Each January growing numbers of people take part in Veganuary, consuming only plant-based foods and drinks for 31 days. Last year more than half a million people signed up. But how do you get your family, including picky kids and time-strapped grown-ups, on board with plant-based climate-friendly eating? Parents Dr Charlotte Vrinten, Research Associate at the School of Public Health, and Linsey Wynton, Media and Outreach Officer at the Grantham Institute, offers some tips.
With the climate crisis upon us and a year of heatwaves, hurricanes, flooding and wildfires, plant-based eating is a simple step we can all take to reduce our impact on the planet. Even being more ‘flexitarian’ by dropping meat, fish and dairy ingredients a few times a week, and reducing the amount you serve in other meals, can make a difference. And during the cost-of-living crisis, plant-based eating can also be more affordable, and, knowing where to add a few tasty ingredients, it can be delicious.
Grantham’s Climate-Friendly Pop-Up Kitchen
This summer, the Grantham Institute hosted a Climate-Friendly Pop-Up Kitchen at Great Exhibition Road Festival. Professional chefs prepared samples of delicious savoury and sweet foods, and staff and students gave out recipe cards with messages highlighting the positive impact plant-based eating can make to the planet.
Research shows that an eighth of global greenhouse gas emissions are from animal-based foods and that the amount of land, water and emissions needed to produce meat, particularly red meat, far surpasses that needed to grow vegetables and pulses to directly feed people with the same nutritional value.
But vegan – do we have to?
The word vegan is often associated with terms like alternative, difficult and boring. But vegan diets are becoming more mainstream with meat-free Mondays in some schools for example. Just as we are having to change the way we travel, where we holiday and the products we use to try to halt climate change, we need to change what we eat.
Although we don’t all need to be 100% vegan in future, human diets will need to be much more plant-based, with larger proportions of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes, and less meat, eggs and dairy. A landmark paper published in medical journal The Lancet in 2019 described a planetary health diet that would be sustainable for a growing world population, healthy for humans, and good for the environment.
So how do you get young kids on board?
Charlotte: My tip is just don’t mention the v-word – just do it by stealth. Luckily some cuisines lend themselves perfectly for this. For example, rather than saying that we’re eating something ’vegan‘ tonight, I announce that we’re having wraps, or curry, or soup!
As a mum, I know how difficult it can be to get your kids to eat vegetables, especially once the ‘fussy eating phase’ has kicked in when they’re between 18 months and two years old. There’s a lot of research now showing that the key is for you to keep offering veggies to your kids, even if they go through a prolonged stage of not really wanting to eat them. Our colleagues from UCL have shown that repeated exposure to tiny tastes of a vegetable can really increase a child’s liking of them within two weeks. They describe how to take some simple steps to teach your child to eat their vegetables (half way down the page under the subheading ‘Exposure’).
Family meals to try with younger ones
Charlotte: Wraps are one of my favourite family meals. They’re easy and versatile and everyone can fill them with whatever they want, so they cater to many tastes and are a great option for fussy eaters. Which child doesn’t love rolling their own wrap?!
Here are some of my favourite fillings to serve with wholemeal and/or seeded wraps:
- Refried beans: chop a couple of spring onions. Warm up a tin of kidney beans, cannellini beans, butter beans, or mixed beans in their own juices and once warm, lightly mash them with a spoon, fork, or potato masher. Stir in the spring onions.
- Fried onions: these are great for adding some umami flavour to your wrap. Slice a couple of onions and fry in two tablespoons of vegetable oil on a low heat for about 15-20 minutes until softened and slightly browned and caramelised. Or buy crispy fried onions if you’re short of time, the flavour’s different but they still have a savoury umami flavour punch.
- Guacamole: finely chop one large tomato or a handful of cherry tomatoes. Mash the flesh of a ripe avocado with a fork. Stir in the chopped tomato, adding the juice of one lime and a crushed clove of garlic and/or some chopped chives. You can also add a sprinkling of dried chilli flakes or finely chopped fresh red chilli to your taste.
- Finger food: Slice up some raw cucumber, carrot sticks, bell pepper, mango, peach or nectarine, lettuce or spinach, fresh coriander, and/or tinned sweetcorn. Some children prefer raw salad vegetables over cooked ones.
- Sauteed veg: fry some sliced onions, with sliced strips of bell pepper and carrot (sliced quite thinly or in ribbons) until softened. Add tinned or frozen sweetcorn, some crushed garlic, and two tablespoons of tomato puree. If it is too dry and catches on the pan you can add a splash of water.
Some other favourites in our family include:
- Chickpea, tomato and bread soup: this Ottolenghi recipe can be made diary-free by leaving out the parmesan, buying a vegan pesto, or making your own vegan pesto with vegan hard cheese. A cheaper, but equally tasty version, can be created by swapping sunflower seeds for the pine kernels.
- Vegan spaghetti sauce: finely chop an onion and some garlic or blitz in a food processor. Fry in a tablespoon of vegetable oil on a low heat for 5 minutes. Finely chop or blitz a carrot, a stick of celery and any other veg you have in your fridge, such as peppers, and add to the pan and continue to fry for another 5-10 minutes, allowing enough time for the onions to caramelise and bring flavour. Add a tin of chopped tomatoes, half a tin of water, 40g of washed red lentils, and a tablespoon of dried or chopped fresh herbs (such as parsley, oregano, ‘mixed’, ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘Herbs de Provence’). Bring to the boil, then simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes until the lentils are cooked. In the meantime, cook some pasta. You may need to add a few spoons of tomato puree to the sauce (and a little more water). Puree the sauce if your children (like mine) are hesitant to eating lumps!
- Red lentil curry: finely chop a white or red onion, and fry in a tablespoon of oil for a few minutes on a low heat. Add two crushed garlic cloves and about two thirds of a tin of coconut milk. Stir in 2-3tablespoons of korma curry paste and a few tablespoons of tomato puree. Add 100 grams of washed red lentils, and your choice of red and orange vegetables, such as carrot, sweet potato, butternut squash, pumpkin, bell pepper – chopped into rough 1cm cubes – and/or tomatoes (or tinned tomatoes). Bring to a boil, then turn down to a low heat down and allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes until the lentils are cooked and the vegetables are soft. In the meantime, cook the rice of your choice (we like jasmine rice) using the remaining one-third of tin of coconut milk and some water. When the curry is ready, you can stir in some green leafy vegetables such as a couple of handfuls of fresh or frozen spinach, until wilted or unfrozen, if liked. Serve with the rice and some coriander, mango chutney or fresh mango, and a squeeze of lime juice.
- Celeriac and roasted garlic soup: this is great with crusty wholemeal bread and some dairy-free butter. (Note: you don’t need to buy celery salt if you don’t have it – this soup is great without it!)
And don’t forget dessert…
There are lots of dairy free desserts – but my top recommendation is this vegan rhubarb, cardamom, and pistachio tart by Meera Sodha, which is totally worth the effort it takes to make – and guests will never guess it is vegan. With more practise, it also gets quicker to prepare – as if anyone needed an excuse to make it more than once!
Meals for older kids?
Linsey: My kids are now ten and 12 and concerned about the climate crisis – so we’re flexitarian and have a lot of meat- and dairy-free days. My top tips for kid-friendly plant-based meals include:
Make something yummy for yourself and other adults and let the kids try it – this is how mine ended up digging into stuff like this sweet potato and peanut butter stew, Thai red curry with peanuts, and sweet potato and coconut soup.
Secondly, let them help you cook. The more involved they get, the more intrigued they will be to try the results. Junior chef Omari McQueen has some inspiring kids recipes like hot cauli bites and vegan curry and roti.
Quick and filling risotto: often with kids you need to make something fairly quick but hearty. Risotto is a good option, and a favourite for my kids is roast butternut squash risotto with pine nuts (the wine can be omitted). Cream can be swapped for a vegan cream or pesto/ sundried tomato puree, and you can use vegan cheese too.
Veggie chilli: there are many variations and you can add a multitude of veg from onion, garlic, carrots, celery, peppers, courgette, sweetcorn and tinned tomatoes (I used to blend these – but no longer need to as my kids are used to the chunks and flavours), then any sort of bean including kidney (red or white)/ pinto/ black/ black eyed beans and if you want Quorn mince and/ or lentils. Once they are used to the flavours, you can get more punchy flavours from coriander and cumin – plus a few chilli flakes – add a bit of cinnamon for sweetness or some chipotle paste/ sauce for a bit of a kick.
Curries: a hit with my kids – if served with naan bread. You can try this simple chickpea curry as a base and add things like green beans, spinach, sweetcorn and lentils.
Batch cooking for busy parents: With dishes like the chilli and curries, it’s pretty easy to make a big pan and save or freeze half for another day. Chillies can be served in all sorts of forms that my kids love e.g., with nachos, tacos, fajitas or enchiladas (you can use veggie cheese), and jacket or sweet baked potatoes. You can also make or buy salsa and vegan sour cream/ creme fraiche. And curries can have poppadoms, chapatis, naan and/or different rice – brown/ basmati/ wild/vegetable rice on the side, so the meal doesn’t feel the same the next time round.
Lentils and/or Quorn mince: if you have a little more time, these protein-rich alternatives can replace some or all of the meat in some family favourites like lasagne, Bolognese or a veggie “shepherdless” pie. This Gousto recipe has gone down well with my kids (Henderson’s relish is vegan, unlike Worcester sauce). You can use brown, red or green lentils inside and mashed sweet potato or cauliflower as a topping instead of potato for a bit of variety.
For super-busy days: rather than just pasta and pesto, I buy some pre-prepared stuff like crispy veggie samosas and/ or bhajis and serve with lentil dhal and/ or veggie fried rice, or vegan quiche (and serve with potatoes and steamed veg or a cous cous salad); bean burgers (in a bun with, sometimes homemade, oven chips or sweet potato wedges); or falafel and houmous and pitta with salad.
Breakfast and snacks: There are all sorts of plant-based milks that can be used with cereals as opposed to dairy milk and there are also some delicious vegan porridge recipes like this carrot cake porridge. And given all the snacking kids do – apart from fruit, nuts and crips, fruity flapjacks are easy to make and you – and your kids – can pop various nuts and seeds in too.
Linsey and Charlotte’s shopping list
- Selection of herbs and spices including oregano, basil, rosemary, cumin, coriander, chilli flakes, cinnamon
- Beans – kidney/ butter/ cannellini/ black/ black eye/ pinto, etc – dried (needs to be soaked first) or canned
- Chickpeas – dried (needs to be soaked first) or canned
- Lentils – red, brown or green – dried – can be added directly to cooking – no need to soak
- Coconut milk – canned/ creamed coconut
- Tinned tomatoes
- Vegan Stock or Boullion
- Tomate puree (sundried is yummy)
- Chipotle paste/ sauce
- Henderson’s relish
- Porridge oats
- Nuts eg cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pine kernels – so long as no-one has an allergy
- Maple syrup/ Golden syrup
- Seeds – eg sunflower, pumpkin
- Dried fruits eg raisins, cranberries
- Fresh veg eg onions, garlic, butternut squash, sweet potatoes
- Oat, pea, rice or nut milk (many also available in long-life and cheaper if you can buy in bulk)
- Dairy free spread
- Vegan cheese
- Selection of veg eg peppers, carrots, celery, avocado
- Sweetcorn (or tinned)
- Green beans
- Quorn mince, also there are many frozen and dried protein chunks and meats replacers also available if you like them
Share your experiences with us via the comments section below or on Twitter at @Grantham_IC, tell other parents about the highs and lows, about what works and what was a massive flop. Good luck – and happy eating!