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I live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Although within easy reach of Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, it’s a peaceful, small town atmosphere, and a great place to raise our two young daughters, ages 5 and 2.

Farming is very important to the local economy. There are fields of corn, soybeans, watermelons, and vegetables in the summer; wheat and broccoli in the fall and winter. In summer and early autumn, we can buy the best tomatoes, melons, sweet corn, and zucchini that you’ve ever tasted, fresh from roadside farm stands.

There are also a few small cattle and dairy farms, some sheep and goats grazing peacefully in roadside pastures.

And then there are the chicken farms.

I have been stuck beside a chicken truck many times on my way to work. These trucks are piled with cages full of chickens. The cages are only about 8 inches high, and the chickens inside are stooped over, unable to stand up straight. I wonder if they have lived their entire lives inside containers no more than 8 inches high. They peer out from the cages, bewildered and blinking as cars and trucks speed by in every direction. These trucks are always heading west in the morning, and I see the trucks later in the day, returning east, empty. Poor chickens.

I think it was seeing those chicken trucks, more than anything else, that galvanized me to start working toward a plant-based diet for my family. Realizing the plight of the chickens led me to research animal cruelty as a result of factory farms and the high demand for animal agriculture. What I found was heartbreaking.

As I researched more about cutting out meat, I found an even more close-to-home reason to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet: Our family’s health. Diets low in meat and animal products have been proven again and again to promote heart health, lower cancer rates, increase longevity, decrease the likelihood of issues such as obesity and diabetes, and support healthier living all around.

But How to Make the Switch?

I could fairly easily switch to a plant-based diet. When I was pregnant, I often avoided meat altogether; it simply wasn’t appetizing to me. I enjoy eating a wide variety of vegetables and other non-meat products; I like trying new foods and new ways of cooking things; I enjoy international cuisines that are based on vegetarian ingredients. But my issue is, how to encourage my family to embrace a plant-based diet?

My husband is an adamant meat-eater. He, like many people in our culture, was raised on the notion that dinner is not dinner if you don’t have meat on the plate. He doesn’t like to try new foods; he refuses tofu, beans, and mushrooms because of the texture; he doesn’t like Indian food or other styles of cuisine that appear very different from the foods he is accustomed to eating. He understands and sympathizes with my reasons for wanting to cut out meat, but it’s clearly difficult for him to make the change.

My kids both love avocados, fruits and veggies, whole-grain breads, and pasta. Meat is usually not on their list of favorite items (except for chicken nuggets – always a crowd pleaser). The biggest challenge that I face with them is: How to ensure their protein needs are met with a diet free of animal products?

They both completely refuse to eat beans. I have tried many different times, preparing beans in different ways, hiding beans in other foods, and the result has always been a combination of desperate crying and clamping their mouths shut when I try to convince them to try “just one bite.” Edamame and mushrooms (both a good source of protein) have received much the same response. They do love avocado, which is great. My older daughter will eat peas, broccoli, spinach, and sometimes cauliflower, all of which have a decent amount of protein. But besides the avocados, my 2-year-old refuses all of the non-meat high-protein items.

And so, I have thrown up my hands many times in frustration.

But I always try again.

And just last night, I had a great success.

I made vegetarian quesadillas. Because let’s face it: Everything tastes great when it’s covered in cheese. Notice that I am not going for vegan yet … just vegetarian. For now.

I made the quesadillas with bell peppers, corn cut fresh from the cob, red onion, mushrooms (cut up very small), and black beans. I covered the veggies with lots of shredded cheddar cheese. I baked them, served them, and hoped for the best.

My 5-year-old was watching me while I cooked. When she saw the beans and mushrooms, she started whining. “I don’t like beans,” she said. “I don’t want to eat that. And I don’t like mushrooms.”

“All you have to do is try one quesadilla,” I told her. “Just a couple of bites. If you really don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.” She agreed to this deal.

She took one bite. “I don’t like it, Mommy.”

I sighed. “But they’re so good!” I said to her. I had just eaten one triangle of quesadilla myself to make sure, and they did turn out really tasty.

She laughed. “Just kidding!” she exclaimed. “I love it.” She gobbled up her full serving. Whew.

My 2-year-old is a tough customer. I cut the quesadillas up in little pieces for her and said, “You have to at least try them.” She ate a few of the little pieces. Believe me, in my house, that is a victory.

For my husband, I made a couple of quesadillas without any beans – just the veggies. This is because, before I made the quesadillas, he tried to convince me to put some pre-cooked chicken in a couple of them for him. “No!” I said. “That defeats the whole purpose.” He agreed to try the quesadillas, but only without beans. So I went along with this, because at least he would be eating a completely vegetarian meal.

He ate his serving plus more, saying they were delicious. Victory again!

Reasons I Want My Family to Eat a Predominantly Plant-Based Diet:

  1. It’s good for the Earth. Animal agriculture contributes between 14 to 22 percent of the 36 billion tons of greenhouse gases that we produce each year on the planet. The production of meat and dairy require large amounts of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, fuel, and water. Manure, chemicals, and fuels run off the land into bodies of water, creating dead zones in the ocean along with other environmental damage. Animal agriculture is wasteful. It takes about 15 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef, and about 5 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of chicken. See this article for a chart showing the countries that consume the most meat. Frighteningly, China is double the U.S. in meat consumption, and demand there is growing at an accelerated pace.
  2. For my family’s health. As stated earlier, diets low in meat and animal products provide countless health benefits. The Mediterranean diet is especially well-known for increasing health and longevity. This diet includes lots of plant foods, very little meat, cheese and yogurt as the main dairy foods, lots of olive oil, beans, and legumes, and low to moderate amounts of wine. Scientists studying the “Blue Zones,” the five areas on Earth where people live the longest, have found the same general type of diet. The Blue Zone diets include eating mostly plants, very little meat, and lots of beans.
  3. I love animals. The more research that I do on animal agriculture, the more horrified I become at how animals are treated in order to provide us with the animal products we eat. We do not need to cause this kind of suffering in order to feed ourselves. There is a better, more peaceful way to obtain the nutrients that our bodies need. A plant-based diet is key to a future with less pain and suffering for all beings.
  4. I want a plant-based diet to be a way of life for my kids from early on. The truth is, animal agriculture must decrease if we are going to prevent global warming from hitting catastrophic levels. I want my kids to be well-adjusted to eating healthy, plant-based foods from a very young age. This will allow them to contribute to a healthier planet from early in their lives. Armed with the knowledge of a plant-based lifestyle, as they grow up, hopefully they will speak up to others, and encourage their friends and acquaintances to switch to a plant-based diet. If they want to eat meat when they are old enough to make their own decisions, that will be their choice; but I want a plant-based diet to feel easy and second-nature to them.

Here are a few things which have really helped on our family’s journey:

  1. We joined the local organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). In a CSA, a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” of their farm to the public. Interested consumers purchase a share and receive a box or basket of seasonal produce regularly throughout the growing season (typically once per week). This has created an amazing change in our day-to-day eating habits. We receive a variety of organic greens and vegetables each Saturday. I’m having a blast trying new recipes and cooking with new ingredients that I had never worked with before. I prepare completely vegetarian (and often vegan) lunches for myself every day, and I serve my family roasted veggies, sautéed greens, etc. The foods we receive from the CSA are picked from the earth only a few hours before I take them home. Plus, they are organic, so no chemical fertilizers or pesticides! I strongly encourage you to seek out a CSA near you. The benefits are amazing. Click here to find a local CSA near your home.
  2. After further research, I have found that we do not need as much protein in our diets as we are accustomed to consuming in our meat-based culture. In fact, the average American gets 150% of the daily protein that they need, and animal proteins are directly linked to higher rates of cancer. I’m relieved to know that my kids are going to get plenty of protein from the veggies, whole-grain breads, and pastas that they eat as part of a healthy, meat-free diet. However, I’m still on a mission to get them to love beans and hummus, if nothing else because of the excellent health benefits from a Mediterranean-type diet!
  3. Generation Veggie. This is a volunteer-run, nonprofit organization that offers support and information to vegan and vegetarian families “to help them raise plant-powered, kindhearted kids.” They offer fantastic articles, inspiration and encouragement, tips for getting kids to eat veggies, great recipes, and much more.
  4. For the times when we still do eat animal products: I buy meat and eggs only from our local farmer’s market. I have spoken with the owners at the booths and confirmed that their animals are raised with lots of space to roam, and they are pasture-fed and treated humanely throughout their lives. At least this way I have the peace of mind of knowing that our meat and eggs came from animals living healthy lives. (Note: That still doesn’t solve the larger problems related to animal agriculture and global warming. But supporting small, local, humane farms is a step in the right direction versus funding factory farms.) Next step: No meat at all!

Try It Yourself!

Take the challenge and reduce your intake of meat and animal products. Here are a few helpful tips and links to get you started:

  • Start gradually. Try one new vegetarian recipe per week. If you like it, add it into your regular meal rotation. If you don’t, try a new one next week. ZenHabits provides 19 other tips for becoming a vegetarian here.
  • Tell your friends and family that you’re going to become a vegetarian. This way they will be sensitive to your preferences and will be able to encourage you on your journey.
  • Explore foods from other cultures, such as Thai, Middle Eastern, and Indian cuisines, which are very vegetarian-friendly.
  • Try out meat alternatives and dairy alternatives. More companies are creating delicious meatless items such as burgers, sausage, chicken strips, and more. You may be surprised at how tasty they can be!
  • Check out your local CSA and local food producers & farmers. This is a great way to ensure you have plenty of healthy, exceedingly fresh and delicious food on hand to entice your family to eat more fruit, vegetables, and greens. In addition, local food is good for the environment because it requires less packaging as well as less fuel and transportation in order to deliver it to consumers.

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Featured image: Nugget Truck