MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
For many families, the approaching holiday season conjures visions of hearty feasts, tables full of culinary delights enjoyed while surrounded by friends and family. But for increasing numbers of American families, dietary concerns and preferences have changed the holiday dinner table and the everyday one, too.
For Mikaela Neary of Fayetteville, Thanksgiving will not include the traditional turkey. Now 13, Mikaela has been a vegetarian for nearly four years. She has no regrets about her decision, and her parents, Annemarie and Michael, have supported her choice through informed decisions and ongoing communication.
Mikaela, a student at Wellwood Middle School in Fayetteville, and mom Annemarie recently shared their thoughts on vegetarianism with Family Times
I’m a vegetarian just because I don’t like the idea of eating animals. I know eating meat is normal, I just don’t like it. So I don’t feel left out or anything when people eat meat.
I decided to become a vegetarian around the end of third grade. I am in seventh grade now. My friend is a vegetarian as well, and I had always wanted to be one. Basically I was jealous of the fact that she had made that decision. My friend’s whole family is vegetarian; it wasn’t because she was a vegetarian that I became one, but she did encourage me about it. So one night, I put my foot down and refused to eat meat. I am proud to say I didn’t give in to it.
Admittedly, I was kind of immature about it, too. At first, I didn’t eat fish or poultry either, but my mom thought I was not getting enough protein. She was probably right. Now, I eat some fish, but I still do not eat poultry.
Why do I eat fish and not other animals? I’m not sure what the difference between meat and fish is. In my opinion, fish is a type of meat, but my mom wouldn’t take no for an answer.
For teenagers who want to be vegetarians, I do think it is important to get the right nutrition. You might be able to do that without eating fish. I take vitamins when my mom makes me.
I didn’t become a vegetarian because of health reasons and I don’t know if being a vegetarian has made me any healthier. There are plenty of vegetarians that are healthy or aren’t healthy. That goes for people who aren’t vegetarians as well. So I don’t think being a vegetarian affects your health in a negative way as long as you eat healthy and get exercise.
It doesn’t make me mad that other people choose to eat meat. Being a vegetarian is a choice I made for myself, and I plan on sticking to it. I don’t really miss meat because I have gotten so used to not eating it. I eat the way I always did except without meat.
At Thanksgiving I eat stuffing and biscuits, cranberry sauce, and the other foods that are served on that day—except for the turkey. I didn’t really like turkey before I was a vegetarian so that doesn’t really bother me.
For the most part, my parents are OK with my being a vegetarian. My dad, he just likes to taunt me about it. He tries to get me to eat meat, and I just I ignore him. Family gatherings can sometimes be annoying because people are always asking why don’t I eat meat and I have to say it over and over again: “I just don’t like the idea of eating animals. It grosses me out and I think it is mean.”
Mikaela’s choice to become a vegetarian has been about ongoing discussions and battles of will. But it’s getting better now that she is older. She’s making her own snacks and lunch, and is learning more about nutrition and making better choices. I try to keep healthy snacks in the house and emphasize variety.
Mikaela made her decision to become a vegetarian right around the time when we switched my son Liam, 6, to a gluten-free diet. It was difficult making dinner; everyone was eating different things. My husband loves meat, and now, so does Liam, so I still find myself cooking different things for everyone.
For the first couple of years, I talked with Mikaela’s pediatrician frequently. I was very worried about her getting the right nutrition. We had a blood screen done to check nutrient and iron levels. For girls, especially teens and pre-teens, iron levels can be a problem. Mikaela takes a vitamin with extra iron.
For me, protein was less of a concern. Before becoming a vegetarian, Mikaela was never much of a meat eater. She eats cheese and yogurt and legumes for protein. She is allergic to tree nuts, so even that isn’t an option; she doesn’t really love eggs. She recently discovered that she really likes garbanzo beans. She is growing and healthy, so I don’t worry as much now.
The funny thing is, she is a vegetarian who doesn’t eat a lot of vegetables. But she loves fruit—especially apples and strawberries.
The fact that she eats fish is a compromise. And her dad still picks on her quite a bit about it. I think it’s partly because he makes these meatballs—which she used to love. She ate them before, and now she won’t … and that bugs him a little.
Our extended family is getting used to it, but they still ask a lot of questions. Before a holiday, or family gathering, they always ask, “What can I make that she’ll eat?” I’m always assuring them that Mikaela wants no special treatment. She will always find something she likes.
I think it is a lot easier for me to understand Mikaela’s decision because I stopped eating meat myself for a while when I was about 16. I lived on a farm, and I’d open the freezer and there would be all this meat labeled with the names we gave to the farm animals. I started eating meat again in college—it was just a convenience issue. It was too hard to stay on a vegetarian diet in that environment. It was more important to have fun. Today, I eat meat but I could take it or leave it.
Mikaela isn’t doing this as a means of rebelling. And I decided long ago that I would not make food a big issue with my daughter. So we basically cook three different meals every night. And we make it work.
My advice to parents with children considering a vegetarian diet would be to talk to your pediatrician and have a nutritional screening done. Talking with a nutritionist is also a good idea. Encourage your child to eat a variety of non-meat foods and maintain ongoing communication about making healthy choices.
Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.