Young people have so much peer pressure to deal with that I hate to make my children feel like they’re different or weird. How can I stop their playmates from teasing them because they eat strange foods?

  • Posted by Dr. Jay Gordon

No one wants their children to be the object of nasty teasing, however parents often react more strongly to the threat of teasing than young people do. It’s your attitude about diet that will affect your children the most. If you make them proud of the way they eat and what the food does for their bodies, they will have the strength to overcome any peer pressure. In fact, my daughter has the opposite problem. She’s liable to feel sorry for people who eat meat, dairy and sugar products!

My wife and I consciously set about to make our daughter feel that she is special because of the way she knows how to choose her foods. We used role models. Since we live in Los Angeles, she knows some very famous people who happen to be vegetarians. There are many movie stars, rock musicians, and sports figures who eat a meat-free diet. If your child is too young to relate to these real role models, you can use Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny as examples of exciting vegetarians. Bert on Sesame Street is a vegetarian too! (We’re not so sure about Ernie, though!)

With very young children, you are in charge of what they eat and they don’t need a great deal of encouragement. By the time they’re four or five, you’ll be able to do some explaining. I tell my young patients that building their bodies is like building a house they are going to live in their entire life. You don’t want to build it out of junky materials that are going to fall apart. Instead, you should choose strong bricks and mortar. Slightly older children, those who are involved in sports, need to be told that they can run faster, play longer, and grow stronger muscles when they follow this food plan. They won’t have any problem “building themselves” up when they eat the best food available.

One word of caution. I don’t make the rules so hard and fast that a child can’t have an occasional piece of birthday cake or Halloween candy. If the rules are too strict and unrealistic, you’re inviting rebellion. Special occasions call for special rules. I’ve found that very often when children know they have permission to do something “forbidden,” they have less interest in doing it. If your child knows he can have ice cream at the party without having you throw a fit, he may very well turn down the treat because there’s no secondary “payoff” in eating it.

There are some foods that we feel so strongly about that we do say: “We never eat this!” Hot dogs fall into this category. I feel there’s nothing wrong with telling a child that hot dogs are filled with pig lips and cow ears. Your child won’t have any trouble refusing to eat them and will be very vocal in telling his friends about how disgusting they are.

If you have a daughter, by the time she is in her preteens, the advantages of a low-fat, vegetarian diet will be very easy to explain. She will likely be the one in her class who doesn’t have to worry about being overweight or fighting blotchy skin and greasy hair. She will look vibrant and healthy when many of her classmates are going through the terrors of being a teenager.

Overall, I urge you to practice moderation. Go with the flow. Let your children experiment a little at special occasions. One scoop of greasy dip on a carrot or a single piece of fudge isn’t going to ruin them for life. In fact, allowing them to taste the forbidden foods will often work in your favor. To the palate that’s unaccustomed to fat, these foods don’t taste all that wonderful. Most children will be more than happy to go back to fruit, vegetables, and grains.