The idea of becoming vegan scared Sharon McRae.
She'd been vegetarian for years and knew a dairy-free diet could be "very limiting."
But after two weeks of cutting milk and cheese, she felt better about her food choices than she ever had before. And after the Columbia mother of three researched the possible links between dairy and some cancers, she decided a lifestyle change would be necessary for her whole family.
McRae, her husband and her children are part of a growing community of Howard County families making the decision to collectively transition to plant-based and vegan diets, which eliminate animal products like meat and dairy, and sometimes cut out processed oils and sugars as well.
About five percent of Americans follow a vegetarian diet, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, and about 1 in 200 children choose to go meatless, often if their parents follow a similar diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A 2017 report by Top Trends in Prepared Foods says 6 percent of Americans are vegan, up from 1 percent in 2014.
In Howard County, more than 1,200 vegans and plant-based eaters are part of a Meetup group called Columbia MD Forks Over Knives. The group, founded by McRae in 2011, hosts monthly potlucks for families who have changed their diets for reasons ranging from health to concern for the environment and animal rights.
McRae transitioned her already vegetarian children, now 18-year-old twins Marcie and Tess and 14-year-old Evan, to a plant-based diet after reading The China Study, a 2005 book based on a 20-year joint-research project by the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, Cornell University and the University of Oxford. The study found that regions in China and Taiwan where meat and dairy consumption is relatively low had lower death rates from Western diseases like cancer than regions with high meat and dairy consumption.
The twins and Evan McRae were 10 and 6 years old, respectively, when their mother sat them down to deliver the dietary news. Evan McRae was initially "devastated," he said.
"I'd been living on dairy my entire life," Evan McRae said, "but ironically enough, though, I threw up every time I had it."
Evan McRae, who found out he'd been lactose intolerant, hasn't felt sick from eating since then and is now helping a neighbor transition away from meat.
"I've gone through too much, learned too much not to eat this way," he said.
A plant-based or vegan diet is healthy and safe for kids, said Paul Porras, a doctor at Children First Pediatrics in Silver Spring.
"I am not aware of any procedures or any pills that give you the same benefits, without the side effects, of a plant-based diet," he said.
A long-term vegan diet could lead to deficiency in vitamin B12, a nutrient found mostly in meat and animal products, but it can be added to any dish, said Zaneb Beams, a Columbia-based pediatrician.
“Even B12 can be acquired in a fully non-animal, fully plant-based diet; you just have to be mindful and thoughtful about it,” said Beams, who is vegetarian and has two vegan daughters (along with two non-vegan kids).
Shyla Cadogan, 17, and her mother, Cheree Davis, are from Reisterstown but regularly attend the monthly meetup in Columbia. Cadogan went vegan in support of animal rights and environmental protection (meat production and distribution have been shown to release greenhouse gasses) and sat her parents down to get them onboard soon after, Davis said. Davis, 45, has outlived her mother, who died at 37 from heart disease, she said.
"[Shyla] said, 'I need you to eat well,' and she's right," Davis said. "She gives me vegan spankings when I don't."
Some Howard County kids have never eaten a bite of meat — their parents made the choice to raise them as vegan since birth.
Shannon and Steve Kain, one such couple, decided to cut animal products from their own lives after watching a screening of "Vegucated," a documentary about veganism.
The two walked out of the Washington, D.C., theater and decided that night to become vegan, Shannon Kain said. They had a vegan wedding and never questioned whether or not to raise a vegan child. Their daughter Evelyn is now 3 years old and completely vegan.
Angel Smith, a manager at Clarksville's vegan restaurant Great Sage, and her husband, Matt, were similarly certain they'd keep their family diet meat- and dairy-free.
"There was never an option not to," said Smith, who recently moved from Jessup to Sykesville and maintained a vegan pregnancy while carrying her 1-year-old daughter, Emmalee. "We both have such strong conviction. We're both really into compassion, and there's no reason to hurt another living being."
Raising young vegans poses challenges when kids enter the dairy-rich world of birthday parties and daycare snacks. Cakes and candies are laden with butter and cream, and "kid food" usually means cheese-slathered pizza or chicken nuggets.
Shannon Kain has a way around the trap. Her mac-and-cheese features a rich sauce of potatoes, carrots, shallots and mustard. For her 3-year-old daughter Evelyn's daycare, she made a hash-brown casserole that Evelyn's playmates devoured. This year, the Kains hosted Evelyn's first birthday party with friends — all the food was vegan, and party attendees were none the wiser.
"We didn't necessarily advertise that everything was vegan, but everybody ate it and everybody loved it," Shannon Kain said.
Smith's 1-year-old Emmalee and 3-year-old Brody eat corn the way other kids like ice cream, she said. Smith tries to provide vegan alternatives to typical sweet snacks so her children don't miss out. For Halloween, Smith brought her 3-year-old son Brody trick-or-treating as usual, but switched the bag out for an identical sack of Halloween goodies.
"We had great treats, we just had vegan treats," she said.
Because of her job at Great Sage, Smith has "the inside scoop" on how to make vegan alternatives of traditional recipes.
"I know how to make easy cream sauces from cashews or a vegan-based mac-and-cheese sauce," she said. "We eat very similar to what a quote-unquote normal family would eat, we just veganize it."
Howard families enjoy eating at local vegan-friendly restaurants like Great Sage and Mango Grove, a vegetarian and vegan Indian restaurant in Columbia, but most have their own homemade favorites. Kain and her family love vegetable noodle soup and rice stir fries, she said. The McRaes gravitate toward pressure-cooker chili and Indian curries. Cadogan "tears up the kitchen," her mother said, making black bean burgers, burritos and her own version of "tuna" salad with chickpeas and tahini. Each family brings one of their signature dishes plus its recipe to the monthly potluck.
At the end of the July gathering in Clarksville's Triadelphia Seventh Day Adventist Church, after the 80 or so vegan feasters finished dining on lentils, quinoa and kale, members of the group stood and gave testimonials. Sharon McRae's father, Carle Klupt disclosed a bet he'd made with his daughter.
After his wife died, Klupt made himself the only food he knew how to prepare — meat. At the same time, he suffered from "everything," he said — gout, arthritis, high cholesterol and more. Sharon McRae bet him that if he stopped eating meat, he would see changes by his next doctor's appointment. Klupt bet his daughter that if everything stayed the same, he'd devour a burger in front of her.
"The only way to shut her up was to prove her wrong," Klupt said.
Kid-friendly vegan recipes
Sharon McRae, founder of a Meetup group for vegan families in Howard County, offered a few child-approved vegan recipes:
Sweet Potato Chocolate Pudding
Makes 6-8 servings
4 cups peeled and mashed baked sweet potato
2 cups hemp, almond or soy milk
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon vanilla extract (alcohol free recommended), or 2 tsp vanilla bean powder
1⁄2 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder or carob powder)
10-14 pitted medjool dates, added to desired sweetness
Blend all ingredients together until smooth in a food processor with an S blade or a high speed blender. Chill and serve, or enjoy at room temperature.
Makes about 4 cups
2 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1½ to 2 cups water, adjusted for desired thickness
2 cloves garlic
Handful of sun-dried tomatoes (not in oil)
Half a medium red onion
4 tablespoons nutritional yeast
½ tsp dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
Puree ingredients in food processor or high speed blender. If using a food processor, soak sun-dried tomatoes first.
Serve over greens as a salad, roll in a collard green leaf (raw or lightly steamed), or serve on sprouted grain bread or tortillas.
Easy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Makes 18-20 cookies
2 cups gluten-free rolled oats
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla bean powder or 2 teaspoons alcohol-free vanilla extract
4 ripe bananas, mashed (or pureed in a food processor with "S" blade)
½ cup raisins
½ cup frozen or fresh blueberries
Optional: chopped nuts, carob powder or cocoa powder
Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl, then stir in mashed banana (and vanilla extract, if using).
Mix well to incorporate all of the dry ingredients, then stir in raisins and berries. Stir in the chopped nuts, carob powder or cocoa powder, if using.
Drop onto a silicone or parchment paper-covered baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.