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Meats, shoots, and leaves – A mum finds peace with what her child eats

One of the most controversial topics in parenting is surprisingly food – from their first foods, bottle or breast or both, to their first solids, to their diet as they grow there are opinions ahoy! Here’s Leah Hamilton’s story about how she decided what to feed her daughter.

During my pregnancy with my first child, the main things I thought about in relation to introducing solids were that I didn’t want her to be a picky eater, and I also wanted to video her when she first ate lemon. I somehow mentally bypassed the fact that my husband and I ate primarily vegan food, and had decided to eliminate meat from our diets at home for a multitude of reasons. This would (of course) affect the food we had in the house, and what we would feed our daughter.

When we were ready to start solids, I felt bombarded by information from all sorts of places. I had heard that baby rice was not so good anymore, baby led weaning was the way to go, and that it was best if I made my own baby food at home. I had also heard that baby rice was extremely important, baby led weaning would cause my daughter to choke, and that the squeezy baby food pouches were lifesavers. I thought “I can’t possibly raise this baby to be vegan” and having her best interests at heart I dutifully went out and bought some beef and chicken. Every time I bought meat, I felt weird. Why was I buying something for my daughter that I would not eat myself? I definitely didn’t want to be one of those vegans who ends up in the news for only feeding their child soy milk and buckwheat, but I also didn’t want to make choices that I didn’t feel were ethically right for our family.

Baby boy eating pureed food

So I did some research (thanks Dr. Google!), talked to Plunket, talked to our GP (thanks Dr. Doctor!) and decided with my husband that we would find a middle ground and raise our daughter to be a vegetarian. We figured that with cheese and yoghurt she wouldn’t miss out on calcium, fat, or B12, and with other nutrients coming from eggs, grains, pulses, and fruit and vegetables, she would be fine. Initially this wasn’t a big deal: she couldn’t talk, she ate pretty much whatever was put in front of her, and she was too young to question which foods we eat and which foods we don’t.

She’s nearly two and a half now, and has started to show a greater interest in what we are eating and where it comes from, which has at times proved to be a little complicated. We told her that almond milk and soy milk come from plants, while cow’s milk comes from a cow. Every time she drinks cow’s milk, she says “Thank you cow!” and it’s very adorable. But then 20 minutes later I find myself saying “Just because we eat plants, it doesn’t mean you should eat all plants. Please put that random berry back outside and don’t eat it because it could make you very sick”, and “Evelyn!! Did you bite this leaf off the capsicum plant?!”.

So we soldier on and keep trying to teach her about our diet and why we don’t eat animals. But it’s a bit harder to explain “When you eat meat, the animal that it came from … dies. It’s dead like that bird you saw outside and poked with a stick yesterday.” She listens carefully and says something like “Makes cow sad! I don’t want cow be sad. I don’t eat meat!”, and I think “Yes, I have done such a great job today.” And then at Playcentre the next day somebody offers her a piece of sausage and she eats it. At that point there’s nothing I can do other than to remind her gently that sausages are made from animals (and not even the good bits!), and that if she doesn’t want to eat animals she shouldn’t eat the sausage next time.

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I’ve been asked “Don’t you think it’s wrong to force your vegetarian beliefs on your children?”. No, I don’t. It’s my job as a parent to teach my children to behave how I think is right, which for us includes not eating animals, not hitting other kids, not eating lollies all day, being kind to other people, and cleaning up after ourselves. She will still make her own choices and have her own preferences (“I don’t pick up Duplo! Daddy do it!”), but it’s my duty to try to teach her what I think is right and wrong, and provide her with relevant, truthful information. She can make her own informed choices when she is older, but for now, much like I don’t let her eat lollies all day, I also don’t cook meat for her anymore, and I do insist that she pick up her own Duplo.

Of course we also get the questions of “What about iron? What about protein? Is that even healthy?”. Contrary to popular belief, vegetarian diets are not 90% lettuce, they’re not deficient in protein, and iron is pretty easy to come by. You can find it in beans, lentils, chickpeas, leafy greens, and even Marmite. There’s always vitamin liquid too, if I’m worried we’ve been living off too many quesadillas and not enough healthy food.

Now that a couple of years have gone by and my second child is about to start solids, I feel increasingly confident that our kids are going to grow up happy and healthy without meat. I’m even starting to field more questions like “Can you give me some vegetarian recipes?” and “Would you like this vegan lasagna?” rather than “Do you really think that’s good for your children?”. I think we have a long way to go before vegetarian children are considered to be normal rather than weirdos, especially in New Zealand where meat and dairy reign upon high, but at the very least I no longer feel like some hippy or neglectful parent for deciding to raise my family in the way I think is right for us.

The next step for me is making sure my daughter understands the difference between radishes, horseradish, and horses. For goodness sake it’s been 40 minutes, if you would eat your damn potato salad already and stop saying “neigh”.

Leah Hamilton is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Wellington. She spends her days thinking about climate change and sustainable development, computer games, and which wine would pair best with a screaming child.

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