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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a young daughter who has just started eating solids. I am a vegan and her dad is a meat- eater, and we have decided to raise her as a vegetarian until she is old enough to decide for herself what sort of diet she wants to follow. We are both happy with this decision, and support one another in our diet choices. My question is how we discuss these choices with her, as I imagine she will start noticing the differences between our meals at a young age, probably earlier than she can make the decision to eat meat or not. I want to be truthful, but not make Dad out as the bad guy for eating animals, and not give her anxieties around what foods she can and can’t eat.
—Meat-free in Melbourne
To be honest, you are giving me anxieties around what foods she can and can’t eat. It’s wonderful that you and your husband are so respectful of each other’s choices (though dinnertime must be quite the production, with you two eating different meals every night) but I have to tell you that I think three separate food plans in one household is overambitious. (Who is cooking these separate meals, anyway? Are you and your husband each responsible for making your own food … and you’re going to take turns preparing food for your child, or what?) Even thinking about what breakfast looks like in your home makes me a little dizzy.
I don’t think there is any way to present all of this to your vegetarian child as she enters the asking-why-about-everything years—some children start at the ripe old age of 2—without value judgments entering the picture. Keeping it value-free (“Daddy eats meat because he likes it, and Mama doesn’t because she doesn’t like it!”) opens—or should open—the door to your daughter wanting to try meat and see for herself if she likes it. Are you OK with that? From what you describe, it sounds like it may be hard for you to talk about why you don’t eat meat without making Daddy out to be a monster. You’re right to be concerned. There’s no way to win here, not if you are determined to raise her on a vegetarian diet.
If you want to know what I think (and I guess you do), I’d say you have two choices. One is to feed her in the least restrictive way possible—that is, offer her a choice of everything that anyone else is eating (which, yes, would include meat)—and that “choice” you mentioned would be one she makes herself, when she is old enough to. The other—if you feel strongly that she should not eat meat, and your husband is sympathetic to your convictions—is for your husband to do his meat-eating elsewhere, so that at least two people at the table for each meal are on the same diet. The bottom line is: you (or your husband) can’t have it all. Something has got to give. (The good news: as your child grows up, there are so many more hard choices you and your husband will have to make! So you’ll have practice at this, which will serve you well!)