Alice Wright on the challenges of bringing up a meat-eating boy in a vegetarian home.
I decided to become a vegetarian when I was eight and have various reasons for eschewing meat and fish but basically I just don’t like the idea of it very much. When I had a son, however, I was adamant that I wouldn’t force my choices on him. I would feed him meat until he was old enough to decide either way.
The first six months were easy – it was milk, or milk. But then we moved onto solids, and I realised that trying to raise a meat-eater in a largely vegetarian household was more complicated than I thought.
I have no real experience of cooking meat or fish. Give me some vegetables and pulses and I can come up with ten different and tasty dishes. But meat scares me. I’m terrified of undercooking it. And I won’t taste it. So weeks can pass without him having a single mouthful.
Perhaps I need to accept that, for now, my son doesn’t eat meat. But the truth is, although I’m a proud vegetarian, I don’t necessarily want my son to be one too. I wonder if that has something to do with him being a boy.
I was brought up with three carnivorous brothers who think a meal’s not a meal if it comes without a hunk of cooked flesh. Despite my feminist ideals, I’ve always had this feeling that being a vegetarian is a bit ‘girly’, and boys naturally have a more bloodthirsty appetite. I wonder if I feel more strongly about giving my boy meat than I would a daughter – because he needs it to grow up ‘big and strong’, and I don’t want anyone to think he’s a tree-hugging wuss.
And then there’s the health aspect. You can of course get all the nutrients you need in a vegetarian diet but it’s often hard to convince committed meat-eaters that you’re not in constant need of a steak. I would hate for anyone to think that I’m depriving Arthur, so it’s easier to say he eats meat than to reel off the nutritional content of a spinach and lentil bake.
His lentil-heavy diet would be easier to explain if he wasn’t that keen on meat. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on what frame of mind I’m in at the time) the evidence so far suggests there is no animal product Arthur does not like. And while on one hand the sight of him cramming bits of chicken into his little mouth fills me with pride, I’ve found I’m not quite as relaxed about his appetite for meat as I’d hoped.
Neither my husband or I want him to eat cheap, processed meat. So when he started nursery we decided it would be simplest to register him as vegetarian. But because I didn’t want them to think he was actually vegetarian, or that I was being snobby about their food, I ended up having a ridiculous conversation where I tried to explain that although, of course, Arthur eats meat at home, I’d kind of rather he didn’t at nursery, just, you know, because. The woman looked bemused. All she needed to know was whether to give him a cheese or ham sandwich at snack-time.
The same attitude kicks in when packed lunches are produced at mum get-togethers. While I hand Arthur a pitta stuffed with roasted veg, the other toddlers are tucking into sausage rolls and those handy little bags of pre-cooked chicken. I try to remain calm as I hover over Arthur to make sure no-one slips him some ham, while insisting that yes he’s allowed meat, just not when he’s got yummy vegetables.
Gradually, I’m having to accept that if meat I haven’t prepared myself fills me with more horror than actually cooking it, then that’s what I have to do to maintain my stance. Frozen fish fillets have become my saviour. They’re easy and not too gruesome to prepare, and I can flake them into everyday meals, like sauces for couscous or pasta, for an instant hit of fleshy protein. I’ve even mastered fish pie, which makes both the boys in my house happy. And every so often my husband does a roast, providing leftovers to chop up and chuck into my normal vegetarian offerings.
The rest of the time, I do my best to make sure he gets an interesting, healthy diet. Cheese and eggs are well-known for being rich in protein. But nuts, peas and beans are also good. Combining cereals like wheat, oats and rice with legumes like peas, lentils and beans helps provide complete protein. And pulses like chickpeas and lentils, seeds, leafy green vegetables, bread and nuts all provide iron.
So I mix lentils into pasta sauce, mash up beans for homemade bean-burgers and whizz up chickpeas and tahini for hummus with pitta bread. Throwing in some peanut butter on multi-seed bread every so often helps cover my back.
I’m no nutritionist. My cooking is based on common sense and rather haphazard research. But Arthur seems fit and healthy, and pretty happy with all those pulses. For now. I am well aware, however, that in a few years he will be begging for Happy Meals, and then the lines will have to be re-drawn all over again.Alice Wright is a freelance writer. She has one son, aged 17 months. Her New Year’s resolution is to be tidier (same as last year, and the year before). Follow Alice on Twitter
Are you vegetarian? Do you prepare or allow your children to eat meat? Are vegetarian children missing something important? Let our readers know in the comments below.