Forget chaperoned dances, unfortunate voice breaks, and the vicissitudes of 8th grade soccer: the real teenage challenge may be trying to go meatless. Rachel Meltzer Warren knows this better than most, having been a vegetarian since she was 12 years old. That’s why, as an adult, she felt the need to offer a comprehensive blueprint for any adolescent who might be contemplating a change. The result is The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian, a thorough and thoroughly non-dogmatic how-to for curious teens. Warren was kind enough to answer some of our questions.
Meatless Monday: What are some of the unique challenges facing teens who opt for a vegetarian diet? On the flip side, are there any advantages to starting out at that age?
Rachel Meltzer Warren: The biggest challenge to a teen who opts to go veg is that he or she is not completely in control of his or her food choices. Most teenagers live with their parents, who do the grocery shopping and the cooking. So many parents hear their child say the word “vegetarian” and immediately have visions of becoming a short-order cook. If parents are not supportive of their child’s giving up meat, that can make it really tough for the teen to survive as a vegetarian. I’ve spoken with a number of people who, as a result of a less-than-hospitable home environment, waited until they went to college to go veg.
There is a positive side, though! For teenagers who care deeply about animal rights or the environment, making the choice to become vegetarian at a young age is a way they can take action. It can be hard for teens (and adults!) to find meaningful ways to make a difference in the world, and food choices are a really tangible and easy way to live out your convictions. And not to mention, the younger you begin shifting to a plant-based diet, the more health benefits you’ll gain (if, of course, you choose a healthy and balanced plant-based diet).
MM: What can parents, teachers, and other authority figures do to help teens transition to a more plant-based routine?
RMW: Communicate! Find out why the teenager in your life wants to be a vegetarian, and ask them what you can do to help support them. Help direct them to resources that can give them guidance on nutrition and other concerns that may come up (like my book and blog!) and invite them into the kitchen to cook and eat with you—food has an amazing way of bringing people together, even if you think your teen’s new way of eating is something that separates you.
MM: What does it take to reach a younger audience? How did thinking about your presumptive reader affect the tone or style of your writing, if at all?
RMW: The tone and style of this book are definitely teen-focused; that’s really the only thing separating it from a book aimed at a general audience. The information in the boo really applies to most everyone, young and older, female and male! I work with teens a lot as a nutritionist, and I interviewed many teenagers for the book—that contact helped inform my writing style quite a bit. I think it also helped that I was once a teenager struggling with the same issues my readers are facing. It wasn’t hard to remember what it was like to be in their shoes—that’s what inspired me to become interested in nutrition in the first place!
MM: In the book you mention Meatless Monday as a great way to test the waters. What are a few other ways we “Veg-Curious” can explore a plant-based diet without feeling overwhelmed?
RMW: Many teenagers find that giving up red meat is a good place to start—that’s actually how I first dipped my toe in the water when I was in 7th grade. Parents also tend to be a lot more comfortable with that change than when kids decide to go “cold turkey” (ha) and give up meat altogether, since they can still make certain favorite family recipes for dinner and don’t worry about their child finding something to eat in a restaurant. The “veg curious” person gets to test out what it feels like to have some dietary restrictions, with the comfort of knowing there are still plenty of options open to them.
MM: Finally, is there a favorite meatless recipe you’d like to share with our readers?
RMW: Absolutely! Try this Asian Chopped Crunchy Salad.