Can We Choose Vegetarianism for Our Kids?

Raising Vegetarian Boys

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.

Raising Vegetarian Boys

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.


  • george says:

    I think the simple answer is yes! They’ll have plenty of time in the future to make their own decisions, and a healthy meat free diet is not a compromised diet. It’s a shame the author of the article didn’t consider the ethical lesson she could be teaching her son, rather just talked about the concern for cheap, processed meats (although to be honest she sounded terribly confused about her own particular choices!) – children should and can learn from an early age where meat comes from, the energy that goes into producing meat, and the ethical and environmental (global too) consequences. Sounds too much? There are easy and simple ways without making it too heavy for kids, and we should give them more credit on what they can and would like to learn. Eating meat isn’t wrong, but eating too much meat (which as greedy consumers, we do far too much) and assuming it is our right to do so, is.

    • Hannah says:

      This couldn’t sum me up my feeling more great article! I feel strongly I shouldn’t push these views on my baby at an early age and beleive he needs that varied nutrition so I’m happy for him to eat good quality fish and free range British meat but the reality is he doesn’t eat it very much. Fortunately both sets of grandparents who help care for him now I’m back at work cook him fish and a bit of chicken but respect my request abt the meats origins! He can make his own mind up when he is older 🙂

  • Lorna says:

    What an odd article. The author doesn’t seem very convinced about either her vegetarian or feminist choices and is as flaky as her frozen fish fillets in following them. Which is a shame because she is clearly a loving and intelligent mother with the knowledge and experience to provide a tasty and nutritious diet. I too am vegetarian, I have been since I was nine and decided it was plain wrong to eat another animal, an individual rather than a family choice. I also have balanced feminist ideals. I treat my 22 month old twin boys in exactly the same way I imagine I would treat a daughter. Both of my boys are vegetarian until they are old enough to choose not to be. And they will grow up understanding where all their food comes from, veg, fruit, meat or otherwise, and that meat is often intensively reared and always slaughtered before it reaches the table. It hasn’t even crossed my mind that they might need meat ‘because boys naturally have a more blood thirsty appetite’, and I have never worried that they might be seen as a ‘tree-hugging wuss’. But I do hope they grow up to be kind and considerate. I too try to provide a balanced and nutritious diet and I am constantly trying to hide extra protein in their meals where I can. It can be very difficult to get them to eat what I think they should be eating. Some days I’m just pleased if they eat the bread as well as the cheese when they have a sandwich.

  • I don’t think this author sounds confused at all. I think she has included sentences such as ‘tree-hugging wuss’ for literary effect, as opposed to it being a reflection of her own feelings about male vegetarians. Humans are omnivorous, and I understand her desire to give her son a balanced and whole diet, including the complete protein of meat. Yes, we know we can get complete protein from vegetable sources, but it is easier, and often more satisfying for an active child (boy or girl) to have a little portion of meat.

    I totally understand her desire to feed him the best quality meat, as opposed to the processed, salty options found in cheap sandwiches and childcare facilities. And I totally understand that she feels she’s on her back foot when trying to explain this to people that don’t give meat quality a second thought, let alone show any understanding for the concept.

    I follow a pescetarian diet, giving up land-meat less than a year ago. I choose to feed my sons an unrestricted diet until they’re old enough to make their own dietary decisions. They get the best possibly quality of meat and fish that we can afford, and I’m sometimes met with confusion at this choice. I also find myself hovering if there are other poor-quality food choices on offer. It is a little bonkers, but it is how I am. I’d rather they eat the best. That said, they get a limited quantity of meat and fish, because I do feel that western society consume excessive portions. They get pulses, nuts and seeds, and enjoy them greatly. And I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks about their diet! Good article.

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