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When Your Kids Decide They're Vegetarian

A mom shares her advice after her daughter and son start eating vegan and vegetarian

Published on: July 25, 2018

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Kid with vegetables at dinner table

Since my children were young, my dinner table has been a bit of an emotional minefield. But as they've grown, discussions have shifted from whether they have to eat their vegetables to whether they can eat, well, just vegetables.

“I’m vegan, Mom.” Thus my teen-aged daughter said, earlier this year, criticizing the disproportionate environmental impact of animal agriculture.

“Mom, I’m going vegetarian.” That was from my tween son, just a few days ago, decrying cruelty to cows.

I’ve tried to raise children with strong moral compasses and social consciousness. But come dinnertime, what’s a supportive but omnivorous mom to do?

I don’t think I’m alone in my struggle to cope with the ethical issues now buffeting my dinner table. My recent unscientific canvassing of other parents confirms both a wave of children choosing vegetarianism and a trickle going vegan. My more scientific online research documents a sharp uptick in schools now regularly providing children with the option of vegetarian, if not vegan, meals.

I don’t, however, run my kitchen as a cafeteria. There are no multiple entrees from which they can choose. So we had a problem.

When my children were younger, I thought I’d found a way around competing meal preferences. They’d gone through fairly typical food-fusses. “I can’t eat X. It’ was touching Y.” “Are you kidding? Look how green that is!” Meals were a far cry from the conversational oasis I’d hoped to create.

I’ve tried to raise children with strong moral compasses and social consciousness. But come dinnertime, what’s a supportive but omnivorous mom to do?

For months, I’d wavered between understanding and annoyance. Finally, after battling with myself over whether to make them separate "kid food," (chicken tenders or mac and cheese) and battling with my children over whether they had to eat what I served (maybe a curry or stir fry), I came up with an idea that poured oil over our troubled waters: the Two-Polite Bite Rule.

Under the TPBR, each child had to take two polite bites of everything I served. They’d loathe each first bite, of course, simply because they were expecting to. The second bite, I reasoned, had a fair shot at overcoming their prejudgment of an entree. Then, if they really, truly couldn’t stomach the meal, they could make themselves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (The polite part was because I found their melodramatic gagging over food just intolerable.)

The rule worked. After a spate of testing whether I meant what I’d said — could they really have PB&J instead of spinach lasagna? — they stopped invoking it. While peace didn’t exactly reign at the table, food disagreements were no longer center stage. In retrospect, whether we knew it or not, maybe I’d thrown down a gauntlet. I’d given them the freedom to dare to try something new, because they no longer had to? I don’t know.

But I did know that, now that we again had competing meal preferences, asking a vegetarian to take “two polite bites” of a dead chicken wasn’t going fly. The TPBR was about managing taste preferences, not about challenging ethics. To be fair, neither child was complaining about seeing meat on the table. They just wouldn’t touch it.

Initially, I kept cooking what I’d always cooked, with an eye toward ensuring that at least one food item on the table met the children’s preferences. For instance, I’d make roast chicken, plain baked potatoes, steamed broccoli and salad. Both could pass on the chicken; my daughter could have the starch and the vegetables and my son could slather on the butter. Everyone seemed relatively happy and I had leftover chicken salad for the rest of the week.

You see the problem, though, right? No protein. I wasn’t serving them balanced meals.

Okay, then. Maybe it was time to put my (grocery) money where my mouth is? I started researching vegetarian and vegan recipes, some of which claimed to convincingly mimic the taste of animal proteins.

Most of what I served and prepared not only was pretty darned tasty but was also a heck of a lot cheaper than meat, poultry or fish, and I note that no one invoked our now-dusty TPBR. I wasn’t crazy about the texture of melted vegan cheese on faux-meatballs, but my daughter wasn’t crazy about taking milk from cows. So it seemed we’d found a reasonable compromise. And I could always grab a burger for lunch.

Interestingly, though, I am finding I’m not currently inclined to do so.

My recipe-research took me to a handful of vegan websites, where I read environmental-impact statistics that echoed those my daughter had shared with me. I don’t consider myself unusually "green," but wow, a whole lot of our animal agriculture is scandalously environmentally inefficient. And in thinking about my son, I clicked on some videos that showed cattle being slaughtered and chickens, well, cooped up. Nothing nice or humane happening there.

I admit that I’m troubled by these issues. But I also must confess that I’m not overly inflamed. While I care about the environment and oppose animal cruelty, other social issues — immigrant detention, homelessness, poverty-— resonate more deeply for me. My children’s heartfelt issues just aren’t mine.

However, another crucial lesson I’ve tried to impart is respect for points of view that are not their own. As it turns out, serving them meals that violate their ethics actually violates mine.

Here’s what I’m thinking: For the foreseeable future, all the food I serve will be vegan, adaptable for vegetarians. The children have been vocal in their appreciation of my support. And I gotta say, Google and bookstores have made the transition a whole lot easier than I’d feared. How long will this work for me? I don’t know. It’s been four days. So far, so good?

Whether we knew it or not, by following their own moral compasses, my children had thrown down a gauntlet, one which gave me the freedom to dare to try something new. Well, I’m picking up that gauntlet. And I’m quite sure it’s made only from pleather.

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