Forget my wild youth -- until recently, my vegetarianism was my dirty little secret from my kids. For their first five years, they were unaware as they chomped through their dinners of grilled chicken or hamburgers because I always had a built in excuse. We keep kosher and since you can't mix milk and meat in the same meal, I would quickly eat something dairy right before the meat meal and then exclaim, "oh no! Mommy forgot again. So silly! I guess I can't eat dinner with you." Or I'd tell them I was full from lunch or wanted them to have all the grilled chicken because they love it so much. It took until five years of age for my daughter to point out that she has never seen me eat chicken.
The fact is that despite being a vegetarian, I wanted to raise omnivore children. It was less about protein or health concerns and more about social stigma. I wanted my kids to have more options at a restaurant. I didn't want them to have to answer the requisite 3000 questions that vegetarians hear every time they bring up the fact that they don't eat meat beginning with the confused, "well, then what do you eat?" I didn't want them to spend their time worrying about every ingredient in every dish, having to ask if chicken stock was in the soup or bonito flakes in the sauce.
Michael Pollan has his food rules, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." but mine reads a little different:
Eat food. Without too many hang-ups. Mostly what you like.
When my daughter coolly informed me that she had never seen me eat chicken, it almost sounded like a challenge. Like she wanted me to prove that I'm part of the omnivore club. I stressed more about answering this question than I would about discussing whether or not I've had premarital sex. I cringed and said, "I'm a vegetarian."
"What's that?" my son asked.
"It's someone who doesn't eat animals." My kids know that the chicken on their plate is the same as the chickens they see on the farm. Somehow explaining that they're gnawing on an animal's muscle is less scary than admitting that I don't.
"Why don't you eat animals?" my daughter questioned. My fear was that whatever excuse I used would be turned against me in the future, used to support their own future vegetarianism which they'll surely use as a place to rebel after reading this post. But I sucked it up and told them part of the truth.
"Do you know how we sometimes smell the soap at the store that looks like an apple and it smells like an apple and we joke around about eating it, but we know better than to take a bite because it's soap -- it's not food -- and it certainly won't taste like an apple? Well, that's sort of how I feel about meat. I think it smells good and I even have fun preparing it for you. But my brain doesn't recognize it as food. Maybe something is broken in me because it seems like a lot of other people can look at meat and know that it's food and tastes good, but my brain still treats it like that soap."
Which apparently made sense because they went back to eating their grilled chicken. They've brought it up a few other times, asking how to say the word "vegetarian" again and if it will always be this way for me. I didn't touch on the other reasons for why I'm a vegetarian -- the ethics, the idea of ahimsa, that I don't like my food to have once been walking around a farm -- because that gets into a grey area of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong. Discussing vegetarianism often becomes a sticky conversation because there are judgments wrapped up in the choice. If I'm not eating animals in order to be kind, is a person who eats animals unkind? See why I was so anxious to start this conversation?
Mom 101 recently discussed this idea of wanting your kids to eat differently from you. She writes, "I want my kids to model their eating habits more after Nate's (or Anthony Bordain's) than mine. I want them to know that it's okay for food to touch on the plate. And French fries aren't a vegetable. And that those veins, yes, are veins and that's really okay."
A Peaceful Day points out that if you introduce a child to the foods you want them to eat early in life, they'll take to it better than trying to teach an old mum like me new tricks. "What sort of foods do you eat in your home? Is your diet similar to that of your parents? Is your children's diet similar to yours? It's a funny thing you know, but kids in India and Thailand grow up eating spicy curries; kids in Bhutan eat chilli and cheese; kids in Japan eat nagaimo and nattō and kids in China eat sea cucumber."
Vegan Soapbox writes about the opposite situation: vegetarian kids with meat-eating parents. "We’ve come a long way from my own childhood, when parents were advised to simply lie to their children about meat, dairy, and egg production and consumption. At least now educated parents know better. They won’t tell their children that animals don’t suffer."
Do you want your children to eat like you do?
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