By Wendy Altschuler
I grew up in a meat-eating family in Montana. My father was a hunter, my friend’s fathers were hunters, and nearly every boy (and some girls) I knew went through some form of Hunter Safety course so that they could enter into the sport of hunting. It was not uncommon to see a killed deer strapped to the roof of a truck driving down Main Street or dead animal legs sticking up in the air and over the side of a vehicle. Meat eating was, in many ways, a source of pride for my family. It symbolized my father’s ability to provide for his family by putting meat on the table. Meat was considered a staple and a necessary component to a healthy diet. If there was no meat on your plate it meant that times were a bit difficult financially. I was never a fan of meat, especially wild game, but in my house meat was what was for dinner. I didn’t have a choice, I was to eat it or go hungry.
When I moved out of my folk’s house at 17 I was drawn towards a more vegetarian friendly lifestyle. I believed that there were many other options other than meat for a healthy diet. If we could get our protein and nutrition from a plant based diet why would we kill an animal? Why would we be willing to destroy the environment if we didn’t have to? I remember feeling very empowered that I could eat what I want, support kindness towards animals, and be an advocate for the environment. I didn’t have to subscribe to a meat-eating culture like those around me. I felt strong, independent and full of conviction.
These feelings carried over into my marriage with my meat-eating husband. We lived a life of separate meals-he would cook his and I would cook mine. Most of the time, we didn’t even eat at the table together. We made multiple shopping trips so that I wouldn’t have to buy meat and support the meat industry with my dollars. Even though I was very much against eating and purchasing meat, I certainly didn’t want to judge my husbands decisions or make him adopt my beliefs. We were both adults, making our own choices for our own lives.
Maybe if he had grown up seeing animal heads attached to his dinner, he would think differently about putting another beings flesh in his body. I’ve always thought that if people all of a sudden had to kill their own food or volunteer at a slaughterhouse, there would be more vegetarians! My husband grew up outside of Chicago where meat is displayed in grocery stores in nice little packages. It’s easy to disassociate from what you’re eating when you only see meat wrapped up this way, already dead, instead of in the back of a pick up truck like I did.
Cooking separate meals was a system that worked for us well into my first pregnancy. I maintained a healthy vegetarian diet even though others thought I wouldn’t be able to get enough protein-a common misconception. I ate plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, peanut butter, and tofu, which kept me fit and strong and it felt good knowing that my baby was only getting the best nutrition. My husband, on the other hand developed high cholesterol due to his diet. This prompted him to try a more plant-based diet to see if his health would improve. And what do you know, it did! From that point on, my husband decided that a vegetarian diet would be best for him as well.
We were now a vegetarian family! I’m so glad that I never pressured my husband into becoming a vegetarian or deliberately made him feel bad for eating meat. After eight years together, he made the choice on his own accord. When our son was born, it was easy to continue our vegetarian lifestyle. I nursed my baby and fed him only natural, organic vegetarian food. He was in the 90th percentile for weight and height for most of his first year!
Now, I have three boys ages 4, 2, and 7 months and I’m proud to say that they’ve been vegetarians their whole lives! This lifestyle isn’t without its challenges however. Eating at a friend or family member’s house can sometimes be an issue because an alternate main course might have to be provided in order to accommodate us. We have to think ahead (as we should anyway) and make sure we bring healthy vegetarian snacks for our children.
Also, the teacher at my oldest son’s preschool has to be diligent about what is fed to my son at snack time. Under the form I had to submit listing any allergies I wrote “VEGETARIAN.” I have to make sure that nobody feeds my son meat at Thanksgiving and holiday parties at his school. I am my son’s best campaigner; however, I can’t always be there to monitor what food he eats. I have to just trust that others will follow my requests when he is in their care.
I’m concerned about what kind of problems might arise when my son’s are older and when they start making more decisions for themselves. I’ve always felt that being a vegetarian is a personal choice. I wouldn’t want my boys to feel left out or be made fun of for their eating habits at school. I resented my parents for forcing me to eat meat and I wouldn’t want to do the same thing to my children by forcing them NOT to eat meat. So, in the end I will let them choose for themselves and hopefully they will follow by my example. I will, however, still exercise my beliefs and principles by not buying meat and cooking it at home whether my kids want it or not.
As parents raising vegetarian kids, we sometimes have to be crafty and have good resources in our arsenal. Thankfully, there are many books and websites for health-conscious families. A great book is “Raising Vegetarian Children: A Guide to Good Health and Family Harmony” by Joanne Stepaniak. Stepaniak says, “Vegetarianism is not only a safe option but health-supporting choice that can give kids a strong advantage for living a long, happy and disease-free life.” I also really like the cookbook “The Natural Lunchbox: Vegetarian Meals for School, Work, and Home” by Judy Brown. This cookbook has many healthy, natural, vegan and vegetarian recipes that are quick and easy. Another fantastic resource is “The Accidental Vegan” by Devra Gartenstein. This cookbook pulls from diverse global cultures for its vegetarian and vegan recipes. Anasazi Bean Dip, Veggie Walnut Pâté, and Mu Shu Veggie role recipes are included in this cookbook.
Parents can also visit some really encouraging and helpful websites such as The Vegetarian Resource Group: http://www.vrg.org/family/kidsindex.htm, which has information, recipes, and nutrition guides for kids and teens. I found the nutritional charts to be the most helpful because instead of the traditional meat model food pyramid, these guides cater to a vegetarian and/or vegan lifestyle for babies through the teenager years. From this website, you can also join VRG’s online list for parents raising their children vegetarian/vegan at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/vrgparents/
Choose Veg.com (http://www.chooseveg.com/vegan-health.asp) is fantastic for all of its insightful information about becoming a vegetarian for animal, health and environmental reasons. Their website is very easy to navigate and the information is accessible and easy to digest.
I believe vegetarianism has sort of gained a mass following in the last decade or so. According to a survey conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group, there are approximately 6 million Americans following a vegetarian or vegan diet. Things are much different now than when I was a child. I didn’t know anyone who was a vegetarian when I was growing up and there were no vegetarian restaurants. With the current popularity of vegetarianism, eating out is as easy as ever due to all of the non-meat options on the menu. Today, even in Montana and other rural areas, there are vegetarian and vegan options. I can order my latte with soymilk, eat a vegetarian burger at the local burger joint, and buy fresh vegetables and fruit at the Farmer’s Market.
Consumers are making smarter choices about their health and what they put in their bodies. With the rise of cancer related deaths in America, people are looking toward healthier eating options. According to the American Cancer Society, “Studies that look at people and their habits have linked vegetarian diets with a decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and colon cancer.” The American Cancer Society also states, “Vegetarianism is very popular in the US and abroad because it is thought to be a healthier approach to diet and nutrition. The American Cancer Society’s most recent nutrition guidelines recommend eating a balanced diet with an emphasis on plant sources.”
My mother was recently diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and is currently going through chemotherapy. Having cancer has forced my mother to look closer at what she puts in her body. Less fat, more fiber, whole grains, beans, nuts, flax seeds and antioxidant rich plant based foods might be the key to lowering your risk for many types of cancer.
Another reason I’ve decided to raise my children with a meat-free diet is the global outbreak of food-borne illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a whopping 76 million new cases of food-related illness in the United States are reported each year and of these cases there are 5,000 deaths! Of these 5,000 food born illness deaths, nearly a third are related to meat and poultry. This is a great risk and something we should all think about when feeding our families.
I think it’s also important to consider the impact we are making on the environment with our choices as consumers. Dr. David Brubaker at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future says, “The way that we breed animals for food is a threat to the planet. It pollutes our environment while consuming huge amounts of water, grain, petroleum, pesticides and drugs. The results are disastrous.” Choosing to be a vegetarian directly benefits the environment and its resources. Producing a large amount of food to feed animals before slaughter is incredibly inefficient and it destroys our valuable and limited resources. Cow manure, deforestation, synthetic fertilizer, and burning fossil fuels all contribute to global warming.
As a mother, I am trying to raise my family in a healthy and thoughtful way, which sometimes takes a bit of courage and fervor. Keeping our bodies in good physical shape now and well into old age is one of the best gifts we can give our children. Adopting the vegetarian lifestyle makes sense for us and it shows that we care about the protection of animals, our health and a sustainable environment. I hope my boys will appreciate these values as they grow into men and build their own families.