Plant Powered Families
Following a plant-based lifestyle is pretty easy these days, but what about bringing your family along for the ride too? Three parents from the Doctors For Nutrition team with plant-powered kids of various ages share what they love about sharing the lifestyle, what has challenged them, and what they love to eat together. Article first published in Nourish Magazine.
The Craddock family
Joel is husband to Samantha and father to Arlo, age four, and Vali, age one. He also has qualifications in dietetics, science, fitness and education, and is completing a doctorate degree exploring plant-based dietary patterns and their relationship with immune function and the inflammatory response.
Words: Joel Craddock
In my work as a dietitian, I see a constant stream of research that shows the harmful effects both animal-based and refined food products have on human health. I’ve been immersed in nutrition research for almost eight years now, and it has become apparent to me that eating in line with whole food plant-based principles is the ideal way to get – and stay – healthy. As a dad, I suppose it’s only natural that I want my young family to reap the rewards of this lifestyle too. I really could not imagine raising my family any way other than plant-based.
However, we weren’t always plant-based and there have been some bumps in the road as we adapted to a new way of eating. Surprisingly, my wife Samantha and I did not find knowing what to cook, tracking down obscure ingredients, or trying to get enough of a specific nutrient the hardest part. Rather, we were most challenged when it came to the kids eating with extended family or friends.
Understandably, not everyone fully appreciates the value of a whole food plant-based diet (yet!). So when the boys go to someone else’s house to be minded, they are almost always ‘treated’ to foods that are high in sugar, salt and/or oil. While the acute health effects of this may be negligible for the boys, it’s the behavioural consequences that we end up dealing with back at home that troubles us. Getting the kids to eat broccoli or carrots after these kinds of ‘treat foods’ is almost impossible.
Taste buds are trainable, so it’s important to consistently provide healthy options with minimal refined sugar, salt and oil to keep the cravings at bay. We’ve certainly experienced that the sugar addiction is real and can come on quickly! To get around this issue, we’ve become more organised when getting the boys looked after. When our kids are cared for by other family members, we pack all their food and snacks in advance. This has been an effective strategy that takes the stress out of it for everyone. We’ve found gentle ways to educate our own parents and siblings by sharing resources and having non-judgemental chats, while being mindful not to harp on about food choices all the time.
Another challenge has been kids’ birthday parties where lollies, sugary drinks, animal products, and cake are served in abundance. It can be difficult explaining our lifestyle choices to other busy parents who are just trying to get through their child’s special day. Even though most people have at least heard of the benefits of a plant-based or vegan diet these days, some parents still seem to feel that our boys are missing out. Samantha and I try to shrug off any criticisms we may get without getting into debates because we’re confident we’re creating important healthy foundations for our family. For events, we usually bring a healthier alternative in lieu of the typical refined party products. Our homemade chocolate date balls and other naturally sweetened treats are enjoyed and help keep the kids happily snacking away among the minefield of traditional temptations!
We’re really content with our decision to raise our boys on whole plant foods as we can see the positive effects – they are simply thriving! Both boys have tracked above the 90th percentile for weight and height and have typically hit all their other developmental milestones early. When they do get sick, they shake it off pretty quickly. They are simply beaming with energy and vibrance.
Recipe: Lentil veggie bolognese
This is a staple meal in our household and a family favourite. It’s crammed with whole food plant-based nutrition. Plus, it’s so cheap and easy to make!
- 1 Onion
- 4 Cloves garlic
- Water (for frying)
- 2 cans No/low salt diced tomatoes
- 2 cans Lentils, drained and rinsed
- 1 cup Mushrooms, chopped
- 1 Carrot, chopped
- 1 tsp Italian herbs
- 1 cup Broccoli, chopped
- 1 cup Zucchini, chopped
- 1 tsp Balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp Soy sauce (or tamari)
- 1 tsp Onion powder
- 500g Wholegrain pasta
- Finely dice the onion and garlic.
- In a large saucepan, fry the onion and garlic in a little water (about 1 tbsp), stirring often. Add another tbsp when the water has evaporated.
- Add the remaining ingredients (except the pasta) and leave to simmer until the vegetables are soft, about 15–20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, cook the wholegrain pasta.
- Once the vegetable sauce has cooked through and softened, blend with a stick blender. We do this to disguise the chunky vegetables from our 4-year-old, but it’s not essential.
- Serve garnished with nutritional yeast, chilli flakes or whatever else floats your bolognese boat!
The Little family
Andrew is a husband, father and anaesthetic registrar with degrees in exercise science, physiotherapy, and medicine/surgery. Both Andrew and his wife Sarah follow vegan diets and are raising their son Harrison on a plant-based diet.
Words: Dr Andrew Little
I specifically remember saying to my friends in medical school that I could never date a vegetarian because I liked eating meat so much. Well, not only did I end up marrying a vegan, but I became one myself. And now, my wife Sarah and I are raising our first child, Harrison, on a plant-based diet. He is 15 months old and thriving.
Our decision to raise our little boy on a plant-based diet led to some challenging discussions with friends, family and colleagues. Dairy and meat are marketed as ‘a vital component of our diet’ and as a formerly devoted carnivore, I know firsthand how this food culture is ingrained in us from a young age. Believe it or not, even my medical training barely touched on the impact of food on health. It was only after taking a personal interest in the effects of diet on the environment, the animals and on human health, that Sarah and I felt the only rational choice was to bring up Harrison on a plant-based diet. However, we didn’t make this decision lightly and we did – and continue to do – thorough research into plant-based diets to ensure all Harrison’s needs are met.
Like all parents, we want the best possible life for our child. So, I was determined to understand our options and find answers for any outstanding questions we had. I searched the latest peer-reviewed studies and delved into the published nutritional data on plant-based diets. Also, calling on my daily practice as an anaesthetist, with physiology being my specialty, I am confident the physical design of the human body strongly points towards our ideal diet being heavily plant-based. Even our default psychological tendency is to love animals as they are – not lust after eating them. Just pop a rabbit and an apple next to a toddler and see which they reach out to cuddle and which they try to nibble on!
My wife was already convinced that a plant-based approach was the healthy way to raise Harrison since she had been vegan for some time. However, I found myself more cautious about his growth and development – to the point that I was a bit fanatical about measuring his growth parameters. But, it turned out I had nothing to worry about. Harrison has been consistently well above average on the growth charts. He is currently in the 85th percentile for height, 70th percentile for weight and his head circumference is literally 1.5cm bigger than the 99th percentile! To top it all off, he was leaps ahead of his other milestones: crawling at 7 months, walking by 10 months and now at 15 months, has at least 10 words that he can associate consistently. Harrison has continued to flourish on a plant-based diet, never having consumed animal protein in his life, not even as a developing foetus.
Both my and Sarah’s favourite part of parenting Harrison is by far witnessing the joy he gets from life. We are both filled with happiness to see the way the world delights him. Not only do we have a very healthy and happy boy who enjoys exploring the world around him, but we also feel good knowing that this is a sustainable lifestyle for our beautiful planet and his generation.
Both my and Sarah’s favourite part of parenting Harrison is by far witnessing the joy he gets from life.
Recipe: Brekkie bruschetta
We love to start the day at our house with this brekkie bruschetta made with fresh produce from our local farmer’s market. Simply get the amounts of each ingredient you need to feed your family. We also serve this with a delicious berry smoothie on the side!
- Roma tomatoes
- Red onion
- Fresh basil leaves
- Fresh mint leaves
- Balsamic glaze (or any rich balsamic vinegar)
- Whole meal, whole grain bread (or gluten-free substitute)
- Freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
- Light sprinkle of sea salt and pepper (optional)
- Finely dice the tomatoes, avocado and red onion into a bowl to create your bruschetta mix.
- Roughly chop the fresh basil and mint and combine with the bruschetta mix.
Squeeze the fresh lemon (or lime) juice and gently stir through.
- Toast the bread as desired and then add the bruschetta mix on top.
- Pour a dash of balsamic glaze over each slice and enjoy!
The Davies family
Andrew, an intensive care physician at a public hospital, and Claire, a registered nurse and pastoral carer at a private hospital, are parents to Bridget, age 14, and Emma, age 12. Their family adopted a plant-based diet after Andrew experienced burnout and had to take a year’s break from clinical medicine.
Words: Dr Andrew Davies
Our family transitioned to a whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet five years ago. This change in our lifestyle was sparked by the amazing health transformation we witnessed in one of our relatives. Claire’s octogenarian aunt, Dulcie, was told by her cardiologist that medications were her only option for the severe episodes of chest pain she was experiencing daily due to advanced heart disease. Her GP gave her a copy of Dr Caldwell Esselstyn’s book How to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease and within three weeks of adopting the low fat WFPB diet recommended in this book, Dulcie’s chest pain had disappeared. As healthcare professionals who were previously not sufficiently aware of the power of food to positively influence chronic disease – we were inspired to start paying more attention to our own diets too!
We gradually shifted towards plant-based eating over about 12 months, beginning as pesco-vegetarian before dropping the seafood and moving to vegetarian. After watching the documentary Forks Over Knives (a film I highly recommend), we decided it was time to eradicate eggs and dairy and go fully plant-based.
Initially my health and wellbeing improved exponentially; however, a few years later I began to struggle with my fitness and lost six kilograms in weight unexpectedly.
It turned out I had low iron and haemoglobin levels, and investigating my symptoms further led to a diagnosis of Coeliac disease. So, avoiding foods that contain gluten became another important factor in my dietary choices.
When we first embarked on overhauling our diets as a family, we decided it was best to allow our children (then aged nine and seven) to make their own choices about the pace of change they were comfortable with. However, while they were at home, there would be far fewer animal products in the pantry. Our eldest daughter, Bridget, connected with the philosophy of compassion towards animals as she observed the choices we made as parents and watched the documentaries and podcasts we educated ourselves with. She asked to no longer eat meat, eggs and dairy.
Our youngest, Emma, had been a picky eater since infancy, and chose to continue to eat mostly meat, fish, brown rice, pasta and potatoes as she had never enjoyed the taste or texture of fruit and vegetables. However, she later decided to drop meat from her diet due to her values about animal cruelty. Then a year ago, Emma was found to also have Coeliac disease. Having since removed gluten, she is now gradually starting to eat more vegetables. She will sometimes request eggs or fish, which we allow her mostly to satisfy ourselves that her diet remains diverse, given her overall fruit and vegetable intake remains low during an important period of growth and development.
Having two Coeliacs in the family might sound like a pain when it comes to catering for everyone at mealtimes, but we keep it simple by using rice, potato, sweet potato or gluten-free pasta as the foundation for most meals. Eating out at restaurants initially seemed scary, however, many establishments offer vegan and gluten-free options these days, so it hasn’t been a worry. We have found it helpful to alert organisers of school camps or parties about our girls’ dietary requirements ahead of time. While there are almost always vegetarians at these events, plant-based and especially gluten free plant-based food is less common. Bringing our own food can be the easiest solution – and a way to inspire other families to consider the fabulous taste (and health benefits) of plant foods.
Some benefits we’ve noticed are that we seem to get sick with colds and flus far less than other families and our general activity levels have increased as we feel more energised.
We are all healthy and happy, and find it generally easy to stick to our food choices for school and work lunches by preparing everything at home in advance. Some benefits we’ve noticed are that we seem to get sick with colds and flus far less than other families and our general activity levels have increased as we feel more energised. We’ve also observed that plant- based eating has helped us to sleep better and to be more mindful and compassionate to ourselves and others. As parents, what delights us the most is how our daughters have both been emboldened by this lifestyle to become strong and informed advocates for the environment.
Recipe: Taco dinner
This colourful meal is one of our favourites. It wins hearts (and tastes) and caters for everyone’s appetite. Just put it all on the table and watch your family light up at the fresh food in front of them. The elements of this dish can be used in multiple ways – from tacos to burrito bowls, salads to dinner sides.
WHITE BEANS IN TOMATO SAUCE
- 1 Onion, finely chopped
- 2 Cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 Medium carrot, chopped
- 2 Sticks of celery, chopped
- 2 cans White beans, rinsed and drained (we use lima beans, but any will do)
- 1 tbsp Tomato paste
- 1 tsp Sweet paprika
- 1 can Chopped tomatoes
- Water, as needed
- 2 Bay leaves
- Salt and pepper to taste
MEXICAN SPICED RICE
- 4 cups Cooked rice
- 3 tsp Ground cumin
- 2 tsp Garlic powder
- 1 tsp Onion powder
- 2 tsp Paprika
- 2 tsp Dried oregano
- Pinch chilli powder (optional)
- Water, as needed
CASHEW SOUR CREAM
- 1 cup Soaked cashews, rinsed and drained (either overnight or for 30 minutes in boiling water)
- 1 Lemon, juiced
- 1 tsp Salt
- 1 cup Water
- Chives, finely sliced as garnish (optional)
- Avocado, mashed
- Ripe tomatoes, chopped
- Lettuce, finely sliced
- Chilli sauce (optional)
- Tacos shells or whole grain tortillas
- Make the beans. In a heavy based casserole dish, fry the onion and garlic in 2 tsp of water or vegetable stock. When translucent, add the carrot and celery and cook on a medium heat for about 5 more minutes. Add tomato paste and sweet paprika and stir in, then add tin of tomatoes. Add just enough water to cover the beans, then add the bay leaves and simmer for 20 minutes. Season to taste.
- Make the rice. Place the spices in a hot pan and stir frequently until fragrant. Add rice and stir until combined and heated through. Add add 1⁄4 cup of water, just enough to make it a bit sticky and moist.
- Make the sour cream. Mix all ingredients in a high-speed blender until smooth, adding more water if necessary to achieve the sour cream consistency of your dreams.
- Place everything on the table with avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, taco shells or tortillas.