I love food—I love making it, eating it and talking about it. And my kids aren't bored of it (just yet). We've thankfully—or for now, this day, this hour—moved passed debating what they will and won't eat and on to meatier topics: what our favourite flavours are, what's in season and where food comes from. That last one specifically is a focus for us. My husband and I are meat eaters, always have been, but as I get older, as I cook and shop more, I've been making a conscious decision to cut back on the meat we eat and make more vegetarian meals. For me, it's not only about our budget—dry and canned beans are much cheaper than grass-fed beef to be sure, but fresh produce is costly and doesn't last forever—but it's also about our health and our environmental footprint. I want my kids to be aware of all of this. They get it, but for them, it's tougher to wrap their heads around the fact that they love animals, but they also love bacon. Like, a lot.
Sarah Elton's lovely new illustrated book, Meatless, came at just the right time for us. Elton is a food journalist, a mom and a self-described conflicted meat eater. She wrote Meatless to explain vegetarianism—what it is and all the reasons (religious, cultural, environmental) people choose it—for kids and their families. The book is appropriate for grades four through eight, but I've made it bedtime reading with my five- and eight-year-olds—and they're super into it. I spoke with Sarah Elton on what inspired the book and how she reconciles the old cute-pig-tasty-bacon dilemma.
LFB: Your family isn't vegetarian, but you've said you're sort of flirting or experimenting with it. So is this book a product of that curiosity?
Sarah Elton: My kids now are nine and 12 and they've been asking questions about eating animals since they were toddlers. One kid is a voracious carnivore and the other is a very conflicted meat eater. And then me and their dad, we're conflicted meat eaters, too. We eat meat, but I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m eating the flesh of something that lived once. And not just that, but [I] all the environmental implications of eating meat today, considering climate change and the way so much meat is raised. I came to write this book because we kept having conversations about it, and as a journalist and author who writes about food and agriculture, I’m constantly talking to my kids about these big issues—and they’re interested. True story: My kid who loves eating meat, once upon a time, when my mother cooked a rabbit for Easter, asked if it was the Easter Bunny. She was not joking, and she was not upset.
LFB: Like, just straight-faced—
SE: She was like "Oh, is this the Easter Bunny?"
LFB: Because it was Easter and you were eating rabbit.
SE: Exactly! My kids want to talk about these things—and it’s not just them. When I’m with my friend’s kids or cousins, kids have an appetite for talking about ethical issues and politics in a way that I don’t think we always acknowledge. And I love talking to kids about big issues because it makes me think about how I really feel about it. When you have to distill an issue down, you really have to know what you want to say.
LFB: Yeah, for sure—when you're challenged by your children, it forces you to be honest with yourself about why you make the decisions that you make.
SE: Absolutely. As a family we love to take a really good piece of non-fiction, like a documentary or book, that we can all engage with—material that’s written for kids but revolves around issues that speak to the whole family. We all get a lot out of that. This book is my attempt to contribute to other people’s family discussions.
LFB: What were your priorities in writing this book, then? Are you trying to answer some questions for yourself?
SE: I want to provide kids not with answers, but with information so that they can come up with the answers on their own. That’s why I started the book with that story [spoiler] about my killing a chicken—it meets children in a place where I think they can go, like "Whoa, killing a chicken!" My daughter was present that day, she was probably about three years old. If I can provide kids with the information, then they can have their own thoughts or conversations about it, or maybe they'll stumble across the book in the library and it will teach them things they didn't know about why we eat meat. Also—and this is one reason I love to write kids’ books—I learned so much! The history of meat-eating was so stunning to me. Yes, in I knew things in theory, but in researching it I learned so much more about our relationship to meat. And it isn’t straightforward.
LFB: I was actually surprised by the fact that we eat so much more now than we used to.
SE: Yes! And what I found so fascinating is just how long humans have wrestled with the ethics of eating meat.
LFB: It’s not a trendy thing to be vegetarian, although it may seem that way right now.
SE: Exactly! Anecdotally, it feels like there are more people becoming vegetarian. The reason kids ask questions might be because we as adults haven't quite figured it out.
LFB: You continue to eat meat yourself, so do you have an agenda in writing this book?
SE: No, my agenda is food democracy. The more information people have, the more we talk about the ethics around what we eat, we'll hopefully make better decisions and end up in a better place.
LFB: Your parents keep cows, so how does that affect how you and your kids feel about eating meat?
SE: Yes, they’re retired but they have a few head of cattle. So we eat that beef. And one of my kids' favourite things to do in the world—especially my younger daughter—is to feed the cows. They collect grass and then they reach over the fence and hand feed these cows for hours and hours.
LFB: That’s so nice.
SE: It is nice, but then one day, my youngest was served beef and she said, "But cows are my friends." She happened to be with my parents at the time, and my mother made her eat it. So later I asked her how that made her feel. She said: "Well, it tasted delicious." So, that sort sums up everything, right? That's the struggle right there. It tasted good, my body wanted it, my body liked it, but cows are our friends!
LFB: That’s exactly what my kids have to say about it, too. It’s a tough one.
SE: I am constantly conflicted. But the other way is complicated, too—my friend who’s vegetarian, he’s concerned about rejecting other peoples' food when he’s invited to their house, or when he travels. There are other layers of complexity. Eating is a complicated act.
LFB: Some parents who eat and serve meat may dread the day their kid announces she wants to eat vegetarian because, as you noted in your book, it’s more work for the person doing the cooking. So how do you support your kid in this, while ensuring she's not just eating grilled cheese all the time, and not vegetables.
SE: I would get the kid involved in food prep. I recognize, from personal experience, that this is no easy feat. My daughter cooked dinner last night for us and it was not easy to watch! I recognize it’s not a quick fix. But it is an important life skill—it’s like spending the time making sure kids know their times tables.
LFB: And it’s important whether kids intend to eat a vegetarian diet or not, right?
SE: Exactly. It’s a life skill. But aside from that, no matter what your kid decides, parenting experts always say: do not make food a fight. So I take my lead from them and try not to create drama around food, which is not always easy. One of my children has celiac disease so I’m constantly negotiating different diets, different ingredients for different people and that just complicates food preparation at such a fundamental level.
LFB: How do you get around that vegetarian default of carbs and cheese, no veg?
SE: Well, I don’t think it’s just kids that have that problem—lots of vegetarians have that problem! There's a menu in the book to give an example of what a balanced week for a vegetarian looks like and what your options are. Like did you know you can now buy legumes frozen at the grocery store in a bag? I only just discovered it. They come in those handy zipper packages. So now, when I make my kids' lunches, I can grab a handful—like two tablespoons of beans—so I don’t have to open a can. You can literally take out 15 chickpeas and put them in a salad for your kid. It’s more expensive, but I think it must lead to less food waste because you can take exactly the serving you need. It's just another way to get those legumes in. Everyone struggles with healthy, easy meals.
LFB: A lot of your tips—incorporating legumes, trying tofu—are really good for anybody. You don’t have to be considering vegetarianism—it comes down to healthy eating.
SE: That’s my goal: to present food in a way that’s affordable and accessible and includes lots of healthy fruits and vegetables.
LFB: Have you personally been trying to eat less meat?
SE: Yes. We don’t eat that much meat, maybe a couple times a week. We’re lucky we have my parents’ cows and my sister’s friend raises pigs, we're lucky enough to order a quarter pig to put in our freezer. We have the infrastructure in terms of friends, family, and a freezer where we can store these bulk purchases. Not everyone has that advantage, I know, but it’s becoming easier and easier at the supermarket. You can now buy antibiotic-free chicken and pork, which is a massive shift that I’ve witnessed as a food journalist over the last eight years or so. If you wanted antibiotic-free meats, you used to have to go to a specialty butcher—now you can get them at the superstore. Look for antibiotic free, organic and Canadian suppliers, because we have good supply management.
LFB: Going back to parents: we have so much on our plate (ha)—just getting a meal on the table is hard enough. And then if you’re dealing with picky eating or negotiating considerations at the same time, it can all feel like a bit much.
SE: Yes…it does. I’m in one of those spells right now. They’re getting older and they’re picky. Very picky.
LFB: That’s comforting to hear from a food journalist, that you also feel yourself caught in that. So, how do you get out of it? How do you rally?
SE: We had a big discussion this morning about how to solve this. They're going to write a list of the foods that they want to eat and then we’re going to buy them together. They’re old enough to take that on and to see, "Okay, here are my choices of things to eat." But I really try not to obsess about how much healthy food they’re eating. I do worry about it because I study it, but in the long term, what is the overall example I am providing for my children? I’m showing them what a healthy diet looks like. I’m showing them that I love my vegetables. We try to make food a safe space as opposed to a contested space.