By choosing what to serve at the dinner table, tikkun olam (repairing the world) can become a daily act for Jewish families. Serving more plant-based meals makes a positive difference for personal health and for the planet. Those who want to add compassion to the mix will find few ways better to do just that, by reducing and perhaps eventually eliminating animal foods. Vegetarianism has enjoyed a longstanding role in Jewish cuisine, as kashrut is naturally compatible with plant-based eating (“Vegan is the New Kosher” offers an interesting take on this).
If your family’s meals are entirely meat-centric, start by replacing one meal a week. Join the world for Meatless Monday or other iterations of this longstanding trend, including Meatout Mondays, Meat-Free Mondays and VegKitchen’s Monday Menu. Here are some of the benefits of incorporating more plant-based meals into your weekly repertoire:
Health: With rampant childhood obesity and a rise in Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle-and diet-related ailments, one thing we have control over is what we eat. Research has shown that people with primarily plant-based diets suffer from a fraction of the heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other diseases that their meat-eating counterparts do.
Ecology: Livestock agriculture depletes enormous land and water resources and is a major contributor to the greenhouse gases associated with climate change. There’s much to be said on the subject, but consider just this one statistic: It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat versus 390 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef.
Compassion: Animal agribusiness is one of the cruelest practices imaginable. Millions of sentient creatures are subject to confinement, overcrowding and disfigurement only to face an equally cruel demise in the slaughterhouse. Plus, for slaughterhouse workers, the job is tough and dangerous.
The ever-present question is how to get the whole family on board with enjoying plant-based meals. Raising my own two children first as vegetarians and then as vegans, and often hosting their friends for meals, it was always clear that most kids are more adventurous than their parents give them credit for. The keys were keeping food simple, serving it in a welcoming setting and offering choices. Some might call this pampering, but it’s actually quite empowering.
Even if a child chooses to go vegetarian or vegan on his or her own, that’s no guarantee that they won’t be finicky. Plant-powered kids can be as picky their omnivore counterparts. Start by introducing familiar dishes in more nutritious, plant-based versions.
Give kids choices, and teach them to make good decisions. This doesn’t mean letting them dictate meals. But seriously, put yourself in their shoes. What if, day after day, someone made all of your meals and made you eat them, whether you liked them or not?
At my local natural foods store, I regularly see a parent ask their child, “Do you think we should get some [broccoli, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots…]?” It’s a teachable moment, and a way to familiarize kids with healthy foods. Farmers markets are a fantastic setting to get kids to understand the connection between the foods we buy and the people who grow them.
Encourage kids to help with meal planning and preparation. Even the most stubborn eaters can be swayed when you give them some say in meal planning. Show them colorful photos of tasty dishes in books and online, and ask them to help plan, shop for and prepare one meal a week. If kids feel invested in the process, they’re more likely to enjoy the outcome and feel pride and a sense of accomplishment that will inspire better eating habits.
If you’re stumped about where to start, consider: What does everyone in your family like when you go out to eat? Pizza, pasta, Chinese, burgers, tacos? There are so many ways to make healthy, plant-based veggie-filled versions of restaurant and take-out favorites at home.
The best way to win your family over is to show them how delicious meatless meals can be. Soups, pasta dishes, sandwiches, wraps and potato dishes—not everything benefits from being meaty. There’s much common ground in plant-based meals that can be shared pleasurably and peacefully.