Never has the weight of any responsibility felt quite as heavy as that of starting my baby on solid food.
With old school ways of feeding babies clashing with new-age ideas, and professional opinions clashing with each other, new parents are left with many questions. To begin at four months or six? Baby cereal, or no baby cereal? Pureed food or solids? Peanuts? Eggs? Milk? And what about meat?
Preparing to start a baby on food can be an overwhelming time for any parent. For me though, it was monumental, life changing — it was a process that forced me to rethink all I thought I knew about nutrition and about my own values regarding food production and its impact on the world.
Starting my baby on solid food pushed me to go vegan.
After recently ditching dairy due to my baby’s cow milk intolerance via my breast milk, and further discovering the horrors mother and baby cows endure in the dairy industry, I then began pondering questions about meat. As I prepared to take on the task of making food choices on behalf of my child, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Am I really going to force my trusting, unknowing baby to eat animals?
I had been an on-again, off-again vegetarian for much of my adult life. Raised in a typically Canadian, meat-and-potatoes home, the idea of eating meat and dairy was so engrained in me, my family, my culture, that even as an animal lover, moving away from animal products completely was an ongoing challenge. The internal conflict was there —I knew there was no right way to kill someone who didn’t want to die — but the ease of omnivorous life kept winning out.
As I grew out of my twenties, I even attempted to make things right in my mind by committing to consuming only organic, “humanely raised” animal products. I visited farms, even researched and wrote about “humane slaughter.” I felt good with that … for a while.
But then I became a mom.
Having a child comes with new perspectives on the world, the future, and the part we play within it all. For me, it led to a new grand sense of responsibility to make the world, her world, a better place. The urge grew to finally align my values with my actions, and become a person worthy of my daughter’s adoration.
So as reports continued to emerge regarding the detrimental effects of industrial animal farming on the environment, and YouTube videos continued to be shared showing kids crying upon the realization that they were eating animals, and as Netflix films continued to detail the unhealthy consequences of eating animal products, along with the inherent cruelty of the meat and dairy industry, it became extremely apparent that it was time to make a change.
For real this time.
My baby was set to start on solid food around the end of January, so at the beginning of that month I decided to try the “Veganuary” challenge: thirty-one days living and eating as a vegan. I figured it was an easy way to dip my toe and give it a go without the weight of a lifelong commitment, and before making any major diet decisions for my child.
I started by reading and reading and reading, then cooking and cooking and cooking. Admittedly, re-learning how to buy, make and order food after over thirty years of doing it a different way is no easy task. But with the help of health experts, food bloggers, like-minded friends, and of course, a very open-minded husband, I slowly found my way.
After a month fully engrossed in the worlds of Bosh, Minimalist Baker, Oh She Glows, Easy Animal Free and The Buddhist Chef, my fried tofu was top notch and my cashew cream perfected, my ability to spot animal products on ingredient lists became second nature, and my knowledge of plant proteins, fatty acids and essential nutrients was developing by the day.
When February came, I reflected upon how good I felt, both physically and spiritually, and how enjoyable all the vegan cooking, shopping and dining had been. It was easy to make the decision to continue being vegan. And until she could choose for herself, my baby would be too. (This is not to say I have not had divergences along the way; veganism is built on practicality, not perfection.)
Thankfully, the availability of resources and support for plant-based parents is increasing, as popularity in the lifestyle grows. For both parents and baby, getting the necessary nutrition on a plant-based diet is not the worry it once was. Meat alternative products are one of the fastest growing sectors in the food industry today, and more information about the goodness of plant proteins and plant-based whole foods continue to come to light.
Registered dietician, Dr. Pamela Fergusson, believes there are also more health practitioners today, both medical and nutritional, who are sensitive to the needs of vegans and their children. “Health practitioners are often now on board with the idea that it can be safe,” she says, “and if it’s done well, it’s actually a very healthy way to raise your kids.”
Dr. Fergusson points to a position paper published by the American Dietetic Association, which states that a well planned vegan diet can be appropriate and healthful for people in all stages of life, “ including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
But while Dr. Fergusson believes there is “absolutely no need” to include animal products in the diets of babies, children or adults, she does stress the necessity for plant-based diets to be well planned. “It’s not only vegans who need to plan their diet well, we all need to think about our diet. But it’s not enough to just say I’m cutting animal products.”
Dr. Fergusson says that while consulting with a healthcare practitioner is ideal for those looking to make the switch it, she also believes that books such as Brenda Davis’s Becoming Vegan (now available in an updated “express” edition) can be suitable self-education tools.
“We need to be aware that we are meeting our nutritional needs, that we’re choosing less processed foods, choosing whole plant foods more often, choosing a variety of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds; we need a variety of all of those things to thrive,” she says, noting that supplements are also important, with B12 being a must (a common need not only for vegans but within the general population), and Vitamin D and Omega 3 suggested.
As parents, we all want to set our children up with the best nutrition and healthiest eating habits, based on the knowledge we have. Some believe that raising a child without animal products is forceful and extreme. But to me, veganism is actually an absence of both force and extremism. Most parents already do (or should) eat and feed their children fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains — vegans eat just the same. It is a desire to not force my child to needlessly eat animals or products derived from the extreme violence they endure, which inspires this choice.
It is said that becoming a parent can change you, but I think it just pushes you to become who you were always meant to be.
For me, it is what finally pushed me to become the person who cares enough about animals, the environment and the health and happiness of myself and my family to completely remove animals from my plate, for good.