When I became a vegetarian at age 14, I was opting out of a food system I felt was cruel, corrupt, and environmentally harmful. Decades later I’m facing a dilemma that my 4-year-old wants to eat the lunches served in her school cafeteria, which means meat.
After 3 out of 5 of her packed lunches came back from school untouched last week, I was unable to get a straight answer out of my daughter on what she was eating. So, I checked in with her teacher after school. The teacher reported that Maya had been “forgetting” her lunch in her locker at lunchtime. Since the teacher could neither send someone to fetch the forgotten lunch nor allow one of her preschoolers to go hungry, she’d been procuring a cafeteria meal for my daughter. Apparently, Maya had happily consumed barbecue chicken, fish tacos, and possibly a cheese burger that week.
As we were talking, Maya took a moment out of playing with a classmate to declare “I don’t want to be a vegetarian. I want hot lunch.” to which the teacher remarked, “She’s an independent thinker, that one.” And that’s my dilemma.
Do I impose my preferences on my child or let her find her own way?
When told my parents I didn’t want to eat meat anymore, they pretty much exploded. They were not going to have it. They were not going put up with any dietary nonsense or prepare special meals. I was to eat what everyone else was eating. End of story . . . and then they calmed down and set conditions:
- I would be responsible for cooking all my own meals and ensuring that I ate sufficient protein at every one;
- I was to prepare written report on vegetarian nutrition and protein before I would be allowed to stop eating meat;
- I would be expected to use my own money to purchase any special foods not available at the supermarket (This was before tofu and soy milk were commonly found in a mainstream grocery story).
I didn’t back down. In fact, my parents’ opposition probably did more to solidify my adolescent commitment to vegetarianism than deter me from making an inconvenient lifestyle choice. It took almost two decades before my husband and I decided that we should make our respective families’ lives easier by agreeing to eat fish when we visited.
Back to my daughter . . .
My husband and I never really discussed raising a vegetarian; we simply assumed it. Our vegetarianism is not a religious choice. And, for me, it’s less even of a moral choice than a political one. I opted out of a system I couldn’t support, but I never objected to consuming animals for food, not on principle anyway.
However, we never really addressed the reasons for our vegetarianism with our preschooler. Perhaps we went wrong there, but I didn’t want to expose my daughter to the horrors of factory farming and I still don’t. I’d like to shield her, even just a little longer, from the some of cruelty that humans can inflict on people and animals alike. I always expected that we would address those issues as they came up naturally (Say when we read Charlotte’s Web for the first time).
From a practical perspective, I’m not even sure I can force my daughter to bend to my will on this one. I could make lunch a royal battle, forbid Maya from eating cafeteria food, and tell the teacher to let her go hungry if she leaves her lunch in her locker. But what does she learn from that? We could teach her more about where her food comes from with the hope that she’d choose vegetarianism over hot lunch. But 4-year-olds don’t do nuanced moral arguments you’re either a good guy or a bad guy. If we convince her that eating meat is bad, how to we teach her that her non-vegetarian classmates are not, by extension, also bad?
Our school faculty assures us that the cafeteria food is actually quite good locally sourced, even and I’m not ready to force the factory farming discussion. So for the time being, we’re letting our daughter decide what she eats, at least at school. What would you do?