This week my son started learning about food groups in his kindergarden class. They got the color-coded food group “plate” (an update from food pyramid of my day) with vegetables, fruits, grains and proteins. On the side the “plate” is a little blue circle for the dairy category. It’s so obviously a side thought it makes me think the only reason “dairy” is still a category is because of the powerful dairy lobby.
The kids had little pictures of the foods and sorted them into the categories (as seen in LP’s glorious cutting and pasting work of art). It was fun for LP to have something from kindergarden for him to teach us about as he showed us what fit into all the categories. He even told his little sister she needed “more vegetables and protein” when the G-man complained about how she subsisted almost entirely on fruit and bread.
Of course, the minute I heard they were talking about nutrition my hackles were raised. “What are they telling him about protein?” I wondered. Part of me wants to train him to say things like “chicken (one of the “food” items) isn’t a protein. It’s a bird! But I also know that I want him to develop his own awareness of what it means to be vegan on his terms instead of just being my adorable pint-sized mouthpiece. Although, he may be on this path since he heard me and the G-man talking about how the World Health Organization has just classified processed meat as a carcinogen, and how eating meat could lead to increased chances of cancer. LP got confused and asked if “meat would make you die?” We tried to explain that eating meat could make you more likely to get sick. I think he walked away getting it, and I hope so, because I don’t ever want him to think that all wonderful people in his life that eat meat are suddenly going to up and die from it.
But herein lies the tension. I do want LP to fully understand the destruction that meat and dairy and eggs wreak on our bodies, our environment, and, most importantly, the lives of the animals die for human consumption. I want him to understand that the slab of “beef” on the nutrition chart is part of a body of a cow that was killed for people to eat – the same kind of cows he moos at when we are driving in the country. I want him to understand that dairy is off to the side of his nutritional plate because it actually has NO PLACE in a balanced diet, because dairy has almost ZERO nutritional benefits, and LOADS of nutritional detriments. I want him to understand all these things, but still be able to deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes with watching people whom he loves and respects eat meat, dairy, and eggs.
In a short five years of parenting, one thing I’ve learned is that, no matter how tension-inducing or complex a subject, you have to make decisions and go with them when your child is in front of you. So what did our vegan family do when our son came home with “plate of nutrition?” We had him tell us all the food groups he was eating for dinner, which was luckily very well-rounded (sunflower-artichoke burgers and kale salad with apple on the side). We had him show us what the different categories were and add more foods to his list of vegetables and fruits. We praised him for his pasting ability and new knowledge and told him the dairy category was off to the side because no one really needed it, and sure, his soymilk could go there. We also laughed a little to ourselves when he listed the proteins by naming peanut butter and beans, and then skipped the chicken, said “beef?” questioningly, and, for the can of tuna, said “some kind of fish in a bowl?”
I’m hoping that tomorrow he doesn’t go announce to his teacher that “meat gives you cancer” because I don’t think it’s necessary. But I do hope that, when they focus more on proteins (it is currently “grain” week) he is able to speak up and at least say “my family doesn’t eat animals.” Because, as I’ve found out time and time again, sometimes just being the vegan in the room is enough.