Being a vegetarian is a choice, but is being raised a vegetarian a choice we can make for our children? Or is raising them to eat meat a choice we can make for our children? We spoke to Kat, Mom of 7-year-old Maitreya, to ask the 10 questions you know you want to know:
- Did you know you were going to raise your kids as a vegetarian – have you always been one?
Being a huge animal lover, I always felt a tremendous sense of sadness when I ate meat – once I understood what I was consuming, that is. I couldn’t bear the thought that I was eating such cute vulnerable creatures who lived out such short lives in horrific conditions, so I followed my heart and became a vegetarian at the age of 17. From then I always said that I would raise my children vegetarian. My intention was to give them the choice to make an educated decision.
- Is your husband a vegetarian? Does he mind?
My husband is not a vegetarian but he doesn’t mind that Maitreya is being raised vegetarian. He understands and agrees that she should be given the opportunity to make that decision for herself in the future.
- Is it nutritionally healthy for a growing and developing child?
Ah, the question of the hour. Our society seems to be shifting away from this very long-standing message – one that is shouted at us from what people perceive are reliable sources, i.e. medical practitioners, Canada’s food guide, etc.
Our Dr. and nurse practitioner were initially concerned when we disclosed that we were raising a vegetarian child. They were soon comforted once I was able to articulate dietary needs, meet with a dietician and have Maitreya’s blood tested – things meat eating children and their parents aren’t put through without suspicion of malnourishment. Nevertheless, I complied. I may have challenged their ideologies and biases as I went along, but I complied. I hoped it would be of educational value to them, that it would help dispel the myths attributed to raising a vegetarian baby/child. I was right, in the end those who I worked with gained insight, became better informed and were reassured by the positive results. Her Iron was extremely high, equivalent to that of a boy her age (boys/men typically have higher Iron ratings than women/girls), as were other crucial vitamin levels, and she surpassed developmental markers. A feel-good moment was when the dietician requested a copy of the menu plans I had developed for Maitreya. The fact is that a vegetarian child is no less healthy than a meat eating one. You can have a meat eating child that doesn’t want anything other than chicken fingers, burgers, hot dogs, fries, pizza, mac n’ cheese, etc. If they are not eating a variety of grains, beans, veggies and fruits then they, too, have their overall health compromised. The trick is to make meals fun and encompass a whole lot of diverse, nutrient-filled, protein packed foods in the diet so that all growing and developing needs of a child are met. When removing meat though, you just need to be a bit more conscious about it.
- Does she miss out on treats?
I wouldn’t say she misses out on treats so much because she’s vegetarian as I would because most readily available treats are filled with chemicals, dyes and other components you can’t even pronounce, or know what they are without being a scientist! I mean, who researches every last ingredient on those very long lists? (Ok, some do and I have.) Although knowledge is power in the end, sometimes I wish I hadn’t. In many cases I’m left feeling helpless and disheartened at what is happening to our food – meat byproducts is just one part of it. Maitreya gravitates heavily to the sugary treats, and yes, sometimes she does miss out because of the meat byproducts in them. I just try to ensure she has other options, and that she knows she has other choices, like vegan marshmallows for example, and that ingredients are not only meat free, but minimal, recognizable and as non-harmful as possible.
We are fortunate that in her 7 years of life she has never been left out from feasting at a barbecue party. Whenever she goes to an event there always seems to be a meat alternative offered, like veggie burgers or veggie dogs, and if not, there’s always some sort of veggie platter or salad to enjoy. I have yet to hear her complain about feeling left out – other than, “I couldn’t have the gummy worms or jube jubes because there’s gelatin in them.” There’s a shift in understanding within our communities, one that welcomes diversity weather it’s cultural, religious, or one of personal choice and preference, and I feel fortunate to be a part of it.
- Does she ask to try meat?
She hasn’t asked to try meat, she has asked to eat meat! Why? Because she’s determined to consume every sugary sweet possible and she can’t fulfill that goal without allowing meat into her life. She would say, “I only want to eat the meat in the candy, not the real meat.” Then I would try my hardest to explain that the animal is still inside there even if it doesn’t look like it. She listens attentively as I try to put things into perspective without terrifying her. Now that she’s 7 she is starting to put the pieces together herself. She hasn’t asked to eat meat for some time now, but in turn asks, “Is there meat in that?” or, now that she reads, points it out on the ingredients list.
- Would you let her eat meat if she really wanted to?
For sure I struggle with that one due to my own personal values and beliefs, but ultimately I believe in her right to choice and will respect it. I’ve always wished my parents gave me the choice so I don’t want to be a hypocrite in reverse. The most important part to this though, is the educational piece. I feel that she needs to be a bit older and able to fully comprehend that decision. I would do everything to provide her with knowledge that is factual and not fear based – although I find fear and sadness goes hand in hand with this topic. I would definitely point her in the direction of free range, grass fed, conscious animal raising practices where they’re well cared for and provided humane living conditions. There would be many farm visits and a heavy involvement in the process for sure. I feel that we have been so disconnected and far removed from this process that we have become so complacent to the atrocities that occur to these animals.
- Has she ever tried meat?
Unfortunately, yes, but mostly accidentally. Many people, including myself, don’t realize there is meat in many of our daily foods. Here are a few examples (use what you’d like):
- Yogurts, frosted cereals, marshmallows (Gelatin – protein from bones, cartilage, tendons, and skin of animals)
- Ceasar dressing and Worcestershire (Anchovies – little silver fish)
- Pop, candies, breakfast cereal, chocolate, baked goods, margarine, vegetable oil sprays (Glucose/Dextrose- comes from animal tissues and fluids – some glucose can come from fruits. Lecithin – phospholipids from animal tissues, plants, and egg yolks. Oleic/Oleinic Acid – animal tallow which is solid fat of sheep and cattle separated from the membranous tissues)
- Bottled juices, coloured pasta (Carmine-red colouring made from ground insects)
- Cheeses – (Rennet-stomach lining of calves and other baby animals. Pepsin-enzyme from pigs stomach)
As you see it seems there is no escape. But the circumstance in which she ate meat that broke my heart the most was when it was purposely given to her by a family member who doesn’t agree with our being vegetarian. Rather than respect my wishes he fed Maitreya, who was 2 at the time, bacon when I wasn’t there, and later calamari right in front of me at a family dinner. Maitreya who loves food, gobbled it up without hesitation. Needless to say the trust was severed and I felt completely disrespected.
- What is the biggest challenge about raising a vegetarian child?
Goodness, there have been a few very challenging things about raising a vegetarian child, but I’d say the biggest was having to answer her questions at a very young age. How does one explain to a young child about the mass production and slaughter of animals who live out their short lives in fear, confined and tortured; not to mention the environmental impact of the meat industry. It is such a dark subject so finding a light way of talking about it with her was the hardest – miraculously I managed without causing her night terrors or permanent trauma.
- What are the benefits of raising a vegetarian child?
I have to say the biggest benefit is that my Maitreya loves her VEGGIES! Raw veggies, cooked veggies, pickled veggies, you name it she loves it! Many parents can’t believe how well she eats and wished their kids ate their greens- you know those foreign aliens that most kids feel are insulting them by invading their plates. She loves food and I believe being raised vegetarian paved her palate to be an inclusive one!
Here’s a story I like to share it generally helps put things into perspective:
One Halloween night when out trick or treating with Maitreya, she was 3 ½ at the time, we came to a house where a lady was preparing her dinner. As a “trick” the lady put a broccoli flower in the middle of the “treats”. Well, to the ladies surprise Maitreya yells out, “BROCOLLI, I love broccoli!” and swiftly snatches it up as if there was competition. The lady stood there in disbelief as Maitreya carried on, broccoli in hand, as though she had just won the Halloween jackpot then turned around and so sweetly said, “Tank ooo. Happy Hawoween” and crunched down on the savoury treat. The lady and I shared a good laugh and she admitted that the only one that had been tricked that night was her.