A Plant Based Diet May Be Exactly What Your Family Needs To Finally Eat Healthy

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 

Every parent’s dream is for their kids to eat healthy and for there to be no more mealtime battles. We know that telling our kids to clean their plates or withholding dessert as a threat isn’t working, nor is it teaching our children intuitive eating. The big questions start with how. How do we get our kids to eat their veggies? How do we reduce their sugar intake without making them (and us) miserable?

In recent years, more and more people are turning to a plant-based diet, for a myriad of reasons. However, if you hear “plant-based,” you might also scoff. Is it really, truly realistic that our entire family go plant-based, and is it worth it? I have good news for you.

Scary Mommy checked in with two plant-based diet experts to get their take. Reshma Shah, MD MPH, board-certified pediatrician, and adjunct instructor at Stanford, along with her co-author, Brenda Davis, a registered dietitian wrote “Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families.” They’re here to teach us all we need to know about implementing a plant-based diet for our family, whether we do it 100% or partially.

A Plant-Based Diet, Defined

Brenda Davis, RD, defines a plant-based diet as one that is “either mostly or exclusively plant foods.” Adding, “Plant-based diets can be semi-vegetarian (meaning small amounts of animal products are consumed), pescovegetarian (vegetarian plus fish), lacto-ovo vegetarian (plants plus dairy and eggs) or vegan (no animal products).” Dr. Shah shares that a plant-based diet is one that includes “vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lentils, beans, seeds, and nuts.”

Is A Plant-Based Diet Safe And Healthy?

A big question many parents ask is if a plant-based diet is safe and, in fact, healthy. After all, many diets claim to be the plan for ultimate health, and we all know that many of those are gimmicks. They are also very protein (and sometimes fat) laden. Dr. Shah shared that “Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics unequivocally stated that appropriately planned plant-based diets (including vegetarian and vegan diets) are healthful and nutritionally adequate during ALL stages of the lifecycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and for athletes.” I was also assured that those who eat gluten-free and those who are diabetic can safely eat a plant-based diet.

Supplementation Is Necessary

According to Dr. Shah, it’s imperative that any family committing to eat plant-based makes sure they get “adequate quantity and variety of foods including fortified foods and supplements when indicated.” Registered Dietitian Brenda Davis explains that those of us who choose a plant-based diet “may consider specific supplements such as vitamins B12, D, iodine, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.” She notes that B12 isn’t generally available from plant foods.

What About Protein?

A common argument I hear against eating plant-based in lieu of lots of dairy and meat, is that plant-based diets lack the protein our bodies need. I was raised in the 1980s when parents were told that children must drink three glasses of milk a day in order to build strong bones and fill up on some protein. Dr. Shah reminds us that fortified soy milk contains the same amount of protein and calcium as “regular” (cow’s) milk, and plant-based proteins like tofu and veggie-meats contain just as much protein as animal meat. There’s a major perk to getting your protein from plant-based foods. Dr. Shah shared that “multiple studies have demonstrated increased longevity and reduced risk of disease” when you eat plant-based.

Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

When researching, I discovered that there are many potential benefits to adhering to a plant-based diet. Dr. Shah shares, “Working towards a more plant-based diet offers many health advantages including a lower risk of developing several chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.” Brenda Davis adds that there’s also the added perk of being leaner and reducing our risk for “diverticular disease, fatty liver disease, cataracts, and kidney disease.”

Plant-Based Foods Can Be Delicious

I admit, when I switched to a mostly plant-based diet, I was overwhelmed. Was I destined to nibble on seeds and snack on pears for the rest of my life? A kale smoothie wasn’t exactly appealing, yet I knew there were major benefits to this diet. Luckily, the authors offer multiple, delicious plant-based recipes in their book, including cranberry orange almond muffins, crispy tofu fingers, peanut butter brownies, and lemony chickpea pasta. The authors tell me that their recipes are family-friendly. Dr. Shah also notes that even one ingredient, like black beans, can be used in many different ways such as lentil soup, black beans and rice, and bean burritos. (On a personal note, there are some amazing black bean brownie recipes online.) Plant-based foods not only offer flavor, but variety.

Plant-Based On-The-Go

I asked the authors, can families who are always on the go, between work, school, and extracurriculars, eat a plant-based diet? Brenda Davis assured me, “Most convenient omnivorous foods have equally convenient plant-based counterparts. In addition, plant based meals do not need to be overly time-consuming to prepare. A sandwich and a bowl of soup is a perfectly acceptable meal.” In my family’s case, there are six of us, and we frequently grab a plant-based protein bar and a piece of whole fruit when rushing out the door. It’s just as easy to eat plant-based as it is not to.

Plant-Based Eating Is Affordable

I’ve read from many parents that “healthy eating is too expensive.” Brenda Davis replies, “The poorest people on the planet eat plant-based.” This is because animal products cost more. She gives the example of grains and beans being cheaper than meat or fish. She recognizes that processed plant-based foods tend to cost more than animal-processed plant based foods, such as a nut-based cheese versus a dairy cheese; these are extras in a plant-based diet and not necessities. She notes that beans, grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds are “fairly reasonably priced.” Buying in bulk and growing some of your food (if that’s your cup of tea) can also help cut costs. Dr. Shah also notes that we don’t have to make eating so overwhelming and complicated. An apple and peanut butter is a perfectly sufficient, easy snack.

Is Plant-Based Eating All Or Nothing?

I wanted to know, are we cheating if we only eat plant-based sometimes? Is something better than nothing? Brenda Davis reassured me that going partially plant-based is “a great step.” After all, “Every step a person takes towards a more healthful, ethically sound, and ecologically sustainable diet is worth celebrating.” Also, she shares that “there are no vegan police.” Certainly, making dietary changes is a big deal, especially if your whole family does it, so offer up some patience, room for mistakes, and trial-and-error with recipes.

Despite eating a mostly plant-based diet for several years now, I learned a lot from the authors. Eating plant-based is feasible, it can save us on our grocery bill, and with some creativity, we can whip up meals and snacks that please us all.

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