About 20 months ago, my husband and I stopped eating meat. This process towards a different way of eating was very piecemeal. I’d studied Animal Welfare Law at university when I was 20. Having written a dissertation on factory farming, and seen related videos, I wanted to drop meat consumption back then. However, at the time, my university boyfriend sneered at the notion. Perhaps I should have stood firmer, but when you’re 20 you’re more inclined to just jog on with things the way they are. So, it took until I was 40, and with a person who was open minded enough to look at all the pros and cons of eating meat or not eating meat, that I finally shifted over into vegetarianism.
Part of this shift was borne out of the horse meat scandal – not the fact that horse meat, per se, had found its way into beef and lamb products, but because it highlighted what little control we have over what we eat when we opt for pre-packaged, processed food. I’d also been ill with a number of recurrent viruses, so we decided to clean up our act. Forty years of carrying around another animal’s fat seemed to be more than enough.
At the same time, we stopped eating a lot of other things too – cutting out refined sugar as much as possible; bread; pasta; milk. The move away from milk was borne out of the same rationale – we’d started looking at what went into it (unwanted antibiotics for one), then began questioning why humans are the only animals that drink another species’ milk well into adulthood. I’d breast fed my own daughter until she was 15 months, but had never felt any great compulsion to continue shoving dairy products into her as soon as I stopped (or, I should say, she stopped – she weaned herself!) So dairy was replaced by almond milk or soya milk (in smaller doses). I honestly can’t tell the difference between regular milk and unsweetened almond milk in tea. Next, we moved away from regular tea and started drinking Olive Leaf tea, Jasmine tea, Clipper (with the unbleached teabags). Then all fizzy drinks went.
The big question which presented itself a year on – once we’d established that we’d left meat behind and weren’t returning – was do I enforce this on my child? I have cousins who’ve been raised as vegetarians (they ate fish) and they turned out healthy and well adjusted. I don’t know if, as adults, they’ve taken to eating meat – I should probably find out! I suppose, had my husband and I been vegetarian for years prior to having a child, it would have been natural to simply include her as part of this eating lifestyle. However, we’d already introduced her to meat – and once we stopped eating it ourselves, we didn’t automatically eliminate it from her diet when we were eating out (although we did make sure of the quality – definitely no more McDonalds, even though they’d been a rarity to start with).
My daughter’s progress into ‘vegetarianism’ also happened quite organically (excuse the pun!). We were at a petting farm one day, and my husband explained that the lamb she was stroking, and the cows hanging over the gate, were where her burgers and lamb chops came from. She immediately told us she also didn’t want to eat meat. ‘Brainwashing’ someone later said to us. ‘Educating’, I replied. Children have a right to know where their food comes from. They have a right to know what constitutes healthy food, and what’s not. ‘Where’s she getting her protein from?’ is normally the next question. Ah, how’s that for brainwashing . . . the belief that meat is the primary, and best, source of protein! Broccoli contains more protein per calorie than steak. So, let’s not have the protein debate.
Ultimately, I never want my daughter to have an issue around food. It’s never been used as a punishment, nor as a reward. She isn’t deprived of food if she misbehaves, and she’s not given food as a treat. She’s never been made to clear her plate – she’s quite capable of knowing how much she needs or wants to eat. She knows that chocolate, while not ‘healthy’ (unless we’re talking raw cacao), is enjoyable in small doses. She has never been given fruit drinks – apart from at birthday parties (I wouldn’t stop her enjoying what other kids are having). If we’ve been out and she’s asked for a fruit drink, we’ve allowed it. But she doesn’t really enjoy it and normally leaves it, because all she was ever given (before she could speak and ask for juice) was water.
As parents, the only time we have true control is when our children are young. It’s during childhood that habits are formed for life. While people have a right to do what they want with their own bodies (whether that’s drinking, smoking, taking drugs or eating meat most days of the week), we have a duty to ensure our children are given wholesome, nutritious food. The overweight cats that used to come into the veterinary surgery where I worked as a teenager weren’t like that because they’d been taking themselves off to the chippie and kebab shop every night. That’s not to say that many meat-eaters aren’t healthy (nor that there aren’t any unhealthy vegetarians). Simply that people who are making choices relating to food, are usually doing so for considered reasons – and, to that end, will want to include their children as part of that. If I’m avoiding hormone-pumped, factory-farmed meat for good reason, why should I continue giving that to my child?
Children aren’t nutritionally aware – they don’t know that the bright green drink with cartoon characters on the front is, potentially, the first step towards diabetes in later life. For an in depth account of the dangers of sugar (be it high fructose glucose syrup, invert sugar, or any one of the many other sugar variants), Dr Lustig’s YouTube lecture, The Bitter Truth About Sugar, is well worth watching. It’s clearly not doing anyone any favours. I grew up during a time when less was known (certainly by our parents) about diabetes, cholesterol, high blood pressure – and I certainly wish I hadn’t acquired a taste for chocolate. As a parent, though, I can now pass on what I’ve learned to my daughter.
I’ve not forced her to stop eating meat – she can still eat that if she wants. Not in our home, but at her grandparents’ homes, or in restaurants serving good quality meat. However, she’s chosen not to because she’s aware of what meat is (or was). Are we brainwashing her? No. Brainwashing is a form of thought control, designed to steer people away from their own beliefs. Educating children about food is no more a form of indoctrination than teaching them about kindness, respect or good manners.
My daughter can eat what she likes when she’s old enough to buy her own food. Even now, within reason, she can eat what she wants (including good quality meat) – and her choices are usually agreeable to us, because she’s aware of what’s healthy and what’s not. She can have a bit of chocolate for dessert, but often she’ll choose fruit. I bought her Chocolate Ready Brek the other day, at her insistence. It’s not too bad, as those things go (had it been sugar-laden Lion Bar cereal, I’d have said no). I knew what would happen though – she took three spoonfuls and told me it was too sweet. Great – I wish I’d had that type of sensitivity to sugar when I was younger!
So when people accuse parents of brainwashing or nutritionally depriving children who are being raised as vegetarians or vegans, I’d ask them to first look at their own diets – and examine their own knowledge of nutrition. My husband, who eats dates as a snack at work, or who’ll have salmon and quinoa for lunch, is often asked by colleagues, “What’s that s**t you’re eating?” And I can see why he finds this ironic – because they’ve normally got a KFC box in front of them and a can of soda capable of cleaning a car battery terminal. Which is why, if you’re making an informed choice about what you feed your child, you should never be made to feel guilty about those decisions. All we can do is educate ourselves about nutrition, and educate our children. After all, there are worse things than giving your child a vegetarian diet – and that’s to habitually provide them with processed 21st century nutritionally-empty, sugar-laden foods without any thought to the future consequences.