So when we agreed to move the children over to a plant based diet there were a number of social situations I hadn’t considered would become an issue. Whilst I appreciated friends and family wouldn’t necessarily share the same beliefs as me, as we got into things it became apparent they also wouldn’t necessarily accommodate our dietary requirements either. I find this whole topic fascinating. If for example we had chosen this path for religious reasons or due to severe allergies would hosts be more understanding because ‘it’s not our choice’? One of these areas was and still is childrens’ birthday parties; the candy, pizza, chicken nuggets, cake, crisps, prizes, party bags and general array of mouth-watering non-vegan junk that is standard fare all of the sudden became awkward territory. Prior to transitioning the kids had what they wanted and still remembering what those foods taste like all of the sudden at the next party they were now off limits. As a plant based parent with a multitude of strong views this can be a heartbreaking dilemma not to mention socially awkward in front of disapproving friends.
So there’s two challenges: 1. Your child’s reaction to this new world and 2. The host’s reaction.
The first two birthday parties my children attended after transitioning were within a week of each other. At the first one my then 3-year old insisted on delving into the cheese and onion crisps even though there were other suitable flavours there. I remember having this ‘quiet’ word in her ear followed by trying to manage her tantrum followed by moving the bowl away from her followed by another tantrum. Disaster. Although funnily enough at that same party during a game of pass-the-parcel when she won a Cadbury’s chocolate bar she threw it at her Daddy and shouted “Cow’s milk!” Such was her understanding of non-vegan food and in fact still to this day it’s her terminology. “Are you cow’s milk?” She’ll say to every guest that dines at our house.
At the second party, the host had ordered pizza and made a brightly coloured cake, every child dream. This one was especially difficult as I hadn’t mentioned anything in advance to the host and I also hadn’t put any planning measures in place. It was no surprise then when both of my children came trotting home with party bags full of contraband. What do you then do? I remember getting so cross with my husband for allowing ‘it to happen’. To make matters worse I told the host just prior to the arrival of the pizza that the family had recently become vegan and later overheard her offering a slice to my husband with the words “Is she making you do this vegan thing too?” The two things combined meant that evening I had a swirling mix of emotions in my head; anger at the lack of support from a friend, guilt for putting my family through what my husband termed my ‘crusade’, questioning the fairness of it all. I knew it was the right thing to do but was it right to put the kids through this? And the realisation this wasn’t just about what we cooked at home, this decision would affect every single aspect of our life and especially in social situations. For that reason would all this even be worth it? Ultimately would the children reject veganism as being too hard going against the social grain and especially given the extra planning involved? I was struggling.
Fast forward a multitude of parties and celebrations including Easter and Christmas abroad (flights and holidays I’ll deal with another day) and (I think) I’ve finally cracked it, (but who knows with kids). So for what it’s worth here are my tips for navigating non-vegan parties, which involve making it as easy as possible for both the child and the party provider.
#Tip 1 Build a Solid Foundation
Regular age appropriate awareness and knowledge building conversations with the children really helps to top-up their motivations. We have books such as Steven the Vegan, Herb the Vegetarian Dragon and That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals. We have also started watching Bite Sized Vegan on Your Tube. Through their learnings the children and a little reminder on the way to the party they are comfortable asking the host if a food they don’t recognise is vegan. What is incredible is if it’s not, they simply walk away.
#Tip 2 Speak to the Host in Advance
All of our friends are now aware but I still contact the host a few weeks before the party to find out what food is going to be served. Generally there are a few savoury options such as fruit, veggie sticks and French fries and if it’s chicken nuggets I will take our own version and of course the kids around them have no idea. However, the cake almost always contains diary. As it happens I have other friends whose children have severe allergies whether soya, gluten, sugar or diary and they will always take an alternative cake option for their child. However, here’s what I do…
#Tip 3 Upstaging
Now then, as I write this I’m fully aware some parents may not agree with this course of action and when I say upstaging I mean it in the nicest possible way. I recently discovered an enormous stash of old party paraphernalia including a hotchpotch of party bags. So when it comes to the bun fight that is the cake cutting my two excitedly come over to me and ask for their party bags. In which I put a handful of their favourite vegan sweet treats.
#Tip 4 Eat Before Leaving Home
This is self-explanatory, but if you think there won’t be much choice for the kids then make sure they have full bellies before they arrive. That way they’re less likely to be tempted by non-vegan foods and will have more energy to enjoy the fun and games.
#Tip 5 Choose Your Battles
I generally find take home party bags to be the most challenging part. Inevitably I don’t get to the bag before it’s given to the children. If there’s chocolate in it the kids know it’s likely to be non-vegan and leave them. If it’s sweets you’ve probably got a 75:25 chance it’s not in your favour. And here I can sometimes be found throwing caution to the wind. Quite often they are small and wrapped and have come from a larger pack. The ingredients aren’t on the wrapping, they’ve already been purchased and you know what, the kids have done amazingly well resisting the social norm. So I go with it, they’re in the back of the car happy and content. We had another example of this at Christmas when at the end of Santa’s grotto every child was given an enormous foil covered chocolate Santa. I think I said something like we’ll have them in the morning as it’s too late now but on the tractor ride home all the other kids got stuck into theirs at which point the kids noticed and wanted to do the same. So I let them have a few bites, wrapped it back up and threw them away once they’d gone to bed. With the excitement of Christmas they fortunately didn’t ask after them again.
Of course this isn’t possible if you have a child with an allergy, in which case you have no choice but to be extra vigilant. I’m lucky I don’t have this situation but if I did I would avoid giving the host another thing to think about and try to intercept the party bag in advance, swopping out allergenic treats for safe ones.
# Tip 6 Accept it Isn’t Going to be Healthy
90% of the time we are a whole foods plant based family. Which means no oil, salt or refined sugars. The remaining 10% anything goes as long as it’s vegan. The majority of vegan parents I know are extremely health conscious and nutritionally aware especially when it comes to their offspring.. But when it comes to a kid’s party, it can be stressful enough as it is. Take a load off, give them some fruit or veggies in the car on the way and accept it just isn’t going to be healthy. In the grand scheme of things it matters not, what matters is the bigger picture; supporting and guiding the next generation’s journey to Think, Eat and Live in a kinder world.
Next week in Part 2 I’ll be talking about hosting a Free From Party. Most recently we have had guests with a multitude of allergies. Throw in us happy herbivores and at one point I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do it, but we got there!