8 Ways to Help Teens Transition to a Healthier, Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet

In December, 2011, after watching the documentary, Forks Over Knives, our family decided to make a radical change to our way of eating.  Well, okay… my husband and I made the decision, and dragged our four meat, dairy, junk food-loving teenagers, kicking and screaming, into this new, plant-based lifestyle!  When we began, we didn’t know how far we would take it, or how long we’d stick to it.  Our goal was simply to give it a fair shot, and then try and figure out how much we wanted to incorporate it into our daily lives.

Using the Engine 2 Diet book as a guide, we quickly began to eliminate all meats, dairy, processed foods, and fats from our diet, and replace them with heart-healthy, disease-fighting whole foods, including vegetables, whole grains, fruit, beans, seeds and nuts.   Two of our four children were immediately on board with it.  Another one was reluctant, but willing to give it a try.  The fourth was adamantly against it, and flat out refused to go along with the program.   The biggest challenge was finding recipes that looked and tasted good – foods that satisfied that discerning teenage palate!  It was not easy, but, we persevered.

Now, all four of our teens are consuming far more healthier, whole foods than ever before, don’t crave sugar and junk foods like they used to, and are learning that food is for fueling our bodies, not for satisfying our taste cravings, and that living a life void of the typical American diet can be done!

Here are eight ways we’ve helped our teen kids transition to a healthier, whole-food, plant-based diet:

  1.  Stick with what they know and tweak what’s familiar.  I read, somewhere, that the average family rotates through about 6 to 7 meals per month.  I thought about our own food habits and found that to be true.  The majority of our monthly meals typically consist of a lot of Mexican faire: burritos, tacos, enchiladas, and the sort.  How easy it has been to re-make our favorite meals using beans instead of beef, brown rice, instead of white rice, salsa or grilled onions instead of cheese, and corn tortillas instead of flour ones.  As I steadily grow in my knowledge of  plant-based cooking, I have learned how to make a non-dairy “cheese” sauce to top our enchiladas, substitute vegetable broth for chicken broth when making spanish rice, and saute garlic and onions in a little bit of water, instead of oil for an even healthier version of all of our favorite dishes.  When we first started this journey, I thought I needed to completely start over in the kitchen.  I checked out every vegan cookbook from the library that I could get my hands on and scoured the internet for as many different vegan recipes as I could find.   Unfortunately, I didn’t find many recipes that rated high in the taste category.  In fact, the majority of them tasted horrible!  I literally had to make a different dessert recipe to go along with every meal and say, “just hurry up and eat the vegetable stuff, so that we can enjoy the dessert!”  I quickly learned that, in order for the kids to like it,  they needed to eat something that they were already familiar with.  So, I utilized all of the vegan cookbooks and recipes for learning new cooking techniques and food substitutions, and then applied that knowledge to making simple adjustments to the several “go-to” meals that we were already familiar with, instead of trying to completely change up the menu.  Once I did that, there were a lot fewer protests at the dinner table!
  2. Have a good, plant-based dessert ready as a reward for finishing the meal.  I sort-of already covered this in tip #1, but I thought it was worth repeating for those of you who are trying to make the transition, or are just trying to get your picky eaters to make it through any meal.  The internet is full of wonderful, plant-based dessert recipes — it is truly a place where plant-based cooking excels!  Now, I’m not into bribing.  It’s always been a rule in our home that mom’s responsibility is to make the food, and everyone else’s responsibility  to eat it.  However, I’m the first person to admit that the learning curve for a plant-based diet is kinda steep, at first, and dishes may not always turn out as good as we hope they will; so, having a totally awesome, plant-based dessert sitting on the table is a great motivator (even to us parents) to clear our plates, whether we like the main dish, or not !  As an added bonus, I don’t have to worry about feeding these types of desserts to my family because I know that they are just as healthy as the main dish I am serving.   My all-time, favorite “healthy dessert” site is Chocolate-Covered Katie.com.  Her stuff is fabulous — definitely something you’ll want to have waiting on your dinner table for after dinner, whether you are into whole-food,  plant-based eating or not!
  3. Compromise, a little:  Eating at home = plant-based eating, eating outside of home = eater’s choice.  One of the lessons that we took away from the Forks Over Knives movie was that by limiting animal proteins to 5% , or less, of our diet, we have the ability to keep cancer cells from “turning on”, plaque from building up inside of our arteries, and a host of other chronic diseases from taking a foothold in our bodies.  So, we decided to stop bringing animal products, processed foods, and fats  into our home  so that, at home, we’d be eating a 100% plant-based diet.   However, on the occasions when we eat out, or eat at another friend or family member’s home, everyone is free to “go crazy”, and eat anything their little hearts desire.  My husband and I feel this is a good compromise, for our family, and that by consuming only “healthy” foods at home, we can better ensure that the amount of “junk” entering our kids’ bodies is kept to the 5%, or less that we are aiming for, overall.  I’m happy to report that our kids have done very well with this rule.  Although they still enjoy ordering a chicken burrito, or grilled steak fajitas occasionally, when we eat out, they do so in moderation and make much healthier choices, overall, when left to make their own food decisions, now.  In fact, our oldest daughter has completely embraced the plant-based lifestyle and sticks with it, now, wherever she goes!  Her friend’s parent’s even graciously accommodate her new eating habits whenever she is with them.  Is that cool, or what?
  4. Answer every question that they ask with the goal of educating, not arguing.  Inevitably, whenever one makes drastic changes, those who don’t want to change ask questions: “Why are we doing this?”  “How come we can’t eat xyz anymore?”  “Don’t you know we’re all going to die, anyway?”  Believe me, when we first started this diet, we were bombarded with questions and confronted with a ton of argumentative statements from our kids.  As parents, we had to discern between questions that were honestly seeking out information, and those that were simply picking a fight.  We learned to ask first, before we answered,  “Are you truly coming because you want to learn something, or are you just coming to argue?”  My husband and I were ready, armed with a boatload of information, to answer any questions our kids had that genuinely sought to discover the reasons behind our change.  We were also wise enough to withhold that information when we knew it would fall on deaf ears.   Over time, as our kids have honestly and eagerly sought out answers to their questions, they’ve come to understand the reasons for the choices that we’ve made and learned to trust our decisions and that we have their best in mind.
  5. Involve them in the menu creation/ shopping list/ shopping process, and allow them to give input on what plant-based foods they’d like to have at home.  As time has progressed, and our kids have realized that this new way of eating is not just a “phase” that we’re going through but, truly,  a new way of life, they’ve also  joined in on the process of food selection.  My youngest son has discovered that he really loves mushrooms.  He asks me to buy more of them every time I go to the grocery store.  My youngest daughter (the one who wanted nothing to do with this diet when we first began) has started requesting more frozen fruit for making smoothies, and my eldest daughter always makes sure I have pears on the shopping list for the week.  Involving them in the food selection process is a great way to get them involved and allow them to become willing participants in this process.
  6. Let them cook for themselves.  This is how we, finally, got our youngest daughter to start eating our way.  Up until that point, she refused to eat anything — hoping we’d give in and go back to our old ways of eating.  Instead of letting the emotions of the moment dictate our response, we patiently kept pressing on, talking about and praying for a solution to our dilemma.  After about a month, we decided to make another compromise:  If you don’t like what mom cooks, you are free to make your own meal.  You are responsible for all cooking and clean up, and you must eat at the same time as the rest of the family.  Wow!  What a difference this one, simple, change has made.  Now, instead of food being a source of contention, at home, it is (for the most part) a non-issue.  My daughter is learning how to prepare her own food (something she’s going to need to do in the future anyway, right?), getting creative with her cooking, and enjoying her new found freedom.  My husband and I are satisfied, knowing that she only has access to the foods that we approve of and that we no longer have to argue over what we eat…as much.
  7. Don’t give up!  You are the parent, they are the child.   If you truly believe in what you are doing, and desire to impress it upon your child, then don’t give up!  It has been proven that it takes about 21 days to form a habit.  I can tell you that the first two weeks of the Engine 2, 28-day Challenge were tough – for all of us!  As your body transitions to a new way of eating, you feel tired, sluggish, even sick, at times, as your body detoxes and adjusts to a cleaner lifestyle (this is what I experienced, anyway).  Once we got to the third week, things started getting a little easier, and by the end of the 28 days, we found out that we really could do it, that it wasn’t as bad as we thought it was going to be, and that we had now formed a new habit.  As with any new habit you’re trying to establish, the bigger the conviction, the better chance you have of achieving your desired results.  After watching Forks Over Knives, my husband and I were greatly convicted about our eating habits and had a huge desire to start consuming foods that would promote health, and not disease — not so that we might live longer, but so that, no matter how many days God has determined for us to live, we will be able to love and serve Him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength because we have taken care of our bodies.  This is what we impress upon our children, and it’s why we didn’t give up.
  8. Invite their friends over and cook a good plant-based meal for them…if they try it, and like it, peer pressure will probably win out!  We did this, early on in our 28-day challenge.  We had our kids invite some of their friends over for a pizza party.  Pizza is a perfect gateway for introducing teens to a plant-based diet.  I don’t know many teens who ever say “no” to pizza!  I made individual, handmade pizza crusts for each of them to create their own pizzas on.  For toppings, we provided a homemade pizza sauce, lots of veggies, and nutritional yeast (since it was early on in the challenge, we also provided mozzarella and cheddar cheese for toppings).  It was such a fun experience and everyone enjoyed the pizzas that they created.  They didn’t even complain about, or miss not having pepperonis, sausage, ham, or bacon, or whatever other meat that they were used to (at least they never said anything…such good kids!) When our kids saw that their friends were having fun and enjoying the food, they jumped right it and chowed down with them.  Good ol’ peer pressure!

These are 8 ways that we’ve found to help our teens transition to a whole food, plant-based diet.  It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it.    It’s fun to see how far we’ve come in such a short time, and I’m pleased with the new habits that we’ve established.  By providing familiar foods, making a few compromises (while sticking to our guns), allowing our children to participate in the process, and involving their friends in the transition, too, we’ve been able to help them see that a whole food, plant-based diet is doable and that you can survive and even thrive on a non-typical American diet.

How do you help your family members  eat more healthy foods?


6 thoughts on “8 Ways to Help Teens Transition to a Healthier, Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet

  1. So many posts over the internet I’ve read have been from the teen veggie eaters point of view trying to fit in with the parents. This is the first help I’ve seen from the view of the veggie parent who’d like to convince/coexist with a omnivore teen. Thank you.

  2. I’ve been following the plant based diet as much as possible and all four in my family have seen forks over knives. It hasn’t been that difficult for me, aside from using oils, which I use minimally. But it was hard to figure out what to cook at first. My family has been pretty good about it and eat what I make for dinner every night. I’m so proud of my kids who are in their twenty’s. There’s no denying all of the research. I really wish everyone would see the documentary! My brothers family is trying it now and your advice about how to transition is great!

    • That’s wonderful that you’ve been able to make that transition and so easily with your family. Watching the documentary really helps in that transition. I hope my tips help and wish your brother success and happiness on his/their journey.

  3. This article is fantastic. I’ve been wanting to make the switch from the SAD to a more wholesome, plant-based diet, and these tips will help me make the switch. In the past I’ve tried the vegan cookbook recipes and it was always hit and miss as to weather they tasted good or not, nd I get a lot of resistance from everybody. Thank you!

  4. Thank you for this great article! I have two kids but still have few more years before hitting “the teen phase”. I try to keep them on a healthy plant-based diet as much as I can but I can’t (and honestly don’t want to) influence birthday parties, play-dates, grandparents, field trips, etc. I try to instill compassion, we talk about animal and environment, but I think they are still too young to be labeled and charged with all the unnecessary cruelty. In the end, I can only hope to be a positive example, give reasonable explanations, instill values, and hope that when we hit “the teen phase” these principles and compassion will stick. But I will bookmark your article just in case!

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