Monday, April 12, 2010

artichokes have hearts, but aren't animals: learning where meat comes from...

I've heard from three or four moms who are struggling with telling their kids about meat. One has a five year old who is now refusing to eat any meat. We recently navigated this at home, so here are some thoughts. (This is not research based at all, purely opinion...)
M likes meat (this was not always the case, as she was almost 3 before she really started eating the dinner type meats.) Several months ago she asked, "Mom? Where does chicken come from?" (This happened to be expensive free-range chicken, so I could answer with: "This is chicken that lived on a farm and now we are lucky to enjoy it for dinner. Isn't it yummy?" (I said this in a pleasant, non-apologetic way, very matter of fact and changed the subject while enjoying the delicious dinner.) M seemed to accept this, asked a few questions about the chicken dying (it was quick and the chicken didn't feel anything.) "Is that blood?" ("Yes it is. Some people like to eat that part." We were eating a roasted chicken with a red spot near the bone...)

We revisit the topic occasionally to establish that pork was pigs (we are thankful to the pork) that there are no eyes in your chicken or on the shrimp because most people don't eat that part...

By the way, we just had artichokes (twice in one week, she didn't eat any the first time, but did the second) and asked, "Are artichokes real?" Upon further questioning she said, "Well, they have hearts, are they alive like animals?" We chuckled and now call them "artichoke centers..."

The "what's this what I'm eating" talk went smoothly for us. Some things that I think helped...
  • we watch lots of nature TV (LIFE series, Walking With Dinosaurs) that shows the cruelty of nature sometimes. After a few tears shed over the baby Diplodocus getting eaten, we talk about nature, and how that's why the mommy lays so many extra eggs and how some animals get eaten by other animals.
  • we have long visited farms and orchards where there are turkeys running around (yes, that's what we eat at Thanksgiving...) This talk has been going on before she made the connection herself. Again, always in a brief, non-emotional, matter of fact statement.
  • On my part, there was no fretting, no apologizing, no explanations about how sad it is.
  • If I had to, I would kill a chicken to eat. We like eating meat as a family. I have made peace with it myself. I try to buy free-range products when possible and budget allows.
  • Friends tell me their older kids love to watch Bizarre Foods with local chef Andrew Zimmern. He is always so respectful of other cultures and their culinary traditions, and the kids get a kick out of the "yuck factor" of eating bugs. Might help?
A note:
Animal products like meat and eggs have things in them that are not in plant matter. You can do fine eating a vegetarian diet, but it is hard work to get all the nutrients growing kids need. I purposefully am not taking the time here to debate the merits of a vegetarian diet.

What have your experiences been on this issue? What specific phrases helped or harmed? Do you think being prepared in advance would have helped while you "ummed and ahhed" and stammered as you little Angel stared at you with quivering lips and tears in his eyes?


  1. We had about the same story with Chiara, visiting the farm often, we saw baby turkeys, then big turkeys, then we bought one for Thanksgiving and there were no more turkeys in the field. But she really made the connection later, at about 3 and a half I think. We have the same discussions when we eat, "what is that? " "chicken, beef, pork, fish...". She had some problems with eggs and chicks, but I explained to her that the ones we eat do not have baby chicls in them (hopefully...).
    I would kill one myself, too ! I love meat.

  2. Thanks! I also was thinking about Little House in the Big Woods. We just started reading that, and the first few chapters are about killing the pig and using it's bladder for a ball! All kinds of frank and neutral discussions can come out of THAT!
    Keep me posted!