BY VERA LAWLOR
When Matthew settles into the high-chair for lunch he has a colorful selection of pickings. Cubes of white tofu, green peas, pieces of orange mango, cheerios, and scraps of multigrain bread.
The 11-month-old is being raised on a vegetarian diet.
Matthew and his family are part of a growing trend of parents who steer clear of meats and processed foods when it comes to feeding offspring. The Holistic Moms network, which started in 2002 and included a handful of area moms at that time, now has 500 members nationwide, many raising their families as vegetarians or vegans.
A typical breakfast for Matthew includes applesauce or banana, plain yogurt and baby oatmeal cereal; while dinner features chickpea puree, spinach or kale puree, and barley cereal followed by yogurt and blueberries for dessert. He also drinks three 7 - ounce bottles of soy formula a day.
"I feel a vegetarian diet is healthier and I think being a vegetarian makes a person more sensitive and compassionate to the environment and other living creatures around them," said Matthew's mom Cathie, who prefers her last name not be mentioned.
Formerly of Palisades Park, and now living in Orange County NY, Cathie stopped eating meat 16 years ago after having a nightmare about animals being slaughtered. Her husband Nick, who is working toward becoming a vegetarian, is happy that his son "will have a healthier diet than his own."
"My wife is doing a great job making sure he has a well-balanced diet, and I believe that this course will ensure he will grow up healthy and strong," Nick said.
As is a common experience for many parents who choose to raise their kids on a meat-free diet, Cathie and Nick have had family members express some concern about Matthew's diet.
"They didn't protest too strongly, but they did question whether or not the baby would be getting enough protein," Cathie said. "I tell them; 'If his own doctor didn't bat an eye at the veggie diet then you shouldn't worry yourself about it.'"
SAFE FOR BABY?
When asked if it's safe to feed a baby only a vegetarian diet Dr. David Schaumberger of Tenafly Pediatrics said it depends on the type of vegetarianism.
"A partial or semi-vegetarian diet doesn't pose any danger and may be more in line with current dietary recommendations," Schaumberger said.
A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, that includes modest amounts of eggs and dairy, "allows children to sustain adequate growth without risk of nutritional deficiencies with the possible exception of iron," the pediatrician said.
"Raising a child as vegan has the highest potential for nutritional deficiencies including vitamin B12, vitamin D,iron and zinc," Schaumberger added.
Despite these difficulties, Gloria and Stephen, who also prefer their last name not be mentioned, are raising their daughter, 3-year-old Nina, as a vegan and will do the same with their second child - expected later this year.
"I was a vegetarian for more than 10 years when I met my husband, who had been a vegan for more than 12 years," said Gloria, of Clifton. "Because there are so many delicious alternatives to cow-based dairy products in the big supermarkets, it was quite easy to switch to a vegan diet."
Most of the staple items, she said, are available at the local grocery store and the couple only goes to the health food store for especially tasty treats once a month. When Nina was born it was only natural to them that she would be raised as a vegan.
MORE THAN DIET
"As parents we want to teach our children that a world without violence and cruelty is possible. We want to provide a consistent message," Gloria said. "For us it would be morally incompatible to teach our children to love and respect animals and nature and at the same time support factory farms."
As a result Nina's favorite foods include spinach, short grain brown rice, and collard greens. Getting the facts and staying informed is important when it comes to planning nutritionally balanced diets for vegan or vegetarian babies, Gloria said.
"The main thing is keeping all the meals complete and balanced with each food group member represented and then sticking to it," she added. "And just like with any children, it's important to keep sweets and junk food to a minimum."
As Nina gets older and goes to friends' houses it might get more challenging to keep her to the vegan diet. Her parents want to do this without making their daughter appear to stand out.
"We don't really feel this will be a problem because when kids come over to our house now it's not unusual to have special dietary requests – this one is allergic to peanuts or that one can't have dairy," Stephen said. "Also we live in an area that's very mixed ethnically and religiously and so it's not unusual that kids would have dietary restrictions."
Marcelle Moran-Witschi shares tips on vegan meals with other parents when she hosts a Spiritual Mamas meeting in her home once a month.
"My 3-year-old son Nathaniel loves to sample all of the vegan potluck dishes," said Moran-Witschi of Ocean Grove. "He loves helping me to make my green juices every day and squeezes his own lemonade; he grinds up our flax seed for our breakfast cereal every morning."
Her son also loves soy and rice milk and original herbal tea with stevia for a sweetener.
'Nathaniel's dad is currently working a distance away and only sees him once a week and when they go out they have eggs, dairy, or sometimes chicken," Moran-Witschi said. "But his dad does support me on raising our son on a strict vegetarian/vegan diet at home. I feel it is really important that he get lots of organic, high nutrition food so that when he eats junk or standard American diet food he will be less affected."
In the end, she said, it will be her
son's choice what he wants to eat.
"I am teaching Nathaniel the reasons why I choose to be vegetarian – love for the planet, compassion for animals, personal health – and hope that someday he chooses on his own to be a compassionate eater," Moran-Witschi said.
Mary DeBonis fed her daughter Megan a vegan diet for the first three years of her life. Then when her son Michael was born it became too challenging to stick to such a strict diet so she changed it to vegetarian. Not only does she have the blessing of her mother and mother-in-law but she also has their support – both women are vegetarians.
"The three of us went to a vegetarian conference a few years ago and came back non-meat eaters," said DeBonis of West Caldwell. "There were top medical experts at the conference and they spoke about the benefits of vegetarianism and compared health issues in the U.S. with those in China and other areas of the world where they don't consume so much meat."
The differences in the rate of diseases, especially cancer, was mind boggling, DeBonis said.
"We became vegetarian because of the health aspect, the factory farming aspect and for environmental reasons," she added. "We are all vegetarians now except for my husband who will eat meat or fish when we are out at a restaurant."
Megan and Michael's diet includes, bean burritos, organic rice, fruits, vegetables, lentil and minestrone soup, oatmeal cereal, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
"It's harder for kids who are used to eating processed food like chicken nuggets to change onto a natural diet," DeBonis said. "Ours were literally vegetarians from the moment they were born and they really enjoy their meals. My son especially loves tofu, rice, and oatmeal."
Avoiding meat is not a huge leap of faith for Megan, who is an animal lover.
"She feels animals are meant to be our friends not our meals," DeBonis said.
But at the same time she has been taught by her parents that not everybody makes the same choice as her family, an important message since many of her friends are meat-eaters. Friends have been supportive of the couple's dietary decision for their children.
"They understand that I didn't just jump into this, I have done my homework," DeBonis said. "Realistically we get too much protein in this country. The big emphasis in our house is on vegetables, fruits and nuts and we also give the kids whole food multivitamins."