We’ve raised our kids to be mostly vegetarian. We have fish once every week or two, but we never cook any other meat at home. We sometimes eat meat in restaurants or in other people’s homes. So it’s really more accurate to say we eat a low-meat diet than to say we’re vegetarian. It’s more about the environment and our health than about animal rights.
Still, our 12-year-old Nicholas has grown up very aware that we don’t eat as much meat as the average family. He’s occasionally rebelled a little bit—like, when he got a typewriter, one of the first things he did was write a play about a man killing a chicken for dinner! As he’s gotten older, it’s become more common for him to order meat in restaurants that have plenty of vegetarian options.
On the other hand, in early elementary school, Nicholas enjoyed bragging to his friends that he had never eaten a hamburger or a hot dog! I think it’s still true that he’s never eaten a beef hamburger.
But I let him buy a hot dog when he was 10. We spent a rainy Saturday tromping around a neighborhood that was having yard sales, winding up at the community center where I wanted to browse the huge used-book sale before we went home for dinner. The community center was also selling hot dogs and bags of chips. Nicholas was hungry. The hot dogs, being hot and fragrant, seemed more appealing than the chips. I understood.
After eating in the hall outside the book sale, he came in and murmured to me, “That was kind of gross.” He has never asked for a hot dog again.
A year or so ago, he became enamored of the turkey burger at a restaurant we frequent. I’m especially wary of ground meat because the mixing of meat from multiple animals and the increased surface area increase the risk of food poisoning. But now that Nicholas is bigger than he used to be and has been in excellent health all his life, I feel more confident that he’ll survive. I’ve been letting him eat those turkey burgers when that’s what he wants.
Then one day, we went to Trader Joe’s without his 3-year-old sister. Nicholas began telling me how his gym teacher said he’s slightly underweight (true) and, because he’s about to start his adolescent growth spurt, he should eat more protein. He told me calmly that he understands that plant proteins, eggs, and dairy are good proteins, and he plans to keep getting most of his protein from those sources, but he feels cravings for meat sometimes. He asked to buy one box of four frozen turkey burgers with his own money. He said he would eat them discreetly so Lydia wouldn’t beg to have one too.
I appreciated his reasoned argument. I told him that I think cravings indicate what our bodies need. We bought the turkey burgers. He cooked and ate one every three or four days. They weren’t as good as the restaurant ones, but he liked them well enough and said they made him feel better.
The problem was that cooking a turkey burger splattered grease all over our stove area and made our cast-iron skillet greasy in a way that vegetarian foods never do. (But was it worse than fish? I say yes, because although the grease didn’t smell as bad, the texture of it was more unpleasant, hard to wash off my hands completely after I finally got the pan clean.)
The next time we went to Trader Joe’s, Nicholas asked for a steak.
My first reaction was, “Oh, come on now! Where will it all end?!” I felt like we should never have started down this slippery slope. Soon he would start demanding meat at every meal and…
Then I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it had been 3 weeks since he used up the turkey burgers. This was hardly an orgy of meat consumption.
I told him I didn’t mind his eating one steak, but I didn’t want to cook it or clean up after it. I’d had quite enough of meat grease.
He said he had researched how to cook a steak on YouTube and was looking forward to doing it himself by a proper technique. He would clean the pan: “You use coffee grounds, right? But if it’s meat, you can’t put them in the compost afterwards?” Right. And the coffee grounds are just for scrubbing off stuck-on food; the main trick for removing grease from cast iron is using plenty of really hot water.
Nick’s calm approach and helpful attitude were what really swayed me. Too often, he’s demanding and rude and tries to tell me how to do things rather than listening respectfully to what I know how to do. It’s because he was doing this right that I agreed to spend $9 on a steak, just this once, as a treat.
That steak set off our smoke detector! Frying oily food often triggers the smoke detector, because we don’t have a stove vent fan. We all know the drill for opening the windows, turning on a box fan pointed out of the kitchen, and making the horrible beeping stop. But for the steak, we had to turn off the smoke detector 4 times, and the kitchen really was visibly smoky!
The YouTube cooking technique worked, though. Nicholas let me have a bite, and that was steak, all right! It was tasty!
That one bite is all the steak I’m going to eat this year. I’m okay with that.
Nicholas polished off pretty much the whole steak in one sitting, sharing only a few bites. And I think that’s the only steak he will eat this year. At least, it’s the only one he’ll cook at home. The rest of us aren’t going to put up with all that smoke and beeping!! Also, I had to help clean the pan, because he was having trouble getting it clean. It was really slimy and awful.
But I let him have the experience of cooking a steak for himself. I let him have the experience of eating a whole steak. Now he’s done it. He doesn’t have to start doing it all the time.
We all have to decide which restrictions are absolutely crucial for our families and which ones can be bent. I think it’s worthwhile to bend, where we’re willing, when kids ask to try something. Trying it doesn’t make it the new normal. Being forbidden to try can lead to sneaking around, rebelling, doing the thing more than you really want to do just to prove that your parents don’t control you.
Read about how having rules but bending them as kids get older helped my parents raise healthy, frugal, responsible eaters, and how I’m applying what they taught me in raising my children, in my article at Kitchen Stewardship! [Note: Those are not my kids in the picture. Other KS contributors took some of the photos for this article.]