Inside the children's book Vegan is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action, a clear agenda underpins cutesy cartoon images of cows and lambs – to teach children why a vegan diet is best. A page filled with illustrations of bloody steaks and roasts in a meat locker reads "… all animals raised for meat and dairy are captured and killed in the end. Their deaths are violent and sad."
The plot thickens to include scenes of wild-game hunters hoisting dead prey aloft, red-eyed animals in a testing facility, and very sad giraffes in a zoo. It ends with this message: "The choice to be vegan is especially brave. It means you are standing up for yourself and all other living beings and that is love."
Cue the controversy: Critics have been swift to say the book, aimed at children 6 and up, isn't appropriate for young kids – and question whether a vegan diet, which shuns all animal products, including meat, dairy and eggs, is ideal for kids' health. Some have said the extreme imagery amounts to brainwashing, and that the book equates love with an adherence to a certain lifestyle.
On a recent Today Show segment, Matt Lauer took a swipe, asking, "if you're not a vegan, it's about hate?" Child psychologist Robert Epstein told Fox News it is "the most disturbing children's book I've ever seen."
The book's author, Ruby Roth, who lives in Los Angeles and is raising her seven-year-old step-daughter as a vegan, says she expected the book to cause a stir if only because veganism remains a subculture. She defends its content and says the book's intended audience skews more to the converted than to meat-lovers.
"There's nothing in my book that you wouldn't see in a deli case in a market, on cooking shows or on TV on myriad hunting and fishing shows … If it's too scary to talk about, then it's definitely too scary to eat."
Vegetarian-cooking instructor and cookbook author Nettie Cronish disapproves of the broad approach of Vegan is Love, which she sees as tainting even ethical farmers with the sins of big agribusiness, and potentially traumatizing to kids.
She tried to raise her kids as strict vegetarians – an approach the Toronto mom of three now regrets. Two of her children rebelled in their teens. Her third resisted as soon as he was school-age.
"I felt horrible. I felt like my most precious values were just thrown in the gutter," she says.
But she now says her approach may have been too strident. She also worries that she created some food neuroses by having such a sharp focus on that part of their lives. In time, she actually taught her kids how to cook meat. "If you want to look at love, this was love. This was me looking after my family's needs."
Toronto child and family therapist Jennifer Kolari says parents need to consider how sensitive their children are when timing discussions around potentially uncomfortable topics.
"You want kids to arrive at a decision about their eating that comes from a healthy place, not from a place of trauma," she says. "And any time you have something emotionally charged glued together with food, it's something you want to be careful about."
A recent Canadian Paediatric Society position paper stated that a vegan diet can be perfectly healthy for babies and children. In Canada, 4 per cent of adults claim to be vegetarian and in the United States about 2 per cent of six- to 17-year-olds are vegetarian, with 0.5 per cent of this age group professing to be strictly vegan, according to the paper.
However, the CPS urges health-care providers to recommend strict vegan parents visit a clinical nutritionist to ensure that their children are growing well and getting enough protein, calcium, iron, and specific vitamins such as B12, which most people get from meat.
Antigonish pediatrician Minoli Amit, who wrote the position paper, says parents should get guidance on child-appropriate meal planning and portion size – no matter how well versed they are in the political and environmental underpinnings of the lifestyle. She notes that Ms. Roth does not have a nutrition background.
And even if they figure out how to create balanced meals, many within the vegan and vegetarian communities say parents need to tread carefully when it comes to teaching their children about the practice.
Many suggest letting kids sample non-vegan fare at events outside the house, such as birthday parties. Ms. Roth herself says her daughter knows if she samples something non-vegan, she won't get in trouble.
"I've told her I'll never be angry at her if she ever chooses to try a yogurt or whatever she wants," she says. "While it is completely normalized in our house, it will always be her choice."
In a recent post on raising a vegan family on the Today's Parent website, yoga instructor and blogger Stan Byrne wrote that "exceptions have to be part of the rule."
"Food isn't only what we use to nourish ourselves, it is an integral part of our culture. Most dishes can be veganized, but do you really want to be rummaging through your child's Halloween candy for the lone vegan treat she can eat? Vegan parents have to make exceptions to avoid isolating their children."
Those in the vegan community applaud the book as a discussion tool for, say, after dinner.
Patricia McAllister, the organizer of the Toronto Raw/Vegan Food Festival, went vegan 15 years ago. She recalls beginning to discuss her outlook when her youngest child, now 11, was about 6.
"When other kids are eating chicken, you have to explain it to them," she says. She has a friend who took her 11-year-old son for a tour of a butcher shop and a slaughterhouse – but she wouldn't recommend it for a younger kid.
In general, while she approves of Ms. Roth's efforts, she also stresses that parents should avoid being too strict.
For her part, Ms. Roth says she hopes her strong message stirs conversation in both vegan and non-vegan homes.
"The book is designed to stimulate mental and moral growth by providing an alternative viewpoint," she says. "How can kids make any choices if they don't know there are any?"
So, your kid wants to go vegan. What's a parent to do? Some tips from the experts:
- Visit a clinical nutritionist to discuss food choices. Vegans need 1.8 times the iron intake compared to non-vegetarians, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society. Be sure to discuss any dietary changes with your primary health-care provider.
- Take baby steps. It can be overwhelming to make over your kitchen in a day and remove all meat, dairy, egg and other animal products. (Mixed-diet households can work, too.)
- Don’t cut out any foods to start. Instead, incorporate more vegan foods into their repertoire.
- Start involving your kids in the kitchen, playing with new ingredients, such a soy products, kale or nut butters. Check out vegan cookbooks, community groups and websites for ideas and common substitutions.
- Discuss how strict your child wants to be in practice. How are you going to handle birthday parties? Halloween? Pizza day at school?