Should Vegetarian Parents Raise Vegetarian Kids?

Should Vegetarian Parents Raise Vegetarian Kids?

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By Jeanne Sager

“Daaaaddy Mommy’s not eating her sausage pie.” Tattletale.

Still, my daughter’s right. I’m not eating sausage pie. I’m a vegetarian. I just haven’t figured out how to tell her that.

Jillian is three. She eats—some days like a human garbage compactor—but it’s hard to tell what will be popular on the plate from one day to the next. Cheese is a constant. Hot dogs, too. She has taken to Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. But give her the yogurt she ate just last week, and she grimaces.

“Take it away,” she says, sounding not unlike a pint-sized head of state. “It’s yuuucky.”

On to Plan B. Cheese—her main source of calcium. And hot dogs—her main source of protein these days. With a multivitamin to top it off.

It’s been more than a decade since I myself ate a hot dog, longer still since a piece of meat passed my lips willingly. I battled my own parents in my late teens and finally earned my rights to eat what I wanted—and to not eat what I didn’t want—when I left for college. I’m not immune to the irony. Now I’m trying to convince my daughter to eat some of the very things I’ve refrained from eating for years.

I gave up meat for one reason and one reason only: I can’t stand it. As a kid, I’d shave off the fat and gristle along with half of the pork chop. If my father commented on the price of the steak I was eating around, I’d fix him with a glare. “Well, then, why don’t you eat it?” Usually he did.

Life got trickier when I married a Southerner. His idea of a balanced diet includes pork, beef and lard. Hence the sausage pie.

I’ve adjusted. I’ve learned to cook by instinct rather than taste. I’ve dug my fingers deep into a mushy pile of chopped beef, egg, ketchup, and spices to prepare a meatloaf. I’ve patted ground peppercorns and kosher salt into the fatty outsides of a standing rib roast. I’ve prided myself on being one of those understanding wives, not nagging about the number of times I’ve had to wrap my hands around a piece of pig’s butt.

Scientists have proven children can be easily swayed by their parents’ disdain for a food. That’s one reason I’m still hiding my vegetarianism. But if I don’t believe a parent’s job extends to shaping her child’s taste buds, it does entail ensuring that child is healthy and has a balanced diet with the nutrients necessary for good bone growth and goodbrain development.

I’ve tried from Day One to raise a balanced eater. We started off with rice cereal, tried the barley for five whole days before the smell forced me to accidentally knock the box into the dog’s bowl. Then we moved on to Stage 1 jars of green vegetables, then the yellows, then the oranges, until sweet potatoes were excised from the menu in favor of Gerber’s Stage 2 delights.

When the pediatrician gave the go-ahead for meats, I sucked in my breath and hit the grocery store. I was crossing my fingers we wouldn’t need them, but I was committed to letting her be my guide. I stocked up on jars of every mixed dinner—vegetable beef, turkey and rice—anything to cover up the taste of the animal inside. I held my nose, did the airplane swoop, and in it went. She swallowed and opened wide for more.

Today I have a meat-eating toddler whose curiosity has been paired with eyes the size of Big Bird. If she notices someone acting differently, she’s quick to copy. She’s starting to notice Mommy’s not eating her meat.

I’d love to have her go “lacto-ovo” with me, ganging up on Daddy and simplifying dinner preparation. But in the war being waged to ensure children get the nutrients they need for development, we shouldn’t give them ammunition. If they haven’t shown a natural inclination to accept a wide variety of foods outside of the meat category, forcing them down the vegetarian path is putting the power in their tiny hands. Given a reason to refuse a food, most toddlers will—the risk to their health be darned.

Still morally opposed to putting a slab of meat on your child’s plate? Think about this: The same toddler who is exerting her independence by refusing to eat her vegetables is slowly but surely showing she wants to make her own choices. So let her. When the toddler tantrums have come and gone, we can hold out hope that a responsible young adult will form who wants to adopt some more of her parents’ ways.

Am I a hypocrite? Die-hard vegetarians would tell you I’m failing my child and that I’m not much of a vegetarian myself. But after fighting my own parents, I’m not ready to force much more on my kid than just enough to give her what she needs to grow. Vegetarianism is right for me, but I’ve learned to face the simple facts: It’s not right for her, not right now.

What kids need most from their parents is guidance on how to make the right choices in life. There is where you have to give it your best shot. Take them to a farm to roll in the hay with the newborn lambs. Fill their shelves with books about cows named Clarabelle and pigs who inspire spiders to spin webs of words. Jillian’s introduction to the animal kingdom is already forming a love that runs deeper than the cartoon character of the moment, but she has yet to connect the cow she met up the street to the hamburger on her plate. As parents, we have to give them the power to make good choices, and we have to be patient.

I’m willing to wait. For now, I’ll keep one side of my grill for veggie burgers and the other for hot dogs. We can share the cheese.

Jeanne Sager is a freelance writer and mom from upstate New York. Her work has appeared in Kiwi magazine, Babble, The Stir, among other publications.


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By Scott Lozier

I learned a lesson from my dad that I wish I had never learned, but I’m glad I did.

My dad was a teacher. He loved teaching so much he worked a second job to support our family. But at age fifty-two he felt he needed a change, so he took early retirement and he and my mom moved down to Florida to spend six months of every year.

After less than a year he got bored and took a part-time job fixing campers. He didn’t much like the job, but that first Christmas he was so proud of the steaks that the company gave out to all their employees as a bonus. Dad had grown up poor, and he believed that having meat was part of a good life. Our family ate meat and potatoes every night.

Two weeks after Christmas, a nurse called me at work to come pick up my mother at the hospital. She wouldn’t tell me what happened. She kept saying, “Your mother needs your help.” I drove to the wrong hospital with tears streaming the whole way, fearing the worst. When I finally found the right hospital, my mother told me that my father died instantly from a heart attack at work. The underlying cause was cholesterol blockage. He was fifty-four years old.

A few days later, when I finally had a quiet moment, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to let this happen to me. That’s when I learned how important it is to be healthy. I had to take care of myself: exercise and eat well. And I had to share my beliefs with others.

Now that I have a child, I want to live longer and teach him to eat well, too. I want to give him the chance to be healthier—and to enjoy his life. I want to give him an appetite for enjoying a more gentle existence. I want him to think about the consequences of his actions. That’s why my wife and I are raising him to be vegetarian.

Vegetarian parents opt for a meatless life for a variety of reasons—but all do so for reasons that they feel are important. Perhaps it’s because we feel it’s better for the environment, or healthier for us, or a more sensitive approach to other species. Vegetarianism is not only a lifestyle decision, it’s also a core value.

Whatever the reason, it makes sense that we share this value with our kids. It’s what we would do with any value we hold, whether it’s respect for others, strong self-esteem, or interest in the world. As parents, we try to model all kinds of admirable behaviors. Why should we disregard the same responsibility when we sit down to dinner?

If you’re vegetarian but don’t insist on vegetarian food for your children, how will your children perceive that? It’s like saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”—you’re setting your kids up to ignore what you’re teaching them. And their disinterest won’t stop at their diet, either; they’ll begin to believe maybe there are special rules for you, rules that somehow don’t apply to them. And if they go through life believing they don’t have to follow the rules, they will find life very difficult. They’ll always be fighting rules. (Questioning rules is good. Fighting them is not.)

I know you’re not going to listen to a word I say until I assure you your kid will be okay without animal protein. So here goes: Your kid will be okay without animal protein. But don’t just listen to me: Do the research. Read the experts: In Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care (Seventh Edition, 1998), in the chapter on feeding, Benjamin Spock writes, “Children who grow up getting their nutrition from plantfoods rather than meats … are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer.” Or consider the words (now nearly ubiquitous) ofthe writer Michael Pollan, whose research into American eating styles has led him to the simple maxim: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

If you believe either of these authorities is right, what reason could you give yourself for not raising your child vegetarian? Some parents will argue that kids need to make up their own mind. But would you really give them the same latitude in other important life decisions, especially when they’re really too young to choose? Would you let them “choose” whether to chew on lead paint? Watch television all day long? How much potential damage would you let them do before you’d step in and stop them?

Let’s say you do remain neutral on food issues during your child’s youth.

What happens when, after eighteen years of letting your child follow the herd, he does decide to be a vegetarian? Won’t he feel a little saddened that you let him go down the wrong path for so long, especially when you could have given him the gift of eighteen years of healthful living? Why not give your kids ahead start?

Nobody is talking about force-feeding kids spinach and tofu. But we can show our kids that we are eating healthy food and that it not only tastes good, it is a good thing all around. This is the one lesson I wish my father had known. But now I’m the teacher. Showing my son the lesson I learned—well, that’s just what my dad would have wanted.

Scott Lozier is an arts administrator at Harvard University. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with his wife, son, two happy cats, and a family of wild bunnies in the yard.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)