More Teens Say 'Pass the Salad'

Seventh-grade summer camp was the last straw for Abbie Prentiss. "The food was so gross," recalls the high school junior, that she decided to become a vegetarian.

At home, red meat was the first to go. Seafood and chicken followed. (During a chicken dissection class the year before, "I found out what I was really eating," Abbie says.) Abbie's mom, Candyce, gave up trying to get her daughter to eat chicken.

When it comes to the carnivorous lifestyle, more teens may be putting their steak knives away. According to a recent survey by Teenage Research Unlimited, 40 percent of teenage girls agree that being a vegetarian is "in." (Only 16 percent of boys agreed.)

So, are they just picky eaters, or are they trying to be 'politically correct'?

"Parents sometimes see this as rebellion," says Sally Clinton, founder of the nonprofit Vegetarian Education Network. "But there are a lot of destructive things young people can do - drugs, gangs. [Being a vegetarian] is a positive one."

Dakota Prosch, an intern at the Network's magazine, "How On Earth!" adds, "Vegetarianism seems to be one sustainable answer for a lot that's going on. Different movements have all led to this compassionate lifestyle - civil rights, feminism, animal rights - they all have to do with respect for life."

And where are kids getting all these ideas? The higher profile of animal-rights groups and the volume of information on healthy eating are factors.

C. J. Valenziano of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association thinks Americans are confused by the conflicting messages about diet. People are just starting to understand that one type of food doesn't necessarily have a dramatic impact on your health, Ms. Valenziano says.

Lest barbequing dads fear abandonment by their kids at the family cookout, note that acknowledging a trend is one thing, following it is another. In a 1995 Roper poll conducted for the Vegetarian Resource Group, 11 percent of 13- to 17-year-old girls said they never eat meat, the same percentage as two surveys of British children and double the percentage of boys who abstain.

While 11 percent is nowhere near the 40 percent of girls who note the popularity of vegetarianism, the numbers are still significant because they are nearly double the number of adults who are self-described vegetarians.

"Girls are allowed to be more sensitive, to be in touch with their feelings, and to feel the plight of animals," Ms. Clinton says. "Then there are other stereotypes: Guys think eating meat makes you macho." Also an issue is girls' preoccupation with their looks due to exaggeratedly thin women portrayed in the media. Such images may influence youngsters to opt for lower-calorie diets.

Among adults, women outnumber male vegetarians by only a couple of percentage points. Studies estimate that between 5 and 7 percent of all Americans call themselves vegetarian, but only about 1 percent abstain from any meat, fish, or fowl. Even fewer are vegans, who eschew all animal foods, including dairy products and sometimes honey.

And USDA figures say Americans' per capita consumption of meats, poultry, and seafood has long been rising. Even as beef sales declined in the late 1980s and early 1990s, (sales are now on the upswing), Americans seem to be replacing the beef in their diets with other animal foods.

So while many more adults as well as teens may be comfortable calling themselves vegetarians, they aren't necessarily strict about their practice. That's also what makes them so hard to count. Trend spotters see a mainstreaming of the concept.

"It's a whole different world out there," says Jennie Collura of The North American Vegetarian Society. "The reaction now is, 'Oh, I understand who you are and what you do.' It used to be, 'You're a what?'"

Analysis of consumer food diaries leads Harry Balzer of NPD Group, a marketing research firm, to this conclusion: Attitudes change more quickly than behavior. We may be thinking or saying we are eating less meat, but it's not always true and the motivations not so pure. "It's not a dedication to avoiding meat, but a dedication to eating easier meals," Mr. Balzer says. "It's all about convenience." He explains the popularity of such foods as pastas and pizza as more beneficial to the American wallet than its diet. "It sounds much better to say we're vegetarian, than to say we're cheap and lazy."

Paradoxically, the meal makers in a multi-diet household can be anything but lazy. But it needn't mean that much extra time in the kitchen. In some families, the veggie kids routinely fix their own meals. Yet other young vegetarians have influenced their families enough that their parents and siblings adopt more of their ways.

"My parents are totally behind me," says Tracy-Anne Fowler, a self-described "health nut." While keeping her section of the family refrigerator, Tracy-Anne says her parents plan to eat vegetarian meals as an experiment.

And as Candyce Prentiss says, "It's mostly just planning ahead." She saves leftover baked potatoes for her daughter and combines them with part of the family dinner.

While Mrs. Prentiss praises her daughter's willingness to try new things, she admits to wishing she'd help with cooking. "But she's a good kid. It could be a lot worse!"

Green and White Lasagna

1/2 lb. dried lasagna noodles

1 tub (15 ounces) ricotta cheese

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 yellow onions, thinly sliced

4 zucchini (about 1 lb.), trimmed and thinly sliced crosswise,

1 lb. fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1/4 cup all purpose flour

3 cups milk

Freshly grated nutmeg

40 fresh basil leaves

1/2 lb. whole-milk mozzarella, shredded

Cook noodles in boiling salted water until al dente, 10-12 minutes or according to package directions. When pasta is done, drain and place in a bowl of cold water to cool. Drain the pasta again and lay the pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet. Set aside.

In a small bowl, mix the ricotta, Parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

In a large frying pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the zucchini, mushrooms, and garlic and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and any moisture has evaporated, 10-12 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Whisk in flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk and cook, stirring, until sauce is smooth and thickened, 3-4 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Cover the bottom of an oiled 9-by-13-inch baking dish with a layer of noodles. Spoon one-third of the ricotta mixture over the noodles. Sprinkle one-third of the reserved vegetables over the ricotta layer and then top evenly with one-third of the white sauce. Distribute about one-third of the basil leaves over the sauce. Repeat the layers twice, ending with basil. Sprinkle the mozzarella evenly over the top.

Bake until golden and bubbling around the edges, 30-40 minutes. Let cool briefly, then cut into squares. Serves 8-10.

- From the 'Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library: Vegetarian' by Joanne Weir

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