Is My Son Missing Out By Being a Vegetarian?

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I’ve been a fish-, egg- and dairy-eating vegetarian since I graduated college — that’s more than three decades (please don’t do the math!). I started mainly for health reasons (I don’t think meat’s good for you and back then free-range chicken wasn’t so available), but those reasons have drifted into world-health ones as well. When not dining out, I’m pretty vegan. My husband J avoids red meat, BBQs notwithstanding, and still enjoys chicken.

Then we got A. And, guess what, it didn’t change everything. Early on, when J and I discussed A being a vegetarian or not, J was worried it could be too challenging outside of home. But I reasoned that since I do most of the cooking and never cook meat, I wasn’t going to start now — since I don’t believe it’s essential. And since kids have all kinds of food allergies and religious dictates these days, I figured being a vegetarian wouldn’t be so hard. I asked a vegetarian friend of mine whose children are now teenagers how she managed. She said, somewhat wearily, she made a lot of pasta salad for those school lunches — and when her son turned 13, he had the choice of trying meat, which he’s doing. Armed with this information, we decided to go for it.

A has a balanced diet, so I’m not worried about his nutritional intake. He declares he hates eggs, which is a drag on the complete-protein front. We saw this phase coming, so J penned an “I love eggs” song for the piano, which A loves. But, he still hates eggs. So we are giving eggs a rest.

We quiz A on what he ate in Ethiopia. Mangoes and corn are high on the list, as well as injera bread that goes with spicy stews you can find at Ethiopian restaurants (all still his favorite), of which I can cook some bastardized versions. We are pretty sure he had chicken and goat there as well as cow’s milk straight from the udder (which he says made him “throw up”). He says he didn’t like eating chicken, but his birth mom made him (we’re not sure if that’s rewritten history on his part). From what he says, he saw chickens being slaughtered and readied for a feast. That certainly could be a turn off to a 3-year-old.

When A arrived in the United States two years ago, he was nearly 5 and he hated sugar. He’d eat a cupcake, but only after he took off the icing. Now he’s like any other kid, clamoring for cookies and fruit roll-ups and there’re never enough ice cream cones. Sure, we indulge him with Oreo-type cookies (Newman’s O’s) and Annie’s mac ‘n’ cheese. And at birthday parties? Thank heavens for pizza. His preferred slice? With mushrooms. What kid has mushrooms as a favorite vegetable? This one.

We fumbled a bit if, when dining out, J chose a meat dish such as basil Thai chicken. At first we didn’t tell A, but that omission felt deceitful and eventually the truth would come out (particularly because A often wants a taste of what dad is having). And we don’t want him to disrespect other kids’ and families’ choices, so we tell him some people eat animals and some people don’t. And when he occasionally says, “It’s not fair I can’t eat chicken,” we tell him he can eat whatever he wants when he’s an adult. I don’t think he really wants it (see chicken experience above) — he just wants to have what his friends are having. Usually, he’s proud that he’s a vegetarian (although he still stumbles on that word sometimes). 

As for me, I don’t find feeding him good healthy meals difficult, but it’s odd to not give my son the same cooking and eating experiences that I shared with my family growing up. He won’t wake up to the scent of of bacon (I haven’t had bacon for decades, but still love the smell), learn how to properly grill a burger from dad, learn to love scrapple (which is super gross in retrospect, but we clamored for it), or enjoy simple leftover-meatloaf sandwich. Dad made a big deal out of “spaghetti night,” but without meatballs, it’s not much of an occasion — vegan ones just aren’t the same. 

I wasn’t going to start broiling chicken over this, and as I thought about it, I realized our meal memories are so much more than meat. We had raucous nights around the kitchen table with arguments about anything and everything (I have three brothers). Dad used to warm our plates to keep the food hot in our cold drafty house, insist on us eating the “European way” (not waiting for everyone to be served before we pick up our forks) and not let us salt our food before we tasted it (all good!). And just as memorable as the smell of bacon sizzling are dad’s black bean soup with a slice of hard-boiled egg (and a drizzle of sherry) and mom’s cherry pies, baked with fruit freshly picked from our tree.

We can’t share all our memories with our kids, and I’m not sure a slice of vegetable lasagna will be as memorable as an impressive roast leg of lamb with fresh rosemary, but maybe the lamb-shaped cake will do it. Or icing cupcakes with mom and making french toast will dad.  And I found some killer faux-meat spicy sausages to go with the spaghetti. I’ll let you know in 10 years if it all sticks or not. 

Photo: Getty