My wife and I have a longstanding disagreement — can you settle it? She’s a vegetarian and wants to raise the kids (4 and 7) as vegetarians. I think it should be their choice, and that they should have meat until they decide for themselves. Currently, we don’t have any meat in the house. I think having it so rarely and out of the house is likely to backfire on her, since they think of it as a special treat, and we should instead be offering it in reasonable amounts at home. What do you think?
David: You might be right about the consequences of making meat-eating a special occasion or a treat. Your kids might put even more of a premium on it than if it was a part of your daily life, and may crave it more than they would otherwise. It’s not just kids who respond to scarcity with an increased appetite: Slap “Limited Edition” on a batch of pumpkin spice oil filters, and they’ll fly off the shelves. For some reason we are wired to seek out the rare (or medium rare).
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s really about how you position it. Another way to look at eating relatively little meat is that it’s a pretty healthy approach, so long as they’re getting protein from other sources. If your kids occasionally have meat but you don’t make a show of it, then it’s just another thing that sometimes comes along. Context is important. If you get them an occasional slice of pepperoni pizza without making it a big deal, then it’s a meal. If every time they eat meat, it’s in a kid’s meal with a toy, well, then you’re elevating it to something special.
My bigger concern is your desire to bring meat into the house, and the signal it sends to your kids. I’m assuming your wife is vegetarian because of ethical or health reasons. If she’s explained a strong personal opposition to meat-eating and then you encourage the kids to eat meat at home anyway over her objections, you’re diminishing the validity of her perspective. Don’t undermine your wife’s authority with your children to grill an occasional burger.
If you can talk about it as a choice without undercutting your wife, then your children can come to their own conclusions in time. If your kids have questions, talk about it the way you’d talk about any other ethical dilemma. Use it as a chance to demonstrate that people can disagree without being disagreeable. You married a vegetarian. Respect who she is and what she values: keep the house vegetarian unless she changes her mind.
Kara: But, David, by not allowing it in the house whatsoever, I think the family is actually elevating meat to a special occasion item that the kids will someday associate with a treat. Are they supposed to furtively chow down on sausages before coming home from a soccer game? Only eat burgers when Dad takes them out alone, then promise not to tell Mom?
So, frustrated carnivore, I’d like to know more about why your wife became a vegetarian, and why she won’t allow meat in the house whatsoever. Is this a religious choice, an ethical objection, an allergy, a taste preference, a scarring encounter with Big Macs? Because there’s room for flexibility, depending on her rationale. I’ve known Jewish households where one roommate didn’t keep kosher, and they color-coded plates, cooked, and washed dishes separately. I’ve also known families (like my own!) where one spouse hates kielbasa but the other one loves it. Guess what? Only one person eats the kielbasa, and it ain’t me.
I’m trying to figure out why your wife’s choices dictate the family’s dining habits so broadly, and I think there’s room for compromise depending on the origins of her vegetarianism. Why can’t she go vegetarian while you and your kids enjoy a couple hot dogs in moderation? There’s a worthy parental lesson in modeling open-mindedness and meeting in the middle.
Plus, at this age, kids’ dining habits are in development. The child who loved chicken nuggets one day might think they’re disgusting the next. At this fluid age, introducing an array of foods seems like a sensible and fair-minded way to go. Do you need to overload them with meat? Of course not. But moderation will allow them the eventual perspective to make their own choices (and not go nuts the first time they hit a Five Guys).
If you can model the tasteful art of compromise for your kids, you’re doing them a service — probably a bigger service than completely banning a food without some thoughtful discussion first.