As I looked through the responses to a party invitation recently, I was surprised to see a scribbled note from one of the parents, informing me their daughter was a vegetarian. A vegetarian? At five years old? How ridiculous.
You can't tell me a five-year-old can make informed decisions about the ethics of eating meat, which means her dietary choice has been made for her by her parents. Granted, all children have their food chosen for them by adults, but should we really restrict such a significant food group based solely on our own beliefs?
Generally speaking, there are two types of vegetarians: those who eschew meat on health grounds, and those who believe it's unethical to eat animals. Regardless of your own views, is it right to foist them on your children? No three-year-old is going to tug on mum's apron strings and ask for Quorn for dinner because he's concerned about his cholesterol, and I very much doubt his peers are protesting against slaughterhouses. They simply aren't old enough to make an informed choice, and brainwashing a child into thinking that 'meat is murder' is just plain wrong.
Like any extreme lifestyle choice – banning television, refusing kids sweets – it's likely to backfire. As soon as those apron strings are loosened, little Johnnie'll be in the queue for McDonalds, slavering over the forbidden fruit that is a Double Big Mac with Cheese and Extra Gherkins.
I don't blame him. At least let your kids experience the joy that is a bacon sandwich, or a tender piece of roast chicken, before subjecting them to a lifetime of Sunday nut roasts and tofu sandwiches. If they decide they want to be veggie when they reach an intelligent age, good for them! But don't decide for them – let them make their own choice.
Journalist and broadcaster Kelly Rose Bradford is a life-long vegetarian. "My son William has been vegetarian since birth,' she says. 'He eats anything from Indian to Mexican and everything in between, and is in robust health. I believe that eating meat is wrong, so why would I feed it to my child?"
Dawn Blake agrees. "People are always giving me a hard time about bringing my children up vegetarian, and offer up all sorts of arguments about how I'm oppressing or depriving my children. Why shouldn't I make decisions for my family based on my concerns about the welfare of the planet, or the importance of animal rights?" As for arguments that she might be damaging her children's developing by refusing them meat, she is quick to respond. "I've been vegetarian since I was nine, and I've got a doctorate: it clearly didn't do me any harm."
I'm not the only one who disagrees with Ailsa's and Kelly's views, and I'm relieved to see that it's not just because I'm a carnivore. Rose Thompson has been a vegetarian since she was 17, but never once considered bringing her children up veggie. "I felt they could decide when they were older,' she tells me. 'As it happens, they both love meat. They'd eat it still running around the field, if they could. I wanted mine to make their own decision: I can't deny I hope they give it up one day."
Harriet Rycroft has two sons, now aged 19 and 21. She and her husband are both vegetarian, but their children have always eaten meat. "Our reasons for being vegetarian are mostly around welfare and sustainability," she tells me. "But we would never force our views on anyone else. It's rather like religion: people have to make up their own minds. If we'd brought the boys up as vegetarian it would have been us imposing our beliefs on them, and that didn't feel right."
Both boys still eat meat, and Harriet's OK with that. "I hope they are aware of the issues, and try to at least choose good quality, rather than mass-produced, meat, but at their age I know cost is a big factor in what they buy. I might not agree with them eating meat, but it's their choice, just like it's my choice to be vegetarian."
And that's the bottom line for me: vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice, and one we should leave for our children to make freely. By all means educate your kids about the different options available to them, but don't decide for them. It could be a big missed steak.
What do you think?
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