of meatless foods, so it’s not necessary to make a big announcement about transitioning to a plant-based diet. Instead, Rip and Jane suggest taking the foods that your kids love and making some smart, simple substitutions. For starters, choose brown rice over white rice. Go 100% whole grain with your pasta, breads, and tortillas. Ditch the conventional peanut butter for one without oil and sugar. Opt for non-dairy milk when serving cereal. And lastly, swap out the cheese for nutritional yeast.
Including your kids in the cooking can also help them get excited for what they are about to eat. Jane and her kids love to cook together. Many of their favorite recipes can be found in the pages of The Engine 2 Cookbook. For Rip, persistence and creativity were key to getting his kids to eat healthy when they were young. Broccoli was a challenge until he bet them they couldn’t eat it with their toes—and just like that, they were hooked. “Be persistent, don’t give up, keep putting stuff on their plates,” he advises, “you never know when they will try it.”
Why Go Plant-Based?
A whole-food, plant-based diet can prevent disease from forming, help you attain a healthy weight, and give you increased energy.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that animal agriculture accounts for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, while the Worldwatch Institute puts the damage as high as 51%. Experts across fields suggest reducing your intake of animal products will reduce emissions.
A whole-food, plant-based diet allows you to buy staples like beans, brown rice, and quinoa in bulk, cutting down on your out-of-pocket expense. Other cost-cutting tactics include shopping seasonally, buying your fruits and vegetables locally, and cooking at home. A study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition who compared a weekly meat-filled menu to a plant-eater’s, noted a yearly discount of $750 for non-meat eaters.
How to Stock a Plant-Based Kitchen
Purchase fresh: fruits, veggies, herbs, non-dairy milk
Stock the freezer: frozen fruits, veggies, and prepared grains
Buy in bulk: beans, cereal, flour, grains
Add flavor: Salsa, peanut butter, vinegar, ketchup, mustard, and BBQ sauce