BALTIMORE — Eleven-year-old Tyler Parker-Rollins says being vegan isn't always easy. But he says it's also "fun" and that he plans to be one "forever."
His 9-year-old brother, Will, loved it when his friends tried vegan pizza at his birthday party and "they actually really liked it."
Their little sister, Maya, who's 5, says she's vegan "because I love animals, and I don't want pigs to be killed." She then runs off to find her copy of Charlotte's Web, which, she says, "is where I got that from."
The Parker-Rollins kids, growing up in Lutherville, Md., are among a growing number of children whose parents are raising them vegan, without any of the milk or meat conventionally considered part of a growing child's diet.
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When she was pregnant, their mother, Lesley Parker-Rollins got a lot of, "Are you sure you should do that?" and one friend accused her of "taking it too far."
"If I knew you couldn't be healthy and vegan, then no, I wouldn't be doing it," says the stay-at-home mom, who's passionate about animal rights and became a vegan 15 years ago. "For Tyler and Will and Maya, it's never been this torturous thing or even close. It's just that eating animals doesn't make sense to them."
In 2010, about 3 percent of children and adults in the United States were vegan, according to the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group. Two years later, vegan adults comprised 5 percent of the population, and though the group didn't count vegan kids then, John Cunningham, the organization's consumer research manager, suspects the children's count also jumped 2 percent because the youth poll typically tracks the adult one.
"It's a huge increase. In 1994, it was 1 percent," Cunningham says. "Veganism and vegetarianism have become more accepted in society."
He says parents of children who say they want to become vegan are also more likely now to allow the switch.
"It's not as odd and scary as it may have been 10 years ago," says the 43-year-old Parker-Rollins, who convinced her once "all cheese and steak sub" husband, Ray, to join her in giving up meat and dairy. "You can go to any Giant or Safeway and find everything you need."
Parker-Rollins breastfed each of her three children — vegans endorse mother's milk, which a woman willingly gives her baby unlike, say, cows' milk that is meant for a calf, not a human. She gradually introduced the kids to sweet potatoes, peas and apple sauce, and then eventually to proteins like tofu and chickpeas. They drank fortified soy milk. And when they were old enough, they all read Benji Bean Sprout Doesn't Eat Meat.
The picture book about a boy who's given a hard time at school for being a vegetarian is a hit with parents who've given up meat. Benji considers eating a hamburger to fit in, but in the end decides he's happy being a vegetarian and the other kids eventually accept it — won over by Benji's favorite dish, "neatloaf."
A school bully once harassed Tyler, Parker-Rollins says, trying to force a chicken leg into his mouth. Her son was "very upset."
But even though her children are the only vegan students at Lutherville Laboratory Elementary School, she says they have run into few problems. Tyler says he's been teased "almost never."
The children's packed lunches look like anyone else's — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or faux turkey ones made with Tofurky.
With the help of meatless "meat" products available at most mainstream groceries, dinners at the Parker-Rollins house include spaghetti and "meatballs," "chicken" scallopini and even "chicken" nuggets.
"Just like the family next door," Parker-Rollins says jokingly.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics both endorse vegan diets for children — even infants and toddlers.
If parents are careful that their children are getting enough to eat and the right nutrients, Adina Fradkin, a clinical dietitian at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, sees nothing wrong with it either.
"People might ask how could a parent subject growing children to such a restrictive diet?" she says. "But as long as parents are on top of what vitamins and minerals their kids aren't going to get and replacing them, a child is not going to be malnourished."
For babies and young children, Fradkin says, vegan parents should be mindful of substituting key growth nutrients typically found in animal products.
With B12, a vitamin important for the neurological system, parents may want to consider supplements. For calcium and vitamin D, usually found in milk, vegans can choose a fortified nondairy milk or look for fortified cereals. There is also a lot of calcium in certain vegetables and leafy greens.
Enough protein can easily be found in beans, legumes and nuts.
Because these foods are often filling, Fradkin said. parents should be careful that kids are eating enough, too.
"Parents who are doing this for the first time just need to be careful about where they're getting their information from," she says. "You want to talk to your physician about it or a dietitian to help to you navigate it."
What is a vegan?
While vegetarians don't eat meat, fish or poultry, vegans also don't eat animal by-products such as eggs and dairy.
According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, the percent of vegan adults in U.S. in 2012 was 5 percent and the percent of vegan children in U.S. in 2010 was 3 percent.
Both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics endorse a vegan diet for children. For more information about veganism: The Vegetarian Resource Group: Vrg.org. For vegan recipes, including kid-friendly ones: Vegweb.com