My eldest child is 13. One day, seven years ago, she woke up and decided she was a vegetarian. No temper tantrums or arguments. Just a straightforward declaration that no meat would be on her plate. From that time on, she’s been firmly on the side of the dirt candy. She calmly looks fried chicken in the leg and pushes it away. She will not put burgers, sausages, steak, or anything that had a face to it in her mouth.
There are lots of things many of us expect from our kids. Voluntarily scarfing down the green beans usually isn’t one of them. Especially in our modern day child food culture where children are expected to put up a fight over anything that appears mildly healthy. Whole books have been devoted to the very concept that children will only eat the spinach if you sneak it in between the mac and cheese.
This was certainly true of my own childhood. While my husband has always embraced vegetables from cabbage to zucchinis, the only thing I’ve ever agreed with the elder Bush is the fact that broccoli is not my thing. I like vegetables today, but as a child, I was a confirmed carnivore, bidden only to vegetables almost by accident.
Our daughter is not. At first, my husband and I didn’t know how to respond to her. We thought it was a fad, like all kind and loving parents everywhere, so we humored her. We ate the turkey dinner. Instead, she piled on the mashed potatoes and the gravy, the roasted carrots, the stuffing, and the cauliflower—and then scarfed down pumpkin pie. I set aside my own thoughts and made her a separate, veggie lasagna and ordered veggie lo mein rather than the one with the pork. I even branched out from plain pasta to quinoa and barley, seitan, tofu, and other things I’d only gawked at before. While I railed to my husband that she was being a pain in the ass, I rather secretly admired her will. In the process, I started to expand my own culinary horizons and began to think that perhaps she had a point.
But mostly my instinct was to think of this decision of hers as ordinary childhood rebellion or simply fussy eating that she would outgrow once she got older. As a child, I remember spending a month eating not much besides peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bananas. Her little sister has tried to survive solely on pizza, Cheerios, and cat hair.
And yet, here we are so many years after her declaration and I still have a child who had lunch yesterday consisting of roasted potatoes topped with her own homemade tomato soup. There is still a little part of me that is solely a Jewish mother and wants to hover over her as my own mother did for me—and urge her to eat in English and Yiddish. Somehow, I imagine she’s missing out even as I know she’s content and healthy, as confident in the kitchen as any potential Master Chef contestant.
One of the amazing things you start to realize as a parent is how you teach your kids in so many ways, but ultimately, it is they who teach you. You start to know this as they unfold their lives in front of you so quickly you would sometimes swear that children have a special region of space-time devoted solely for them.
This is the lesson I’ve learned from my own eldest child.
When we put dinner on the table, we’re aware that the vegetables for her are the vegetables for all of us. They do not deserve to be seen as an afterthought. We eat more vegetarian meals than we did before and that is for the good. Her choice to leave meat behind also means that we think far more about any meat we eat now—indeed any food we eat—and exactly why we’re eating it.
She also reminds us that food is an expression of thoughtful action and should not be eaten lightly. She is my Veggie Girl, the young woman who helps us remember to be kind and careful about our eating habits. This young person, who would keep a farm in her room if I gave in, stands on the verge of womanhood and brings with her the best thing I could possibly imagine: a firm set of moral principles.
At 6 she knew who she was. She hasn’t wavered since.