I've always been what's referred to as a natural vegetarian, or someone who doesn't eat meat just because they don't really enjoy the taste (sorry, bacon). While I've been tempted to take the plunge into veganism, ever since becoming a parent to twin boys three years ago, I haven't had the time or courage to go for it. But when my editor challenged me to try and feed my kids a vegan diet for a week, I figured this was the perfect chance not only to see if I could commit to a vegan lifestyle, but to see if it was something my boys would enjoy too.
My kids' health is obviously most important to me, and as they had a recent doctor's visit, I knew they were well enough to try a vegan diet. I decided just to be safe, I would supplement their daily multivitamin with a dose of under the tongue B-12, since you can only get B-12 from eating meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. I also gave them a multivitamin that was high in omega-3s to make sure they were getting all the vitamins they needed.
For one week, I tried to give my kids plant-based, vegan meals. I explained to them that we were trying to eat foods that didn't come from animals, but I didn't want to get into a big discussion about PETA and the conditions inside dairy production facilities, lest the preschool teacher call me at home to tell me that my boys were scaring the other kids with their stories. If they refused to eat what I gave them, I allowed them to eat the versions with animal products that they were used to, because I'm not Cruella DeVille. I honestly didn't think it would be that hard. I figured I already spend so much time pleading with my boys to take "just two more bites" of their chicken nuggets I assumed going vegan would be a piece of (egg- and dairy-free) cake. Oh, how wrong I was.
Day 1: Not All Vegan Milk Is Created Equal
My first challenge started at 5:45 am when the boys asked for their morning cup of milk. Lolo has seen me drinking soy milk before and has asked to taste it, and I usually say no because it's expensive and I didn't want it to go to waste. So he was pretty excited when I told him he could have a sippy cup of it. I thought he would hate it, but to my total surprise, he guzzled it down and declared it yummy. Just when I thought this whole switch to non-dairy milk was going to be a breeze, his brother tried his own cup of soy milk. Not only did Remy not like it, he had a bad stomach reaction to it and immediately spewed it out all over the front of my Formation world tour shirt. Not exactly the relaxed, vegan morning I had pictured for us.
I don't think it was an allergy, since he's had soy before, but we made a run for some almond milk just in case. Still, Remy was not feeling the non-dairy milk. Even adding some vegan Hershey's chocolate syrup (I know, I couldn't believe it was vegan either!) couldn't bring him on board.
Day 2: Why Are You Trying To Poison Us, Devil Lady?
Here's the thing about being a vegan — unless you want to eat processed, packaged food for every meal, fruit and veggies have to be high on your list of favorite things to eat. Otherwise every meal will feel like torture, or like you're a three-year-old. There I was, spending time arranging fruit and veggies in what I thought were visually pleasing arrangements, just to have my kids flat out refuse to touch their lunches. What's worse, they begged me for Goldfish crackers instead, and because they aren't vegan, I said no.
I realized how much easier it would be for my family to try going vegetarian as opposed to vegan. Those delicious fish crackers are acceptable on a vegetarian diet, and who knows, maybe I could have gotten my kids to actually try their hummus that way. Maybe I'm trying to change too much about their diets too quickly. Luckily, PB&J is vegan on the right bread, which is what I ultimately ended up serving them, but this isn't what I pictured when I signed on for a vegan diet with my kids.
Day 3: I Feel Like A House Elf
The week before this experiment, I had made this delicious sausage and kale soup that my whole family was still drooling over. So I decided to recreate it using tofu crumbles instead of the sausage, and veggie broth instead of the chicken stock. The substitutions were decent and the soup was just as delicious as the original meat-based batch.
I was starting to realize that the only way to make this work was to spend a lot of time in the kitchen prepping meals.
I was thrilled that I finally had a vegan success, but I was starting to realize that the only way to make this work was to spend a lot of time in the kitchen prepping meals. I love to cook, and I've even toyed around with the idea of going to pastry school. But it becomes work when it's something you have to do every single day for such a long time. And forget trying to get it done when the boys want my attention, or when they're fighting with each other. Back in the day, when our family had a non-vegan diet (i.e., last week), if the boys were having a rough night I could have a chicken stir-fry with broccoli and brown rice on the table in less than 20 minutes. But with our new dietary restrictions, that would likely no longer be the case.
Maybe there are quick, family-friendly vegan meals out there, but every recipe I found took me an hour or longer to make, in part because I'm not familiar with some of the ingredients. Looking at you, nutritional yeast flakes and you, tempeh. And while the soup was a success, it wasn't awesome working so hard on these meals, only to have my kids turn their noses up at them and ask for cold cereal or pasta instead.
Day 4: Don't Mess With The Mac & Cheese
I'll be honest: when I agreed to do this vegan for a week challenge, I completely forgot that cheese isn't vegan. So while I thought my kids would be totally fine giving up hot dogs and chicken nuggets, I wasn't prepared to pry them away from their precious macaroni and cheese. My kids take their mac and cheese very seriously. They don't just request to eat it for dinner: they will walk me to the pantry and point out which shape pasta they want that day (shells versus elbows) as well as the sauce (yellow, cheddar, or white). Then they post up in the kitchen to watch me make it and make comments like I'm a contestant on Chopped.
I knew converting them into vegan mac and cheese eaters was going to be a hard sell, and I was right. I banished myself to the kitchen yet again and made this creamy vegan mac and cheese, using cashews, coconut milk and nutritional yeast flakes as a cheese substitute. While my partner and I thought it was yummy and devoured the entire pan, I will admit that it wasn't anything like the Annie's mac and cheese my kids love. I should have planned ahead and made them their non-vegan mac while I made the vegan version, but I had hoped that they would be fooled. No such luck. They took two bites, declared that it wasn't cheesy enough, and then asked me, very sweetly, if I would please make them some shells.
Day 5: The Hunger Games
My kids are typically pretty good eaters. They can finish a whole plate of pasta without any prompting from me. The same goes for a sandwich or scrambled eggs in the morning. I was excited about trying a vegan diet with them because I wanted to expose them to more fruits and vegetables. And while they are trying new foods as a result, such as snap peas and zucchini pancakes and kale, mostly I see that they just aren't eating as much as they used to. I struggle to find snacks that they can eat on the go that aren't processed besides fruit. They go to a nut-free school and hate the taste of sunbutter, so our lunch options are limited.
As much as I like the idea of being a vegan family, I don't want my kids to be vegan in name only, to eat a lot of processed and packaged vegan foods.
It could've just been my imagination, but it seemed like their energy was higher back when I gave them yogurt and cheese sticks. I felt great eating vegan, but I was eating a rainbow of foods each day. They're weren't. As much as I liked the idea of being a vegan family, I didn't want my kids to be vegan in name only, to eat a lot of processed and packaged vegan foods but not get the benefits of a plant-based diet. But at their young age, I don't know if their palates are developed enough to appreciate eating a ton of vegetables every day.
Day 6: Vegan Baking Is Delicious
On Tuesdays, I usually bake treats with my kids. So I was curious to see how vegan chocolate chip cookies, which I made using almond, coconut oil and brown sugar, would stack up next to to my usual go-to recipe. I may have forgotten to check and make sure my chocolate chips were actually vegan (whoops!) but other than that, the cookies were amazing. I hadn't realized before this week how much of my daily routine with my boys revolves around meals — preparing them, eating them, cleaning up after them. It was nice to have this weekly baking ritual still feel the same, even during our week of trying to be vegan.
Day 7: The Battle Of The Eggs
I woke up this morning really, really craving egg whites. I had lifted weights the night before, and I just really wanted the protein instead of the oatmeal I'd been having all week. So I decided to "cheat" and eat them in the kitchen. But Lolo heard the frying pan hit the stove and was on me like Sherlock.
"Eggs? Are you making eggs? Can I have some eggs?," he asked. I was busted. I thought about gently suggesting he try his own oatmeal instead, but then I thought about my own dietary goals. While I totally respect vegans' commitment to not eating eggs, for me the appeal of going vegan is for a more healthy diet, and I think eating a farm fresh egg is just as healthy, if not more so, than oatmeal that's been processed in a factory. So we had our eggs with no regrets and they were delicious.
After the week was done, I realized that feeding my kids a vegan diet is something that's totally possible. But until they start trying more fruits and veggies, going vegan might involve them eating more processed foods than I'd like. And the food prep time left me feeling like Cinderella, and not the part when she gets to be all pretty in a big ballgown. I'd love to try a "Vegan Monday," just to get some new dinners into our mix and expose my boys to some new flavors. But for now, pass the cheese, please.