Conversations with Kids about Food and Choices
Sometimes youngsters announce they no longer want to eat meat. They may be turned off by the notion of consuming animals. They may think a plant-based diet is better for the planet. Or they may simply—and suddenly—loathe the taste and texture of beef, pork and chicken. What do you do?
For one thing, check out a new book by Canadian food journalist Sarah Elton. It’s called Meatless? A Fresh Look at What You Eat. For kids aged eight to 12, it explores vegetarianism, why people choose it, and how their reasons—including animal rights, food security, and environmental concerns—have changed over time. Not only does it invite kids to think for themselves, it also includes practical tips and a simple meal plan for kids who want to try a meatless week. Above all, it’s about being thoughtful about food choices.
As the author of Consumed, Locavore, and Starting from Scratch, Sarah is not a vegetarian; as the mother of two young girls, though, she’s seasoned in fielding questions about food and choices. Sarah has graciously agreed to provide some answers for Ottawa Family Living too.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Food culture is changing really quickly both here in Canada and also around the world. Meat is a topic of conversation. The love of meat is spreading quickly to countries like China and India, where people haven’t traditionally eaten much meat or any at all. At the same time, people are thinking more about food and their health, as well as the health of the planet. They’re also thinking about how what they eat is connected to the lives of other beings, such as animals. So we’ve seen the rise of not only vegetarianism but also veganism. And kids are aware of what’s happening around them. They’re listening to conversations and thinking about big issues, too. That’s why I wanted to write a book for them: to include them in these larger conversations that we’re having about food.
What do you want your own kids to know about making food choices?
My daughters are nine and 12 and they’re really interested in food. Not just eating good food but also talking about food issues and learning to cook. They’ve come with me on many reporting trips so they’ve been lucky to meet illegal backyard chickens in Toronto, visit a heritage livestock farm, watch me kill a chicken with a farmer, and go on other exciting adventures. They know a lot about food. What I want them to think about most, however, is eating food that is good for them (not too much sugar, please!) and for the planet. They’re going to figure out exactly what that means for them as they grow up!
What can parents do if their kids want to be (or try being) vegetarians?
It might be alarming to hear that your child doesn’t want to eat a food that may be a staple. I am never happy when one of my girls announces she’s not going to eat something anymore. But I think food choices can be made together and in conversation. Perhaps the family might talk about why humans eat meat and why some people don’t, just like I do in the book.
Unpacking why a child doesn’t want to eat meat might help figure out what they mean exactly when they say they want to change their food choices. Then I’d suggest trying it out for a week and seeing how it goes. Certainly it’s not helpful to family happiness if someone’s food choices create more work for the person in charge of food preparation, so kids should help in the kitchen with both food preparation and clean up. I think kids should be helping regardless of whether they eat meat or not.
Any tips for dealing with picky eaters?
Yes. Invite them into the kitchen and have them prepare food along with you, even let them help you choose what to make. Cooking can be such a creative process and it doesn’t have to be drudgery to put a meal on the table every day. (Though sometimes it can feel like that.) Obviously this is not possible daily so on those rushed family dinner nights I often make meals with different ingredients so family members can mix and match what they want on their plates. For instance tacos or rice bowls, even big salads that everyone can make their own. Also, dinner can be simple. We can give ourselves permission to eat simple, healthy home cooked meals. I love to eat pancakes for dinner with a side of salad.
What’s the message you want to get across to parents, kids and families?
I’d like parents and kids to find the joy and the connection that food can bring. That’s the connection we make with each other when we eat together, but it’s also a connection to the people who make our food, and to nature and the planet. This comes with some responsibility. If you start to think about who is picking your tomatoes, for example, you might wonder how well they are getting paid or you might start to think about how an animal that becomes your dinner is being treated. But then there’s joy in this connection too. I know I love to sit with friends and family and enjoy good food.
These easy, meatless recipes are from Sarah Elton’s previous book, Starting from Scratch.
Yummy Lentil Soup
1 cup dried red lentils
1 medium onion
1 garlic clove
2 stalks celery
2 medium potatoes
2 tbsp olive oil
6 cups water, or chicken or vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
1 Pour lentils onto a plate and pick out any tiny stones. Put lentils in a strainer and rinse them in cold water.
2 Peel onion, garlic, carrots and potatoes. Chop onion, then garlic, celery, carrots, and potatoes.
3 Heat the oil in a large saucepan on medium heat. Add the onion, stirring until brown—about five minutes. Add the garlic and stir for about a minute before adding the celery, carrots and potatoes.
4 Add the water or stock and the bay leaves. Add the lentils and stir, then bring to a boil.
5 Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes, until lentils are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.
6 cups large flake oats (not instant)
¾ cup honey or maple syrup
oil for greasing the pan
1 Preheat the oven to 350° F.
2 Lightly grease a large baking tray or pan.
3 Warm the honey or maple syrup in a small saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat when the sweetener is runny.
4 Spread the oats in the tray and pour the honey or maple syrup over the oats, stirring to mix well.
5 Bake the oats for 15 minutes, then take the tray out of the oven to stir the mixture. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes longer, until lightly browned. Keep a close watch to make sure the oats do not burn.
Add these extras to personalize your granola:
1 to 2 cups unsalted nuts or seeds. If you like, toast these by adding them to the granola tray during the last five minutes of baking.
½ cup dried, unsweetened coconut
1 cup raisins or other dried fruit, such as apricots, dates, or figs.
Store granola in a container with a tight-fitting lid. It keeps for about two months.