A journey towards a plant-based, whole foods diet, (excerpt from the “Whole Plants” cookbook)
What one eats is a personal choice, often based on what each individual finds tasty, satisfying, familiar, or readily available. When asked to think about what I eat and why I eat what I do, I have to pause for a minute. My own life experiences and the experiences of the individuals closest to me—most notably those who cared for me as a child—have affected me just like everyone else. Growing up, it was often my mother who chose the food that I was to eat, simply because she cooked and prepared all of our family’s meals. We ate these meals with gusto: pork chops, mashed potatoes, green beans, spaghetti with meatballs or a large plate of fried chicken. These dinners were topped off with homemade desserts and ice cream.
It wasn’t until my junior year in high school (over 25 years ago) that this began to change. My father, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, was conducting his research, later detailed in The China Study, currently an international best seller. Based on his research, he was suggesting to my mother that we start following a diet more centered on plant-based foods instead of animal-based foods. As a family, we slowly began transitioning toward a plant-based diet. Instead of serving meat as the main menu item, my mother began to use it more sparingly, as a side dish or only for added flavor. We moved from eating a large slab of ham with a side of macaroni to having one or two slices of ham cut into small bits and added to a large casserole dish of scalloped potatoes, serving eight people. As my parents were beginning this transition, I was finishing high school and moving away to college.
My mother always was an amazing cook and while growing up, I loved her cooking. So when I went away to college, I sought out the familiar, comforting foods of my childhood, which often included animal products. Up until this point, my food choices had been based solely on my cravings and what I found to be tasty. My college friends and I would order that late night pizza with extra cheese and sausage, followed with a large ice cream sundae, smothered in hot fudge sauce. And as you can imagine, we all gained weight. It really wasn’t until I graduated from college that I truly began to question what I was eating and why.
Upon graduation, I was accepted into the Peace Corps. For the first time, I would really be on my own. This was the late 1980’s and cell phones were not common, making communication from remote areas difficult. In fact, I was stationed in one of the more rural areas of the Dominican Republic (DR) with the position of rehabilitating malnourished children.
In trying to pinpoint the exact experiences that led to my transition to a plant-based diet, I can remember a couple distinct and slightly more encompassing events. ….
(Several Pages Later)
Armed with my own personal beliefs and experiences and the work that my father was conducting, I began consuming a diet that was close to being completely plant-based: no animal, meat or dairy products. I now have two sons who have been raised close to 100% on a plant-based diet. At the time of writing of this book (end of 2010), they are 16 and 17 years of age. As my mother did for me, I have tried to use food not only to nourish them, but also to create tasty and healthy dishes.
Raising children on a plant based diet.
I am often asked about raising children who consume a strict plant-based diet. Here are some of the answers to the more common questions:
Do children who are raised on a plant-based diet lack nutrients? How does this diet affect their physical and mental growth?
Based on the experiences I have had with my sons, I see no evidence that being raised on a plant-based diet has stunted or damaged their physical or mental growth. In fact, it has been quite the opposite. Steven, who is 17 years old and Nelson, who is 16, are both in excellent physical condition and have always been incredibly active and exceptional athletes, both playing on sports teams since the ages of 4 and 5. Steven is 6’3”, muscular and well toned and Nelson is a little over 5’10” and also muscular and well toned. Since they have entered school, they have consistently earned close to all A’s and have been very alert and quick-witted. Both have been awarded countless academic and athletic awards. Furthermore, they have rarely been sick. So I would say a plant-based diet has not harmed them in the least. Instead it has nourished their mental and physical potentials.
Where do they get their protein and calcium from if they don’t drink milk? What do they drink?
Plant foods provide all the protein that is needed when consuming enough calories from whole plant-based foods. You are getting enough protein. It’s been an age-old myth to think that you cannot get the proper amount of protein from plant-based foods. In place of cow’s milk, the boys use rice milk on their cereal and in place of other dairy products in recipes, we often substitute soy milk or rice milk. We also use these same products in plant-based desserts and ice cream. With most meals, instead of drinking a glass of milk, we often drink water. We try to drink at least six to eight glasses of water a day.
What about when they go to school? How do the other children respond to them?
In school, the boys take their own lunches from home. Often they bring leftovers from dinner the night before or from earlier in the week. They take their meals in containers and heat them up in the morning, before they go to school. If they don’t take leftovers, they make sandwiches, all are included in this cookbook, such as Egg-less Salad Sandwiches (pg xx), Hummus Wraps (pg xx), Granola Wraps (pg xx) or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In school, when their peers would make comments about their food, they would occasionally make a game of it. My younger son would call it “the mystery mix” and ask his friends to guess what he was eating. The more different and strange his food appeared, the more he would enjoy the game. One of his favorite “mystery mixes” was Dominican Rice and Beans (pg xx), together with the Fiesta Potato Salad (pg xx), where the beets gave the whole dish a bright pink tinge.
As is the case with many things, it was their attitude in approaching their dietary preferences and feeling comfortable with who they were and why they ate this that made it easy for them. Now that they are older, they no longer engage in this game. Often their classmates ask to taste their food and much to their surprise, their friends often want more.
What do they do when they go to their friend’s homes and are offered meat and/or dairy-based ice cream?
My son’s friends and their families respect their dietary choices and have never forced or bullied them into eating meat or dairy products. In fact, their friend’s parent’s reactions have usually been the opposite: preparing a meat-and-dairy-free meal that everyone at the table would enjoy, usually a pasta dish. However, when they travel or go on vacation with their friend’s families, I will usually pack them food to take with them, often rice milk and additional fruit or snacks, sometimes hummus. Their closest friends are actually very accommodating, stopping at fast food restaurants where everyone finds food that they can all enjoy, such as “Subway”, where they can order a vegetable sub, or a restaurant where they can buy burritos, such as a “Moe’s”, “Chipotle” or “Quodoba”. Regardless of the specific restaurant, my sons know what they can order.
However, they have occasionally visited friends who don’t know what to feed them. In these instances, I will make sure they eat something before going to this friend’s house, having a meal right before they leave and sometimes taking additional snacks with them. Regardless, it has always worked out, even when we lived in areas of the Deep South, where vegetarianism is rare. During the two years that we lived in rural Mississippi, my son’s friend’s parents were some of the most accommodating of all.
How do you get children to eat their vegetables?
I’m asked this question a lot. I think the answer to this question is family environment. Children will generally eat the foods that their parents do. Fortunately for my sons, I love plant-based food and so I have always cooked different dishes with a lot of fresh vegetables, grains and legumes. This is what they see on a daily basis. For instance my sons don’t like black olives. I do not use them in our dishes because I’m not a fan of olives. My sister-in-law loves black olives; she cooks with them all the time. As toddlers her children ate them often.
But it’s more than this. It’s important to invite children to help in the kitchen. Have them select a recipe, and if they can, have them prepare the dish. By being personally involved in preparing meals, children are more motivated to eat what they prepare. As my sons helped with this cookbook and prepared different dishes, they were much more willing to try new food, especially the dishes that they prepared. Dr. Antonia Demas, who has worked extensively in schools across the country and published a “Food is Elementary” curriculum (http://www.foodstudies.org/), has shown this in her research. Kids will take pride in the food they prepare and will be more excited to try new things.