Now that summer is officially over, as are the first few rude awakenings by alarm clock, we’re settling back in to school-centered life. My step-daughter, Akira, born and raised vegan, is almost 8—the youngest in her 3rd grade class—and bizarrely, the only girl. She’s got plenty to adjust to—but thankfully being “out” about her veganism isn’t one of them. Akira is confident, committed, and so far, shrugs off any pushback. But it’s not like this for everyone. We know that being a young vegan in a classroom can be tough. Written with Akira’s help, here is a list of ten tips for vegan parents and school kids to help normalize veganism and make the school year easier!
1. Grocery shop and pack lunch together.
Shopping together at the farmer’s market or the grocery store allows time and space for discussion about your food choices. Explain your choices as you go and ask your kids questions— and for their opinions, too. Plan lunches in tandem. Dialogue bolsters a child’s vocabulary and confidence in your family’s way of life.
2. Observe the world together.
The more a child understands the motives behind veganism, the more confident and committed they will feel. Whenever the opportunity arises, point out what you notice in the non-vegan world—a billboard advertising meat, commercials about happy cows, cartoons with talking animals—then discuss! Who puts up these ads? Are factory farm cows happy? Animals don’t speak our language, but can we tell they have feelings? Knowledge is power—it is never too early to begin breaking down biased social messaging.
3. Create allies.
During pick-up, drop-off, and school events, make it a point to introduce your family to school faculty and staff. The friendlier you are with all the adults on campus, the more at-home and confident your child will feel at school. A quiet side-note to these adults is also helpful and implies your expectation for their support: “Hey, by the way, my kid is the only vegan in his class, so if you would keep an eye out for any teasing or issue I should know about, I would really appreciate it.”
4. Ease in.
If your kid is shy, start the year off with vegan lunches that appear to be run-of-the mill—nut butter and jam sandwiches, hummus wraps, beans and rice, noodles and broccoli, etc. Allow a couple of months for your kid to acclimate before you begin sprinkling (or if you’re me, drenching), her kale salad with spirulina (which Akira highly recommends now, by the way).
5. Anticipate confrontation.
Preparation equals confidence. As a habit, practice questions and answers at home.
With a little exploration and review even the youngest of school kids are capable of answering basics like “What does vegan mean?” or “Why are you vegan?” As inspiration, Akira and I came up with various approaches to some probable confrontations:
Q: “Why are you vegan? Why do you eat that?”
A: “My family chooses not to eat animals.”
“I eat food that comes from plants—just like some of the biggest, strongest animals in the world do—like gorillas, oxen, and elephants.”
“It’s vegan food. Have you ever had an apple? Then you’ve had vegan food, too!”
Q: “Eww! Gross!”
A: “I know you are but what am I?”
“Whatever you say.”
“I bet you’d like it, do you want to try some?”
“Big kids like to try new things.”
“I eat all the colors of the rainbow.”
Or, with humor: “At least it’s not dead animals.”
Q: “Haha! Yooouu can’t eeeaaat thiiiis!”
A: “So kind of you to offer, but no thanks.”
“I can if I want to, but I choose not to.”
For more ideas and preparation education, check out other vegan kids’ ideas or Google “bullying comeback lines”—there’s some fun and useful stuff out there!
From time to time, just for fun, send some treats for your child to share with the class. Try vegan cookies or crackers, goji berries and almonds, popcorn, kale chips, a box of granola bars, seaweed snacks, etc. If you need a reason, Meatless Monday is always around the corner.
Keep a package of your child’s favorite vegan “party” food with the teacher to contribute to unexpected classroom celebrations.
Visiting animal sanctuaries, rescues, and shelters will strengthen your child’s knowledge of and respect for the real lives of animals (versus the representations that people witness at zoos, circuses, and marine life parks). A personal experience of compassion for animals bolsters your child’s ability to handle everyday pushback about his or her veganism.
Volunteer to do a monthly “cooking class” at school. Demonstrate how to make vegan chocolate “milk”, banana and almond butter sandwich bites, a frozen mango smoothie, oatmeal with fruit and maple syrup, or a simple salad. Remind the kids that free recipes can be found online with their parents.
10. Problem-solve, don’t punish.
A few bites of a non-vegan birthday cake is not the end of the world. Focus on keeping the experience of veganism positive in your child’s eyes by normalizing it at home and in your everyday life together. Creating an association between non-adherence and punishment is not helpful in the long-run. If the “breach” was intentional, do not castigate, but rather aim to discover what problem your child was trying to solve (i.e feeling left out, not wanting to seem “weird,” etc.) so that it can be better remedied in future situations.