Raising Vegetarian Kids

Saturday, 7 March 2009

But Mum – I don’t like eating animals…

What would you do if a seven-year-old announced they didn’t want to eat animals any more?

Let me set the scene. I don’t eat red meat. I haven’t for over twenty years. It’s not an ethical thing (though with the current ecological orbit this planet is on, perhaps it should be) but rather a very personal belief that it’s just not good for human bodies. I do eat seafood, and indulge in some chicken and a few shreds of pork occasionally – I just don’t ingest large slabs of meat, and never beef or lamb. I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t whack other people over the head with a celery stick if I see them munching on a cow patty. I just eat what my body indicates is right to me.

Yes, I serve my kids vegetarian dishes and a consistently varied choice of fruit and vegetables (the more exotic, the better). As a result, they have developed a higher-than-average tolerance of veggies, which can only be a good thing. In fact, they eat almost every vegetable with gusto, and I am happy to report they’ll even take a little tofu. I have also always served my kids meat – never beef or lamb but only because I don’t cook sheep or cows in my house. They do eat it at restaurants and other people’s houses (and occasionally McDonalds – ugh).

My son Riley generally devours meat, but my daughter Ella has always been iffy with it, even as a baby. Sure, meals in our house don’t ever centre around a sheet of meat or half a carcass in a pot, but they are consistently exposed to a variety of animal flesh.

So why my daughter recently testified she didn’t want to eat animals any more, I cannot really say. Perhaps it was the large, pink chunk of salmon tissue swimming on her plate that did it. Or could it have been the trip to the Beijing wet markets? The pigs heads, the pongy fish, the racks of dismembered carcasses? What? I’ve never shown open disdain for meat… just a little selectivity.

Casting my mind back, I do actually recall the look on Ella’s face when she made the connection that bacon is actually slices of pig. And that fish is actually, er... fish – wet and slimy. Like that swims in the ocean. I have no idea what she thought it was before she made this connection, but I do remember it happening. It also happened with chicken. When she finally realised exactly what she was eating, she sort of stopped chewing. I could clearly see the feathery white clucker pecking at seeds in her mind. It even had a little green scarf around its neck.

So, I didn’t know what to say when Ella made the anti-animal-ingestion announcement. I think I muttered something about salmon being so expensive and that she would just have to finish everything on her plate, young lady. She hasn’t brought it up again and I’m hoping she’s forgotten all about it. At least until she can make a more “educated” decision on why she wants to forgo eating animals. In the meantime, I’ve started conjuring ways to hide salmon, pork, chicken and other snippets of animal tissue in her meals.

But am I doing the right thing? Will I get away with this much longer? If I have made the conscious decision to forgo beef and lamb, why shouldn’t my daughter be able to honour her own body’s desire to skip salmon and other meats of her choice? But she just seems so young. And added to my dilemma is not having access to my home country’s products and foods that would more easily help me supplement a child’s vegetarian diet. Living in Beijing… this all just seems a little too hard.

Recently I had lunch (white asparagus and goat cheese salad followed by salmon on rocket with caperberries) with a woman who told me her daughter had announced, also at seven years old, that she no longer wanted to eat meat. Instead of deciding this was in the Too Hard Basket, this woman said “ok darling” and went about finding ways to honour her daughter’s decision and still ensure an adequate vitamin and mineral intake required for someone starting a vegetarian journey so young.

I was impressed. And also a little bit ashamed that I hadn’t myself taken this Herculean (in my eyes) task to hand. So I’m thinking about it. I’ve not started anything serious yet. I’m going to wait and see what unfolds and hopefully I’ll be better armed to deal with this inevitable possibility when Ella brings it up again, probably over a plate of mutilated salmon.

In the meantime, if anyone has any Beijing vegetarian restaurant recommendations, send them my way. We may be eating out a lot more soon.

Meanwhile, I’m off to find me some fried chicken. Cluck!

First published on the City Weekend Beijing website.

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