5 Tips for Vegetarian Foster Parents (with Liz from I Heart Vegetables)

Recently, I had the joy of welcoming vegetarian blogger and foster mama Liz, creator of I Heart Vegetables, to be my guest for a Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call. I had asked the community (as I often do) what they wanted to talk about in our Coaching Calls, and two people asked us to address the unique challenges of being a vegan or vegetarian household and complying with the expectations and challenges of foster parenting.

While I love vegetarian food, and could happily live on a plant-based diet, I am not a vegetarian, so I needed to call in an expert. It took me nearly six months to find just the right person to speak to this, so I was delighted to stumble across Liz in a foster parent Facebook group. I became a fan of her blog, stalked her on Instagram, and finally reached out to invite her to join our call. And she said yes!

You can hear the whole call by joining The Flourishing Foster Parent (there are two tiers of membership, neither of which require any kind of long term commitment, and both of which include full access to all thirty-five-plus Coaching Call recordings). But I thought I’d share a few of my takeaways from Liz’s excellent insights—and introduce you to her resources if you’re looking for ways to introduce more veggies to your kids’ lives or just find inspiration for pursuing a healthy lifestyle!

7 Tips for Vegetarian Foster Parents

  1. Give Them What’s Familiar to Start With. The first week or two of a new placement is not the time to introduce an entirely new way of eating to a child who is already in crisis. Instead, help ease their transition by giving them what is familiar. For a vegetarian (or just very health-conscious) foster parent , it might be very difficult, but a trip to McDonald’s or some frozen chicken fingers is a small price to pay to help a child feel more comfortable in what is a terribly uncomfortable season of their lives. Being a foster parent requires a fair amount of flexibility and compromise, and this might be one example of when compromise is required for the sake of a child’s mental health.
  2. Introduce Healthy Options Slowly. Several foster parents I’ve spoken with have found that hummus is a great way to introduce kids to raw veggies. Try making carrot sticks, celery sticks, bell peppers, sugar snap peas, and cucumber slices available with a bowl of hummus. Liz also recommends keeping bananas, apples, and oranges on hand as “anytime snacks.”
  3. Batch Meal Prep & Double the Recipe. To avoid relying on prepared meals or processed foods (which are quick, easy, and oh-so-tempting when things are hectic in the home), batch meal prep and double the recipe to make cooking once, eating twice (or even three times) more feasible. If you have to chop onions for a recipe, chop three and freeze two for quick use later. Same with other veggies (zucchini, bell peppers, carrots, etc.)
  4. Come Up With “Winners” & Make Them Often. Liz admitted that, in the past, she would meal plan with the goal of making something different every day of the month. Now, she recognizes healthy options the kids love and comes back to it frequently. Tacos, Breakfast for Dinner (high-protein waffles and fruit? Yes, please!), and Stir Fry meals are some options that generally go over will with children.
  5. Offer Vegan Alternatives to Popular Snacks. I mentioned on our call that for children on the autism spectrum or with other neurological differences (ADHD, executive function delays, etc.), there is evidence to show that high-protein snacks can be helpful. Liz recommended replacing my go-to cheese sticks and pepperoni sticks with nut butter on crackers, fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, and even cereal as a snack.
  6. Offer Meatless Versions of Familiar Foods. Chickpea pasta (which is higher in protein than regular pasta), meatless burgers (Liz and I both love Beyond Burgers as a satisfying replacement for hamburgers), vegan “chicken” nuggets, and vegan “meatballs” are often as tasty as the real thing and kid-approved. Liz also recommended Right Foods Vegan Ramen and That’s It fruit snacks.
  7. Sneak Veggies Into Other Foods. One member of the Flourishing Foster Parent is not looking to become vegetarian, but is very interested in how to get her kids to eat more veggies. This tried-and-true strategy has been around for a while, and it’s still a great idea. Add riced cauliflower, spinach, or shredded zucchini to fruit smoothies (Liz mentioned that blueberries can often disguise the green color that turns some kids off). Make Liz’s chocolate zucchini muffins for breakfast (“Kids will eat anything with even a tiny bit of chocolate in it!”). Puree mushrooms and zucchini and add them to marinara sauce. I’ve tried that, and my kids love it (and were none the wiser)!

These are just a few of the wonderful insights Liz gave us in our call. We also discussed some of the stigmas around being vegetarian, how to handle it when a child’s parents are not comfortable with her having a plant-based diet (hint: compromise!), and a lot more.

Vegetarian Foster Parents is available in the Flourishing Foster Parent Resource Library. To gain access, select either the Full ($20/month, which includes participation in the live calls) or Library ($10/month) tier on my Patreon page!

Veggie Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

Fruit Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

3 Ways To Empower & Connect With Your Kids at Dinnertime

If you have followed A Fostered Life’s blog or YouTube channel for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard me emphasize the importance of empowering children. Two things children need most—all children, but especially children who have a history of trauma—is to feel empowered (or a sense of personal agency) and to feel connected (or a sense of belonging). This is the big takeaway I got from Positive Parenting Solutions (along with a fantastic arsenal of empowering and connecting tools), and when we began to embrace this concept and look for ways to empower and connect with our children on a daily basis, we saw a real change in our children’s relationships with one another and interactions with us.

One area of home life that is bursting with potential for empowering and connecting with kids is dinner time! In the midst of our hectic lives, with family members coming and going, the dinner table can be such a sacred space for a family.

Here are a few ways to empower and connect with kids at the dinner table.

Put your child in charge of dinner. About once every week or so, a child in our home is in charge of dinner. (Yes, this includes our five-year-old.) I communicate that child is in charge of dinner that night and work with them ahead of time to plan their meal. Sometimes that means looking at simple recipes, and other times it just means showing them a visual guide (keep reading) and letting them get creative. I encourage whichever child is in charge to delegate roles to others in the house. Sometimes they do, but I have one child who wants to do it all himself (or only have me help).

Give them a visual guide, then take your hands off the wheel. We use this one from Eastern Virginia Medical School, which is for omnivores. We have also used this one from Pick Up Limes, which is especially for vegans. This tool is a fantastic way to teach children how to have a well-balanced diet without them realizing you’re trying teaching them something 🙂 Giving a child a picture like this and letting them pick each component, with minimal input, is so empowering. Children are very perceptive, and given the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge! Some of the child-prepared meals we have had include spaghetti with meatballs and tossed salad, waffles with turkey sausage and sliced bananas, and fried chicken with tossed salad and bread. They look at the chart and choose foods that they can plug in to each section. It makes them feel very important and very grown up.

DIY Dinner. Another really simple tip for empowering your kids at meal times is to set out a bunch of ingredients and let them fix their own meal. Two meals that are really conducive to this are Taco Bowls (“Taco Tuesday” anyone?!) and Sandwich Bar (“Can you say charcuterie?”).

For Taco Bowls, everyone gets a scoop of rice in a bowl and then they get to add their own toppings from the bowls on the table: taco meat (vegan meatless crumbles work too), beans (this is the recipe I use in the Instant Pot), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese, chopped avocado, corn, salsa, and taco sauce are our go-to taco bowl fixins. Sometimes I also put a bowl of tortilla chips out to scoop the bowls with. The kids love having independence and deciding what goes into their bowls!

For the Sandwich Bar, I just put out a basket of bread, a plate of lunch meat and cheese, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. I usually also put out some veggies for dipping, like carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and mini sweet peppers. Each kid loves making their own sandwich, and it gives them a sense of personal empowerment.

Engaging conversations around the dinner table. Interacting around the dinner table helps promote the development of communication skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional bonding. According to The Family Dinner Project,

researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.

IT’S SCIENCE: EAT DINNER TOGETHER, Anne Fishel, Ph.D, The Family Dinner Project

Dining together as a family is hugely important, for so many reasons. For example, according to this article from The Scramble, “kids and teens who share family dinners three or more times per week…

  • Are less likely to be overweight
  • Are more likely to eat healthy food
  • Perform better academically
  • Are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity)
  • Have better relationships with their parents

This is important for all children, but it is especially helpful for children who may be experiencing developmental delays due to early childhood neglect and trauma. Dinner tends to be a favorite time of night for our kids in foster care. They love the predictability and togetherness of it.

There are other ways to empower kids at dinner time. Giving them each jobs to do, inviting their input on menu planning, respecting their choices about what and how much to eat, and avoiding power struggles around food all contribute to their sense of empowerment. We host a dinner party every Monday, which gives our kids opportunities to get to know other people in the context of hosting a meal. However you go about it, look for ways to connect with and empower your kids at dinnertime.

I promise, you’ll be so glad you did!

Image via Canva.com

5 Healthy Vegan Breakfasts Your Kids Will Love

Let me be clear right off the bat: my household is not vegan.

We have tried a few times, and will likely try again, but I have found it really hard to convert my family—myself included—to veganism. There are a number of reasons for this, which I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say, while we do still consume animal products, I am the first to say that I think a well-balanced, thoughtful vegan diet is the way to go.

Recently, I polled members of The Flourishing Foster Parent to see what topics they would like us to cover in upcoming coaching calls, and one request was from a couple who are vegan foster parents. They would like advice on how to feed children who come into their home via foster care without giving up their vegan values.

Honestly, this is a tough one. And if a child is in foster care, they are entitled to have food that is palatable to them—which, for many children, does not include almond milk and tofu.

While this blog post does not serve as my response to that couple’s question—I am actively looking for an expert (or at least experienced foster parent) who can speak into the specifics of their question—I did want to contribute a bit right now by sharing some meals we eat regularly that are nourishing, that our kids love, and that do not contain animal products.

If you have a favorite plant-based breakfast recipe, please share it in the comments below!

Kashi Waffles with Peanut Butter and Maple Syrup

What kid doesn’t like waffles? The trick is to get healthier version of waffles (or make them and keep them in your freezer).

Pictured above (I’m actually eating what you see there while typing this) is a simple, yummy breakfast with a good dose of fiber and protein—the two things I try hard to get into my kids’ bodies before sending them out the door to school. I really like these gluten-free vegan waffles from Kashi, which I discovered for $1.97/box at The Grocery Outlet (they are $3.50-3.99 in the regular grocery store). I started buying them there, then showed up one day and they were $.97/box! I bought the entire inventory (seventeen boxes) and now our extra freezer is stocked up for a bit. But you can make this so easily with any kind of vegan waffles you find.

Pop the waffles in the toaster. When they come, spread two tablespoons of peanut butter (or whatever kind of nut butter you use) and top with maple syrup. I also always try to put some fruit slices—apples or oranges—on the side to give a little burst of vitamin C as well.

Voila! Easy peasy, lemon squeezy—and so yummy and filling.

Oatmeal Cookie Smoothie

This Oatmeal Cookie Smoothie from The Kitschy Kitchen has been a favorite in our house since the first kids came to us in 2014. I can make a big batch in my Vitamix in minutes and each kid gets a delicious, filling dose of fiber, protein, and potassium—not to mention the fact that it tastes like chocolate!

I usually make some substitutions—for example, I use maple syrup or honey instead of agave nectar, and I will sometimes use soy milk instead of almond milk. I also usually use about half of the amount of cocoa powder called for, or I’ll use premade chocolate almond milk and skip the cocoa powder and syrup altogether (since the chocolate almond milk is already sweet). I also don’t always use frozen bananas—fresh ones work fine too, it’s just not as cold or thick. But this is the general recipe I follow—and my kids LOVE it.

Oatmeal with Maple Syrup

My kids don’t all love oatmeal, but the ones who do really love it. I don’t make it every day, but when I do, I usually add chia seeds while it’s cooking or sprinkle some on top to give it a little bit more goodness. Topped with maple syrup (or honey if you eat honey, which we do), this is a quick, simple, and really good-for-you breakfast. And did you know that, at 6g of protein per cooked cup, oatmeal is a higher-quality protein than many other grain-based foods? Now you do!

Toast, Fruit, and Yogurt

This is so simple and so quick. Whole grain bread, toasted and then topped with vegan butter and whole-fruit jam. Cut into squares on a plate with sliced fruit (I’ve never had a child who didn’t like at least one of the following: apples, bananas, and/or oranges) and a cup of plant-based yogurt. The vegan yogurt options have gotten really good in recent years—while my kids definitely prefer cow’s milk yogurt, they also like coconut-based vanilla yogurts, which are available at most grocery stores (though they are not cheap). I don’t give it to them in the container—I just put it in a bowl. That way, they are less likely to notice when it’s not the cow’s milk yogurt.

Vegan Breakfast Sausage on an English Muffin with Hash Browns

OK, this is not the healthiest option, but if you have a child who likes McDonalds’ breakfast, this might be a good substitute. There are delicious plant-based meat substitutes available in the frozen section of most grocery stores. Field Roast, Gardein, Morning Star Farms, and others offer both links and patties. Toast up an english muffin, warm up the vegan patties, and top with vegan cheddar (we like Daiya cheddar style slices) for a hearty and filling breakfast that rivals McDonald’s sausage McMuffin. For a true fast-food breakfast experience, buy frozen hash brown patties and put those on the plate too, and include a glass of OJ. Again, this is not your healthiest option, but if your kids are used to eating meat at breakfast, this might do the trick!

What do they drink?

Honestly, this is one of the hardest parts of getting my kids to go vegan. They all love cow’s milk, and there is no denying that it is good for them. I have tried to woo them with soy and almond and oat milks, to no avail. For vegan foster parents, this might have to be a point of compromise. The kids need calcium and vitamin D, and milk is a great source of both. We also give our kids water to drink at least one meal each day (usually dinner). They get milk at school with lunch, and usually want milk with breakfast.

That said, you never know! If you have a new child in your home who is willing to try soy or almond milk, give it a try! But be willing to let them have regular milk if that’s what they prefer. If you are concerned about it going bad, since the child is the only one eating it, consider getting smaller containers like these from Horizon.

Let me know if you try any of these! How did your kids like them? What are some of your go-to vegan breakfast favorites?