My teenager wants to be vegetarian but i’m doing all the cooking!

vegetarianQ: For a couple of years, my daughter, who is nearly 15, has been saying she wants to be a vegetarian. She has always been an animal-lover and has recently become vocal about the way animals are treated in the food industry. She was really put off meat after one of her school projects. Although we initially thought this might be a phase she was going through, she seems to feel strongly about it and we have decided to go along with her decision and support her. However, we are a few weeks in and it is becoming a bit of problem.

The thing that annoys me is that she expects me to cook her a vegetarian option as well as the family meal for everyone else. If I don’t do this she will just eat bread or chips, which makes me worry about her getting the right nutrition. So far I have ended up giving in and cooking something she wants, but I am getting pretty angry about this. I wonder should I just refuse or insist she goes back to the old family meals.

A: Part of being a teenager is working out what you believe, and discovering what matters most to you. Many teenagers are idealistic about what is right and wrong, and can develop strong opinions about certain issues. Frequently, they make value decisions that are different from those of their parents, or engage in projects or activities that would not have been an option for their parents. This can often lead to conflict within the family.

The challenge as a parent during this time is to support your teenager’s right to make decisions for themselves and to become independent, while setting appropriate limits so they are protected from unneccesary risk and that they learn to take responsibility for their decisions.

Your daughter’s decision to become a vegetarian is a good example of this adolescence process. It is good that you are supporting her to make an important value decision for herself but it is also important that you insist she takes responsibility for this decision so it does not put an extra burden on you, or compromise her nutrition.

Take time to understand her interest in vegetarianism

As with all conflicts with teenagers, a good way to view this problem is as an opportunity to get to know your daughter’s world better and to help her learn to express her views and negotiate.

Pick a good time to sit down and chat with your daughter about the issues. Begin positively and ask her to explain more about her interest in vegetarianism and her beliefs that underpin it. It can help if you can appreciate and even compliment her for some of her strongly held views; for example, her concern for animals and her accurate criticism of the food industry.

You may find it interesting to learn more about your daughter’s thinking and feelings about the issue and you may find some points of agreement and even learn something yourself.

Help your daughter take responsibility for her decision

At some point in the conversation, you need to express your concerns about how the decision to be a vegetarian affects you. Explain how while you respect her decision, as a parent you need to see that she takes responsibilty for this.

This means that she needs to ensure that she is eating healthily and that she needs to take a share in the responsibility for cooking so the decision does not cause extra work for you or the family.

Take time to explore different ways you can support her decision while ensuring it is a “win-win” for you and the family as well. For example, you might strike a deal with your daughter that you will cook her a vegetarian meal but only if she helps you do the preparation and you cook it together.

Or you might do up a rota of sharing the responsibilities for the meals; for example, if you cook her a meal, then she does the washing up, and so on. It might be a good idea to involve the whole family in creating this rota. Consider cooking a vegetarian meal for everyone, as vegetarian food can be a healthy alternative.

Take time to help your daughter learn how to cook

The fact that your daughter is not helping out could be less to do with laziness or a lack of motivation, and more to do with the fact that she does not yet know enough about nutrition and the practicalities of cooking to be a vegetarian.

Take time to help her learn these skills by:
1) Setting time to learn together about nutrition and vegetarianism by reading cookbooks or browsing online articles.
2) Preparing a vegetarian meal together and using this as an opportunity to show your daughter how to cook (and also have fun working together).
3) Suggesting she do a course in vegetarian cooking, meaning that once a week she brings home a family meal.

Use your daughter’s motivation positively

Consider your daughter’s interest in vegetarianism positively as an opportunity for her to learn key life skills. This could be the means whereby she learns some skills about cooking and independence and also how to contribute to family chores (cooking one night a week herself, and so on).

It is also a great way for her to develop her own identity and to express her social concern. In responding as a parent, the key is to keep talking and communicating with your daughter and to be open to learning something yourself.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, October 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.