The other night as I often do, I had my two children, aged four and five, help me cook dinner. We were making lasagne. As I frizzled up the mince, my son asked me what it was. I told him it was mince. "Yes, but what IS mince, Mum? How do they make it at the shop?"
Did he really want to know, I wondered? Despite being one of those children who constantly asks "Why?", this was one question he'd never really asked before. I mean, he knows chicken is chicken, but how he interprets that I don't exactly know. We'd never discussed beef. Was the reality of where the meat really came from too confronting for a five-year-old? I wasn't sure. But not being keen on the idea of my son starting kindergarten next year completely oblivious to where his food really comes from, I told him the simple truth: "Mince is cows, buddy."
His brow creased in confusion. "What?! Cows? What do you mean it's cows? Pieces of chopped up cows? Eeewww. That's disgusting. You shouldn't have told me that Mum. I'm not going to eat meat now I know it's my favourite animal." His words burned into my brain. I felt dreadful. He seemed sad. Had I made a mistake by being truthful? Feeling awful, I back tracked. I told him I was only joking and not to worry about what I'd said... but it was too late, the damage was done. He didn't eat his lasagne that night.
I understand how confronting the idea of eating animals can be. I spent many years of my teens and early twenties as a practicing vegetarian and then vegan because I couldn't handle the reality of where the food on my plate came from. I no longer eat a meat-free diet, but I have total respect for those that choose to do so. It makes sense. Personally, I have to switch off and not think about where my food comes from to eat it.
The innocent minds of many children are not so happy to accept that we should be eating animals for dinner. A quick google search proved my son was certainly not the first five-year-old to refuse a meal after learning its true origins.
It's funny, we teach our children their first words, pointing out pictures of farm animals as the pages turn. We take them to see cows, pigs, and chickens as a fun adventure, and we teach them that animals are our friends; we let them feed baby lambs, never mentioning what the future holds for these creatures. It's a little confusing for some kids to be told that we eat these animal friends. A clever child will quickly realise an animal must die to be chopped up and turned into food. Some children are unfazed by this fact, others are simply horrified. Like my son.
Will he forget the conversation and eat beef again soon? I don't know. Maybe. Have I approached the subject since? No, I have not. And I don't really have any intention to. I don't exactly want to make him a vegetarian by oversharing the gory details of where his sausages really come from, but I also don't like to lie to him. I didn't even go into any detail about mince, and that was still enough to freak my son out.
If he wants to talk about it, he can ask me about meat and I will explain it to him in the most simplistic way possible. I will discuss the food chain and how animals often eat other animals, how it is nature. If he then decides he doesn't want to eat meat anymore, I will respect that choice, and I will provide him with a vegetarian diet that is just as healthy as one that includes meat.
I never thought a five-year-old should have autonomy over their diet, after all, I've spent his whole life trying to reinforce that he needs to eat what he is given. But when faced with the moral question of meat eating, I find myself torn. Regardless of my parenting obligations, I just don't believe it's my right to force my children to eat meat if they don't want to.