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Managing a Meatless Menu

Every day between ringing bells and roaring lunch times, students swarm the cafeteria to grab an assortment of meals and snacks ranging from bags of Doritos to chicken-topped salads. Assembly lines for trays of burgers, pepperoni pizzas and chicken tenders stretch across the entire kitchen length.

From a meat-consumer’s perspective, the meal selection seems infinite. Change to a meatless or zero-animal-product diet, however, and the menu suddenly shrinks to but a tiny fraction of the previous options.

Sophomore Lola Gingerich, a vegetarian with past experience as a vegan, knows the struggles of her diet all too well, yet she passionately upholds the lifestyle.

“One day, I just suddenly lost my appetite for meat,” Gingerich, who became a vegetarian in eighth grade, said. “In addition to that, I had always wanted to be a vegetarian, so I didn’t make an effort to regain my appetite for meat.”

Besides her personal goals, both the health and environmental values surrounding a meat-free diet contributed to Gingerich’s decision. Additionally, a vegetarian diet may reduce a person’s chances for diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers. A diet free of meat also has advantages for the environment, including natural resource preservation, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and several benefits for livestock.

These benefits influenced junior Cato Walls in his choice to become a vegetarian.

“I don’t like the conditions animals are put in for big companies to produce meat,” Walls said. “However, it is kind of expensive [and] hard to obtain for me to buy from small farms.”

Purchasing beans, rice and other vegetarian staples often rings up for much less than buying meat products. In addition to cost concerns, Hy-Vee registered dietitian Paula Vandelich said religion may also influence teens’ eating habits. For instance, numerous major world religions, including Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, promote meat-free lifestyles to prevent cruelty towards animals and encourage mindfulness. However, regardless of the reason, Vandelicht said nutrition remains the key component of a successful diet, and most importantly, teens should consider whether they are on a certain diet for social or ethical reasons.

“There is not one specific diet that is recommended for teens. A lot is dependent on their activity level [and] cultural beliefs,” Vandelicht said. “The most important thing is that they are getting adequate nutrient intake based on their caloric needs and activity level.”

As far as nutrition for vegetarians, Vandelicht said adolescents should prioritize “getting enough of protein, essential fatty acids, iron, calcium, zinc, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D.” She said if teens are “deficient in any of the above nutrients, that can affect them not only cognitively but behaviorally, so it is important to evaluate their intake to ensure adequate nutrient intake.”

Various locations around town provide ingredients for vegetarians and vegans to purchase on their search for recommended nutrients. In order to contribute to his protein intake, Walls incorporates tree nuts, meat substitutes and beans in his meals.

“My family usually makes my dishes separate with the same ingredients and just add the meat last or make the meat in a separated pot, and I can get mine and add extra protein into the meal if needed,” Walls said. “We eat a lot of carbs, but now my dad has started putting beans on things that he can, so I get that extra protein.”

Like Walls, Gingerich’s family occasionally prepares a vegetarian option, such as soup, that she can also enjoy. The rest of the time, she fills her plate with whatever is available.

“I snack frequently on fruit, some cheese and snack food in general,” Gingerich said. “When I do eat what I would consider a meal, it’s usually something frozen or a side vegetable that my family has prepared to go along with their dinner.”

At breakfast, Gingerich typically grabs a bagel or oatmeal to sustain her until lunch, where she combs the cafeteria’s snack stand for chips, pretzels and other meat-free options. For dinner, she often heats up mac’n’cheese or other pastas.

Although cookies, potato chips and soda all qualify as vegetarian, they may not satisfy one’s daily nutritional requirements. Gingerich finds it easy to locate vegetarian ingredients, but in her opinion, coming up with fitting meals, especially at school, proves more difficult.

“In terms of a full nutritious meal, [RBHS] doesn’t have much when it comes to vegetarian options,” Gingerich said. “There is cheese pizza and occasionally pizza crunchers. There is also a tray of chips and hummus that you can get, but that isn’t very nutritious.”

Even though the school’s menu is not as comprehensive or inclusive as some non-meat eaters would like, Karla Adeshakin, CPS Nutrition Services Assistant Director, said the school district offers several possible menu items for students following meat-free diets. She said the garden bar includes several options that accommodate vegetarianism, veganism and other eating habits.

“We are also open to suggestions, and given enough demand, willing to offer other items that meet all of our USDA guidelines for our National School Lunch Program,” Adeshakin said.

The availability of adequate meals and ingredients both at home and at school provides crucial support to teens following vegetarian or vegan diets. Even in the face of challenge, students such as Gingerich and Walls take pride in following meat-free diets.

“I really enjoy being a vegetarian,” Gingerich said. “It was probably one of the best choices for me at the time that I made it. Being a vegetarian has helped me gain weight and become healthier overall, which absolutely outweighs the fact that it might be harder to find a meal sometimes.”

Students express their feelings about lunch at RBHS