I’ve been vegan more or less since I was about 7 years old (Vegetarian since I was 3). That’s more than half my lifetime; and over the years, I have discovered a few helpful do’s and don’ts when helping your family make the transition to a plant-based diet.
My dad was the first person in my family to discover the idea of eating plant-based. He buried himself in research about the benefits and impact of plant-based living, and armed with data, research and figures, he instantly went on a campaign against the rest of the family in an attempt to make us all transition with him. This led to him quickly turning from loving dad into tyrannical dictator.
As you can imagine, that tactic didn’t work so well. But don’t worry, he learned, we learned; and I have some helpful tips and advice of do’s and don’ts to share with you, for trying to help your family, and particularly your children, on their journey to healthy, conscious eating.
Here is my list of 10 tips; the things I would advise you to do and things I would advise you to avoid when getting your family on board a plant-based diet.
We’ll start with my list of the big No No’s:
Nobody likes being judged. And often, if you feel judgment coming from someone like a friend or family member, you may become resentful and resistant towards change. Judgment and hurtful language is not a great place to start. Even though it may be difficult for you to watch your daughter eat a piece of chicken, or your dad devouring a cheeseburger, as hard as it is, you have to let it go and make sure they feel secure, otherwise they will not be open to the conversation.
When my dad first introduced our family to plant-based eating, we would feel like we had committed a crime when we ate a bit of cheese at a party or perhaps ate Halloween candy; We would shamefully hide it, and if we would get sick my dad would act like we had personally disappointed him in some way because obviously how could we be sick if we had been eating plant pure? The first question I got after saying “Daddy, I feel sick” would be “What have you been eating?” He has since learned to take our individual food-related failings less personally and this new-found love and space has given us a lot of room to improve and grow.
As a kid, whenever I was denied dessert I knew I had done something wrong. Eating veggies was something I had to slog through in order to enjoy chicken or bread or pizza. So when my dad denounced all the foods I had ever loved (he actually gave away and even threw away all of the animal-based products when he had made up his mind to go plant-based), all I was left with was tofu and kale and soy milk (All of which I consider delicious now, but at the time I thought were disgusting). Given that he had just threw away all of our “joy food”, I felt like I had done something unforgivable. Had he found the stash of jewelry I had hid under my pillow case? Did he find the angry note I wrote the tooth fairy, asking her to please trade my brother in for a Pegasus?
Don’t let this happen to your family. Do your best to avoid associating veggies with punishment, and animal-based foods with prizes or rewards. Help your family feel plant positive.
A big difficulty in growing up as part of the only plant-based family on the block was alienation. I had been brought up to have such strong opinions about my diet and health that I was alienating my friends and class mates, who in turn would alienate me. And looking back I don’t really blame them. I told my best friend’s mom that she was actively giving her daughter cancer because she was asking her to finish her milk at dinner. I was probably six or seven at the time.
So as well as teaching your family to eat wisely, it’s important to instill compassion and a laid back attitude. Explain to your family that they should understand that the vast majority of the population isn’t aware of the consequences of their food choices, and they probably won’t get to that awareness by listening to a preachy six year old either. Remind them that you attract a lot more bees with honey than with vinegar.
When you have seen the light after learning about the way in which animals in the meat, egg and dairy industry are treated, or you have read about the extreme obesity in this country (readers outside the U.S.; sorry if you are feeling alienated because you live in a country with less fat people) and you are scared for your family and you want to instantly declare war on eggs and other animal-based foods; to throw away anything that has ever touched yogurt and declare the house a no sugar zone forever and always – be aware that this can cause some freak outs.
Nobody likes change, and nobody likes to have people tell them that they can’t eat Ben and Jerry’s. Telling the family that they must eat one way or the other from now on can be pretty upsetting. Instead, introduce the transition as an experiment. This worked very well for me and my family. At some point my dad simply asked me to give it a try for four weeks. I did, but while on those four weeks I was at a friend’s house for dinner one evening, and she had made mac and cheese. I decided to have a big heaping bowl of it, after which I felt bloated and explosively sick (and that’s all the details you will get for your own good). When telling this to my dad, he took a deep breath and invited me to continue eating plant-based and seeing what positive effects might be unlocked for me. He gave me the personal freedom to make my own choices; and it worked.
5. Tasteless boring food
This one is really important. Please, do NOT serve your family with tasteless boring food, or let them think that healthy conscious food is bland and gross. This is the worst thing you can do.
Get vegan recipe books, search for free, appetizing vegan recipes from the best vegan food bloggers online, check out YouTube for great vegan cooking demos; even Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr have some great ideas. Take classes, go to support groups, prepare meals together. Have fun with it. Be open to new kinds of cuisines: Thai, Chinese, and Indian all have to die for vegan entrees. Also get creative with spices. It’s a challenge that will expand your taste buds. Make your family look forward to dinner time and miss the food when they are away. Let plant-based foods shine in their variety and full potential, and your family will not only feel great eating these foods, but they will enjoy them as well.
And moving on to my list of 5 blessed DO’S in getting your family on board plant-based eating:
Information is power. When switching your family over to a plant-based diet you want to nourish their bodies with healthy nutrients but it also really doesn’t hurt to nourish their minds with a healthy dollop of information as well.
Give them reasons to change. Help them understand the service they are doing to their body, the animals and the planet by altering their diet. Maybe have a family movie night and show them Food Inc. or Forks over Knives. Turn on a vegan podcast in the car. Rich Roll does some great ones, as does my dad Howie Jacobson (Not to name drop…).
2. Exploration and discovery
Make the transition to a plant-based diet a fun and exciting family project: go to different vegan-friendly restaurants together and compare the dishes. Bring your family members into the kitchen, learn about different cultures and their approach to food, and learn how to make weird foreign dishes that incorporate veggies in a fun way. Have a colorful salad competition. Become little chemists in your house and try to make something never before seen or tasted (Let your imagination be free, just stop before you need to call poison control). Little fun fact: when creating vegan treats, you are allowed lick the batter!
3. When possible, grow your own
When you don’t know where your food comes from and you don’t connect regularly with the outdoor world, things can get confusing. It’s pretty bleak to think about so many kids never even getting their toes in the soil. So I urge you to be the family on the block with a garden.
Teach your children to compost. Help them cultivate life in their own backyard. Let’s face it: kids who grow kale are gonna eat kale~ (Ron Finley). You can start small too, if you are a city dweller, just buy some dixie cups and a bag of dirt and try planting some seeds by the window. You may find it harder to turn teenagers towards this type of life, but it’s never too late to try.
4. Play up the perks
This involves leading by example. If you are on a plant-based diet and loving every second of it, if your skin is glowing with that healthy vegan glow and you have an abundant amount of energy, if you have mental clarity, you never need deodorant, and you poop like a champion, then people are going to want what you’re having.
Explain how wonderful it feels to have been weaned off the addictive crap and to actually be able to taste the full joy of a fresh peach. Explain how wonderful you feel about not contributing to the suffering of animals, and how happy you are to have less negative impact on climate change. Be subtle and positive and don’t overdo it; you don’t want to be that vegan who makes everyone feel like crap.
5. Be OK
Remember that each of us is on a personal journey and enlightenment cannot be forced. While you can help your family navigate, you cannot choose their direction.
The bottom line is that at the end of the day a plant-based diet can offer a great way of bringing your family together, or create conflict and tension. It is up to all of you to be able to create beautiful lasting memories gathered around a big ol’ pot of plant-based goodness.
Guest writer – Yael Zivan
Yael Zivan is young and passionate plant-based foodist; a singer, visual artist, photographer, and improvisational actor from Durham, North Carolina.
Yael is also the daughter of plant-based health educator Dr. Howard Jacosbon, and alongside Dr. Jacobson she has been lecturing on strategies for getting your family on board a plant-based healthy diet without tyranny or revolution.
Yael is passionate about world travel, survival camping, music festivals, green building, youth empowerment, feminist solutions, healthy eating, juggling, and unicycling.
Cover image and all images featuring yael, courtesy of Yael Zivan.