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When Your Kid Declares: ‘I’m a Vegetarian’

Moral stand or simple preference, a child's meat-free convictions means big changes at the family's table.

Zephyr Martell credit Nevin Martell

The first time we tried feeding Zephyr meat was at a farmer’s market when he was just a year old. He had been eating solids for a while, so we thought he might like to try an empanada stuffed with chicken and potatoes. Initially, it seemed like a good match. Nibbling on the edge of the crimped crust, he gave an appreciative smile while chewing.

Then he took a larger bite. His smile vanished, replaced by a look of extreme distaste and a negative shake of his head. At first I thought it might be too spicy or too hot, but after sampling it myself I realized that wasn’t the case. Whatever. I figured it was either an issue of personal taste or the texture, and moved on.

Over the next year though, my wife and I began to notice a pattern. Zephyr appreciated the fruits, vegetables, grains, pastas, and dairy (especially when it came in the form of ice cream) we were feeding him. He did not like any meats. Not bacon, not fish, not burgers. Nothing.

Even when we didn’t tell him there was an animal protein in a dish, it usually only took him a single bite to make that determination. “No, Poppa,” he would say, pushing away his plate. “It doesn’t taste good.”

I was flummoxed. Maybe Zephyr was just a picky eater when it came to meat? As a professional food writer and a passionate omnivore, I was a little heartbroken this might be the case. We have friends whose kids hoover up sushi, have strong thoughts on their favorite barbeque joints, and consider bacon a food group. I had been looking forward to enjoying all of those things with Zephyr.

However, my wife and I never pushed the issue. It’s easy to cook meat-free food for a toddler. Sometimes, we would lovingly joke about our little vegetarian. We still thought it was just a phase. What tyke knows they’re vegetarian? Soon enough we’d all be eating ribs and burgers at our next backyard barbeque.

“No, Poppa,” he would say, pushing away his plate. “It doesn’t taste good.”

We did talk to a pediatric nutritionist, who assured us that not only is it perfectly normal for a child not to eat meat, but it wouldn’t have any negative consequences on his development. She did recommend he take a multivitamin with iron and an Omega-3 supplement, the latter to help with brain function and the health of their immune system. We also had to ensure he got plenty of protein and calcium in dairy.

When Zephyr began attending pre-k, his vegetarianism took a serious turn. Somehow the discussion of meat’s origins came up at school. “It comes from animals,” he told us that evening. “I don’t want to eat animals.”

“So you’re a vegetarian,” I told him, half in amazement, half to arm him with the right terminology.

Now he proudly says, “I’m a vegetarian,” when we’re at a friend’s house for dinner or out for a meal, and someone asks what he might like to eat. Luckily, he loves fruits and vegetables, and has a good appetite, so his meals are easy to execute.

His meat-free lifestyle has had one unintended consequence. My wife and I now take a more flexitarian approach to our meals at home. This is not to say that we never cook with meat or don’t eat it when we go out, because we do. But it has made us more conscious of our choice to be omnivores. It just goes to prove that even the littlest member of a household can inspire a big change.

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