parents

When your child starts making major life decisions... at age 5.

Family mealtimes are not  the same in our house since a little person asked a big question.

“Mum? Am I eating an animal?”

This is what my daughter, Matilda, started asking at the dinner table a few weeks ago.

Matilda was four-years-old. She is now five (BIG difference, everyone).

Holly’s daughter Matilda.

Anyone with small children knows that they bring all of the questions, all the time.

In fact, young people, if you want mealtimes to remain peaceful and uninterrupted by life’s big questions, keep taking your contraception.

“And are YOU eating an animal?”

After we have established that yes, every individual around the table was indeed eating an animal, guess what?

She didn’t let it lie.

Matilda: “What kind of animal is it?”

Me: “It’s a moo-c… it’s a cow.”

M: “Is it dead?”

Me: “I really hope so.”

M: “How did it die?”

Me: “Um. I think it got shot. Sorry, NO, I remember now, it just went to sleep.”

M: “Did it hurt?”

Me: “Definitely not.”

M: “It didn’t hurt but it DIED?!” *Disbelieving look*. “Why didn’t it just run away?”

Me: “Um, because it was… it was… in prison.”

M: “That’s just horrible. Why do people eat animals?”

Me: “…?”

Now, my daughter has barely eaten any meat or fish in three weeks.

That’s it. My five-year-old, just-started-school girl is a wildlife warrior, a friend to the animals.

Every plate within her vision gets an accusatory finger and a disdainful glare, “What animal is THAT?”

Super Matilda defender of animals!

Okay, so it could be argued that I didn’t answer her questions very well, and that I told a few porkies (pun intended), but any parent will tell you that kids never ask questions at a time when your are feeling informed and perfectly prepared. And none of these questions have neat, easy answers.

More on vegetarians: 9 questions about vegetarianism, answered by a very mellow vego.

My partner and I spend a lot of time reading books about animals to our kids. In those books, the animals talk, and have personalities, emotions and interior lives. They have adventures, and human friends, and families who love them.

And then we expect them eat the animals, without question.

Would you eat Peppa and her family?

Every parent knows that moment when your child makes the connection between Peppa Pig and sausage-sandwich pig. It’s a moment when a tiny bit of innocence is lost from their world.

Now, I have no problem with my child becoming a vegetarian – apart from, how it’s already almost IMPOSSIBLE to get your children to eat vegetables, so them not eating much else raises the difficulty level of dinner time considerably – I just don’t think I expected my daughter to have such strong opinions about things so young. Like, you know, a real person.

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Just like all the other real people I know, who have also have so many opinions – mostly about whether or not a five-year-old can make such a big decision. Roughly, they fall into the following camps:

The ‘let her go with it’ gang.

I am (mostly) in this gang. I am not, after all, going to literally force meat down my young daughter’s throat. “Support her all the way,” says one of wise mum mates. “Tell her that’s just fine, she’ll probably forget about it anyway.” Not my daughter. My daughter is like a tiny, ginger baby elephant. She forgets nothing.

The ‘give her an alternative’ gang.

“What I did,” says another buddy, ” was make a little ceremony at the beginning of dinner where we thanked the animal for dying for us.” Readers, I confess that I am not with my children for ALL of their meals, but I did actually try this one. “Thank you, Mr Pig, for letting us eat your delicious ham on this delicious pizza,” I found myself saying, in one of those ‘what have I become?’ moments. “THANK YOU MR PIG,’ echoed Matilda. And then took all the ham off the pizza and piled it up on my plate.

The ‘Surely, she’s 5, she’ll eat what she’s given’ gang.

I like to call this crowd, ‘People who have never eaten a meal with a small child’. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong, but my children are not good at ‘just eating what they’re given.’ Either we end up in a mouthful-by-mouthful battle to the finish which could take all night, sap everyone’s will to live and end up in so much bribery that Mr Wonka couldn’t cover it, or most of it ends up on the floor, the walls, and everyone’s clothes. So, I figure I’ll continue to keep offering the meat, but what happens next, well, it’s anyone’s game.

The ‘just make sure she eats all the other good things’ gang.

A member of this club is the excellent food brain, nutritionist Susie Burrell. Susie told me, “Vegetarian diets for children can be nutritionally complete as long as they include iron and zinc, consumed from wholegrain bread and cereals, eggs and legumes such as kidney beans.” I love Susie, but this made me spiral into anxiety as I tried to think of ways to get Matilda to eat a kidney bean. Well… maybe when she’s asleep.

The ‘uh-oh, that’s a lot of work’ gang.

“Are you really ready to make separate meals for her, every day?” they ask. Well… maybe we’ll all have to go that way. One of my colleagues cheerfully told me that she did a Matilda when she was nine, and never looked back, not eating meat to this now, late-30s day. I myself became a vegetarian when I was 11 – mostly as a reaction to listening to The Smiths a lot – and stayed that way for 12 years. What I remember most from my early veggo days was getting a lame vegetarian cookbook and forcing my family to eat cottage-cheese burgers with me. Things got much better after that, when I let go of the cottage cheese.

Holly with her kids.

But the last word should go to Matilda, who, faced with a sausage sandwich and some cake at her birthday party on the weekend, just looked at me and asked:

“Is cake an animal?”

“No, babe, cake’s not an animal.”

“Then I’m just going to eat cake. Always.”

Wise words, my girl.

So now I need you to tell me, what do you do about a vegetarian 5-year-old?