Around five years ago I became vegan and stopped eating all animal products. To me, that meant that my then 6-year-old daughter would also be mostly eating vegetables, grains and fruits. She was already a picky eater to be begin with, and up to that point I was pretty lenient about letting her pass on some of her veggies. But now her whole plate was covered in all of the green things she despised.
Her backlash came as tantrums at each meal. She would tell anyone with ears that her favorite food was meat and that her mother made her eat all of her vegetables. She crayoned “meat” on her kinder art projects. When pressed to specify a type of animal she said, “any meat will do." Her favorite saying at every meal was, “I won’t eat it if it’s vegan.”
It wasn’t like our change in diet came out of nowhere. For years, meat slowly disappeared from our kitchen. I dated a guy for a while who had colitis, an ulcer in his lower intestines, and didn’t eat red meat because it irritated his gut, so I just sort of tagged along and stopped eating steak and hamburgers.
Then I read that chicken is also hard on the intestines, so I stopped eating poultry: fish followed then eggs and dairy. Our plant-based diet was sort of an evolution; it wasn’t like we went from steak and potatoes to barely and parsley in a day – though I know people that have made abrupt changes and they are OK.
For the first six months of our transition, my daughter’s quinoa salads and shredded beet-slaw floated away in her tears. I spent an extra half hour at the dinner table waiting for her to at least take a bite of her steamed kale.
No ice cream if you don’t eat your sunchoke bisque (I love sunchokes, but be warned: They cause some serious flatulence). Lets count at least 10 bites together. We are not leaving this table until I see at least half of your barbecue seitan gone.
I started to suspect that her dietary revolt wasn’t purely out of utter devotion to meat, but perhaps due to me, her mother, forcing her to make choices she wasn’t ready to make.
Of course she didn’t want to join forces and chow on fermented cabbage. She had no context as to why sauerkraut is good for her tummy. Instead of pressuring her do what I wanted, I hoped that she could choose to do what she needed for her health on her own.
I told her that if she wanted meat, I would buy it for her, but dinnertime was for everyone, and we needed to make meals that everyone could enjoy. Plus I wasn’t about to make a separate meal after stirring arborio rice over a hot stove for an hour, and I refuse to hand her a bowl of cereal just because she doesn’t want to eat her green beans.
So instead of saying, “Because I said so,” we started learning what it means to eat primarily plants. Why are vegetables and fruits important? Why is it important to know what’s in your food? How does food affect your mind and body?
We began with documentaries like, “Fat Sick and Nearly Dead,” “Food Inc.,” and “Supersize Me.” We learned that you could get a serious skin disorder from eating junk food for a long period of time; we learned that fast food made Morgan Spurlock sick and tired; we learned that there are some gnarly practices within the commercialized meat production industry, and we learned that chemicals are sprayed on most fruits and vegetables.
Look, we are lucky. We live in LA. Health food stores are max 30 minutes away. There are farmer's markets almost every day of the week, and we have time in the evening to cook meals and pack lunches. (As far as the whole "vegan food is too expensive" argument, it can be done; it just takes some creativity. It’s the pre-made vegan, gluten free, gmo free, organic kale chips you may have to skip on, but that’s OK because it’s waaaay cheaper and waaaay tastier to make them yourself).
I just want to clarify also that dogmatic vegans annoy me too. You know the ones that launch into a sermon mid-meal about eating the cow’s pain and refuse to eat next to you when you gnaw on a hamburger.
I don’t care if you eat pork belly at every meal. I don’t think veganism/vegetarianism is for everyone. Hey, one day I may eat a rattlesnake kabob. I mean, really, if I was lost in the wilderness, I have no idea what plants I would keel over from. You better believe a cute bunny will be rotating on my camp rotisserie. (Bear Grylls, I am here if you need me.)
But right now, before I go running wild and parachuting into the Alaskan Mountain Rang, veganism/vegetarianism has taught us how to forage for our city food with awareness.
I had no idea that animal products are in most prepackaged foods like granola bars, Jell-O, veggie burgers (some patties have egg in them), canned soups and muffins. We have to scan the ingredients in everything.
And through being super meticulous, we unexpectedly discovered all the other added ingredients we can’t use in a sentence. Not only did we find hidden gelatin in marshmallows, we discovered a variety of strange contents in most processed foods.
So my rule is if it’s overly processed, and we don’t know what half the ingredients are, we opt for something with fewer tongue twisters.
Do you need to become a vegan to be healthy? Absolutely not. There are plenty of sugar-filled-vegan-cookies occupying rows of shelves at Whole Foods. Just because you eat only vegetables doesn’t mean you are doing your body good. There have been plenty of weeks where I binged on bagels and coffee and I still qualify as a plant-based eater; however, I felt like crap compared to eating fresh veggies regularly.
When my daughter was nine, I told her I was going to start eating eggs again. She replied that she was now a vegan. I said, “You eat a lot of cheese and yogurt. Vegans don’t eat dairy.” She said, “We don’t need to put labels on it.”
I grew up disconnected from how my food got to my plate. Hamburger Helper and Taco Bell rotated through meal times and corn, sugar and milk constituted breakfast. Food is what is developing our kids. Food is what is getting them through the day. How are they supposed to learn how to take care of themselves, if they don't know the value of their most fundamental need?
A no-meat diet is not for everyone, but for us making this change has exposed us to other underlying issues and encouraged us to make choices that benefit our needs.
One day we may make cornbeef in a crockpot, but as of now my daughter enjoys her rice bowls and vegetable harira. And on occasion you may even find her in the kitchen whipping up a vegan dinner herself.