When your child announces they want to be a vegetarian
Everywhere we turn, people are talking about food: what to eat, what not to eat, when to eat, where to buy what we eat, and how what we eat affects us. For many people, this focus on the ethics of food means eliminating meat from their diets for health, moral, or ecological reasons—and not surprisingly, the revolution is trickling down to young children.
Growing numbers of children are making the connection that their pork chop comes from a friend of Babe’s, the meat on their plate consists of a little lamb like the one they have read about or petted at the zoo, and that hot dogs and hamburgers come from animals that have fur and four legs, just like their beloved dog or cat. Children have a strong and natural affinity with animals, and when they make these connections, they often want to give up eating meat, which can bring up many issues for parents.
I think the first concern for many parents is whether an animal-free diet is a good idea from a health and nutrition perspective. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Children can be well nourished” on a vegetarian diet, provided they have adequate sources of iron, B-12, vitamin D, zinc, and other minerals, as well as varied proteins to get all their amino acids. If you can meet these basic requirements, many pediatricians support vegetarian diets, especially considering the emerging findings on the impact of diets high in meat and the possible impact of the hormones and antibiotics used in raising animals.
Beyond the safety and nutrition issues, however, when your child suddenly announces he or she doesn’t want to eat meat anymore, a host of questions about ethics and even your identity may be raised. How does it feel to have a young child declaring himself or herself a world citizen, wanting to make their own decisions and breaking from traditions that might have been in your family for generations? As Jonathan Safran Foer writes in his bestselling book, Eating Animals, food is often synonymous with love. A child’s rejection of the food you give them could feel like a rejection of yourself and your history. How we eat bonds us to our past, brings up childhood memories, and connects us to our parents and ancestors.
Moreover, for many parents, it can be challenging to have a child suddenly thrust them into a whole new way of buying and preparing food. Does this mean making two dinners, one for family members who eat animal products and another for the non-meat-eating child? What about at daycare or school?
Despite the challenges, a child’s moment of awakening can provide many teaching opportunities for the whole family. If we explore the pros and cons and ethical questions with our children, we are not only teaching them to listen to themselves, follow their hearts, and do what feels right, but we are encouraging them to think critically and independently in an age-appropriate way. We are also supporting their compassion and empathy for others and helping them to become less egocentric. Your child’s desire to give up meat could also become an opportunity to prepare him or her for taking better care of the planet, as factory farming is a leading cause of global warming.
Finally, a declaration of “I don’t want to eat Bambi!” in a meat-eating family is an opportunity to grow as a parent and family. Perhaps the real “meat” of this issue can be found in the exploration together, not in the knee-jerk responses that can be so easy to give.