My children are not vegan. There, I said it. It is a plain fact. Although the vast majority of their weekly calories come from plants, including everything eaten at home and in their lunch boxes, they occasionally consume meat, dairy, and trace amounts of egg outside the home. I do not feel great about this, but I thought it would be valuable to share our family’s journey. I hope that I can connect with other parents and children, and learn from their experiences as they follow their own path. (Share your own story in the comments!)
My vegan story
I wasn’t born in a vegan family – far from it. Before I was born, my parents took over my grandfather’s dairy farm, then raised pigs for meat for a few years. We had meat at every dinner and most lunches, and dairy and eggs all the time. I did have a “rebellious” phase in my teens: I ordered fish at restaurants (not a common thing in my small town) and confided in my journal that I would never force my kids to eat meat if they complained about it. That phase passed: I became a big fan of rare steak in my 20s. Despite considering myself eco-conscious, and in particular a big advocate of cycling for transportation, it was only at the ripe age of 34 that I started seriously thinking about the environmental impact of what I put in my mouth. From there, I slowly transitioned toward a plant-based diet. After three years, I decided to go vegan. What a process!
My first child was thus born at a time when I was still cooking plenty of meat. Her favorite thing to eat at age 1 was “lamb garam masala purée,” and I was pretty proud of that. (That was before she entered the picky phase at around 18 months… a phase she hasn’t quite left yet at age 7.) But when she was two years old I started to reduce the amount of animal products on our plates, then went vegan after 6. My daughter developed a taste for plain beans, grains, and tofu, and nibbled on steamed vegetables. My husband was mostly happy to eat whatever I cooked at home. However, he was not interested in raising our child vegan.
I spent about three years being mostly plant-based while occasionally eating meat (when visiting family) or non-vegan goodies. But soon after I emerged from the fog following the birth of my second child, as a breastfeeding mother, I decided to cut the small amounts of dairy I was still consuming, and politely declined a steak at my in-laws’ home. Health-wise, it didn’t make a difference: I had been generally healthy throughout my life, and just continued to be. But mentally I felt much better: my knowledge, morals, and actions were aligned.
Why did I go from plant-based to vegan?
What is the difference between plant-based and vegan? Plant-based diets are understood to consist of… well, plants. I don’t care if some people say that “vegan chicken nuggets” are not plant-based because they are processed. Sure, they aren’t “whole foods,” but wheat and soy remain plants even if they are processed. One could go mostly-plant-based for environmental reasons, as I did at first, or to improve their health (in which case they should eat mostly whole foods). I know many people who call themselves “plant-based” who still consume animal products occasionally.
What defines “vegan” is the motivation: beyond choosing food that comes from plants (and not animals), choosing to be vegan means avoiding animal exploitation as much as possible and feasible. That includes three main aspects beyond food itself:
- avoiding animal entertainment: zoos, aquaria, and rodeo come to mind;
- avoiding products that were tested on animal;
- and avoiding animal-sourced clothing, such as leather and wool.
Vegans tend to be more strict with regards to food, avoiding animal-sourced “foods” completely. But why?
I am not what you’d consider an “animal lover.” Yes, I was owned by cats before, and probably still would if I didn’t marry someone who’s horribly allergic. But I can’t say I have a great urge to snuggle with cows or befriend pigs – however smart I know them to be. Nevertheless, I see no sense in unnecessarily causing pain and suffering to sentient beings. And I don’t think of animal products as necessary foodstuffs for humans anymore.
At different times in history, and even today in some corners of the world, consuming animals for sustenance may have been (or be) necessary to survive. But in 2020 in the Pacific Northwest area of North America? Nope. In fact, I’m pretty confident that plant-based foods are superior – as long as we can get enough of them, with some variety thrown in to cover all nutrients.
Most of us in the so-called “developed” countries have the privilege of access to plentiful and relatively inexpensive plant-based foods including pulses, whole grains, and a dizzying array of fresh and frozen produce. In my opinion, those like me who have the wealth of energy to invest in learning how to cook vegan food have the responsibility to do it.
In addition, we should dedicate ourselves to facilitating access to plant-based food for those of us who aren’t so lucky. Some ways to do this include:
- spreading cooking skills,
- advocating in favor of plant-based foods in nutritional guidelines,
- encouraging institutions to serve more vegan meals,
- supporting social movements that fight for safer, less-stressful livelihoods for all,
- and helping farmers transition away from animal agriculture.
I take these responsibilities quite seriously, and I would want my own children to learn about and embrace the same ethical values and practices as I do. I would want them to choose vegan food and also to embrace a vegan lifestyle. But what does their father – my husband – think about that?
Co-parenting with a non-vegan
Sharing the responsibilities, challenges, chores, joys, and rewards of parenting with my husband in a manner that tends toward equality also matters to me. I chose to start a family with him for a reason: he is a caring, kind, loving, sensitive, loyal, reasonable, and hard-working man, who also happens to be quite handsome. We don’t always agree on everything – in fact, we often disagree – but the arguments we have are healthy, and he is great at apologizing when necessary. (That’s a skill I personally need to improve upon.) Before we actually had children, I think I suspected something that did indeed come true: he loves spending time with them and he’s much better at playing and goofing off than I am. I am more skilled at keeping the balls in the air and maintenance tasks, and I’m usually the one who handles the “community-family” interface by volunteering or taking up causes.
Although we generally share the same values, we both knew from day one that we had different ways to defend them. I embrace conflict as a strategy to reach the desired ends. My husband prefers to avoid a fight, finding more soft-spoken ways to defuse situations and help others save face.
What does that mean for veganism?
At the beginning of my transition toward veganism, my husband wasn’t thrilled. He enjoyed the food I was cooking, but the thought of excluding what he considered to be a whole food group bothered him. It seemed a bit “extreme” – not a good thing for this mild-mannered man. Like most other people, he was unfamiliar with the nutritional science supporting a plant-based diet. I knew he would be reluctant to make it the center pillar of our children’s development. It’s not that he wanted to be cruel to animals, far from it! But somehow he was not ready to shake the idea that animal products are necessary for humans to thrive.
What was the right thing for me to do for me as a mom?
It takes a village to raise our children
My husband and I both have the primary responsibility to support the growth and development of our children. But our own parents – our children’s grandparents – play an active role in our family, too. As do other caregivers we trust with our children’s lives on a day-to-day basis.
And our children themselves have a role to play in their own journey, even at a young age. We let them experiment with some decisions on a small scale.
If I had become vegan earlier in life, and chosen to start a family with another vegan, my perspective and experience would certainly differ. But that’s not how it happened for us. Today, my family as a whole reflects its time and place (21st century North American Westcoast) quite well. We a mix of plant-based and omnivore eaters, with many of us somewhere in the middle: acknowledging the importance of eating more plants (as opposed to animals), yet still in the process of transforming their definition of “good food” and trying to figure out the best way to put it on the table. I wish for all of us to embrace vegan food, as I think it would benefit everyone in every way. However, in light of my own journey, I recognize the importance of patience.
My dear husband, as it happens, has made for himself the decision to go pretty-much plant-based. Now he chooses vegan options when dining out and mostly passes on the meat at his family’s table. And the main meal at my in-laws’ home is often vegan with a vegetarian option these days. Would we be there if I had stormed out of the village four years ago? I don’t think so.
My children’s bodies will not be battlegrounds
Countless times, I have read stories on Facebook groups of mothers struggling with control over their children’s nutrition. The tearful tales often are set at the mother-in-law’s kitchen table and involve (real) chicken nuggets or hot dogs. The replies from the crowd come hard and fast, and something like this: “YOU are the mom and ONLY YOU can decide what your children can eat! Tell Grandma to follow YOUR rules or she’ll never see YOUR children again.”
They seem to be saying: “if others don’t totally do exactly as you say, burn down the village.”
That doesn’t work for me.
In fact, I do not think it is healthy for children to see adults who love them wage battle over their bodies, hearts, and souls.
There may be situations in life when a relative or friend, despite their best intentions, is not a suitable adult to be in charge of one’s children. Or perhaps one feels disrespected despite efforts to communicate deeply-held beliefs to the point where being “part of the village” no longer feels right. Mealtime squabbles may become the “last straw” that reveals a previously deeply dysfunctional relationship. If you are in such an unfortunate situation, cutting ties may be an entirely acceptable thing to do. However, it is not at all the case in our family.
We all need to fight for better food for all… but I am not going to let my children’s bodies become war zones because we have different beliefs.
I don’t want my children to think at any point that we are fighting about what they eat. So at times I take a deep breath and let a situation slide.
When my kids eat meat
At home, all we eat is plant-based. The kids know it and it has not been questioned or debated. If “chicken nuggets” are requested, we know that my son actually means the vegan kind. Until a few months ago, when we ordered pizza, the kids were occasionally getting real cheese on theirs but thankfully we found a great vegan alternative so that is no longer an issue. Phew!
Outside our home, we have to deal with the powers of pickiness, convenience, and conflict avoidance. We let our children pick what they want to eat. If I am there, I make sure to point out the vegan or veganizable options. But, for lack of suitable-to-them options, my children will often pick meat. Sadly, even vegan restaurants have a paucity of kid-friendly options that are bland enough for my little people’s sensitive taste buds. Sushi restaurants are a great stand-by because tofu, edamame, and rice are practically always available. My husband and I often crave Mexican food, and know a few places that offer wickedly delicious vegan options, but the black beans are always too spicy for our son who then prefers chicken.
Travel exacerbates the problem. In an unfamiliar town, deciphering a menu written in a foreign language and trying to negotiate an “off-menu” order is a challenge at which I have failed more than once. For myself, I can make-do with lunch being just a bowl of rice. But I will not deny my growing children a full meal, even if it means they’ll have red meat.
“Mom, is this vegan?”
Of course, we could stay home all the time, never eat out, and never travel outside of my comfort zone. But veganism is not my only value – nor will it be theirs.
What matters more to me is inculcating into my children the process of making value-based decisions, big and small.
I don’t want them to choose kindness “because mom says so” – how is that even possible?
I want them to recognize the opportunity for kindness and make their own choice to embrace it.
But I know it can be a battle to make vegan choices when mainstream society all-around us promotes eating animals. I know they will have to face peer-pressure and occasional taunts – or worse – from other youth. One doesn’t need to eat meat to survive… but what about social survival? I want them to be prepared not just with arguments but also with the confidence that their decisions come from within themselves.
I am heartened by the fact that they now often ask: “Mom, is this vegan?” They take stock of the answer… but don’t necessarily make their choices accordingly. See, they have other priorities, like avoiding “spicy” foods or ingredients that are mixed together in ways they find unsavoury.
They are also growing. Recently, my daughter encountered a few videos of Esther the Wonder Pig. At our next visit at the local taqueria, she asked for black beans instead of her usual pork. “The beans are a little spicy but I can handle it.” Courage has to start somewhere.
Keeping the end-goal in mind
What do I want for my children?
I want them to grow into healthy and happy adults who positively contribute to the world around them, doing good and avoiding harm.
My husband wishes for the same.
Health-wise, as far as diet is concerned, I have no worries: eating very small amounts of animal products will not offset the massive benefits of their plant-centric diet. I trust that the good dietary habits (and recipes!) learned at home will become what they consider to be “good food” as they grow independent and feed themselves outside of my kitchen. If my husband insisted on feeding them red meat and tuna fish on every occasion, it would be a different story. But he has also embraced the scientific consensus on the adequacy of plant-based diets, so we are on the same page.
The happiness and contribution parts are more complicated.
As parents, we do our best to instill our values by modeling the best behavior we can, and also openly talking with our children about how we see the world and what we care about. We are not perfect, but we do aspire to being good parents and improve as human beings. For me, that includes sharing my understanding of the many ways in which the world is unfair and unjust, notably to animals, and how we should strive to do better.
The rest will be up to them.