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Let Them Eat Meat: We’re trying to raise our young children (ages three and four) on healthy, organic foods generally, and a vegan diet in particular. For the past two years we’ve relied on my sister-in-law to provide daycare so that my husband and I can work. While all the children (her three and our two) seem to be happy and thriving in this arrangement, my sister-in-law has been letting them eat whatever she’s serving, despite my request that our children avoid junk food and animal products. Now my kids are asking for meat and dairy choices when we go out, and they even want to have these foods at home.
I’m so upset about this. I feel my sister-in-law deliberately sabotaged our efforts. She argues that she can’t be bothered to make different foods for our kids or police what they eat when her kids are chowing down on cheeseburgers. She doesn’t respect our preferences at all. Meanwhile, we can’t afford the cost or the travel time of the nearest daycare center, so we’re feeling stuck. Is there anything we can do or say to enforce our wishes?
You should say “thank you” for what your sister-in-law is doing for you. You don’t mention whether you’ve been paying her to care for and feed your children over the past two years, but even if you do compensate her, it’s less than you would spend anywhere else and more convenient for you. You say your children are safe, happy, and thriving—which is very important with childcare. There’s no guarantee that your kids would be as happy in an alternative arrangement, or that another daycare would adhere to your organic vegan regimen (unless they only fed your kids what you packed for them yourself, which means you’d have to add that to your to-do list). Even so, kids are known to share their food, so unless you found a strictly organic vegan care center, very likely your little ones would be looking at their neighbor’s baloney sandwich or Fluffernutter on Wonder Bread and asking, “Are you going to finish that?”
Whatever your reasons for the restricted diet (your health, animal welfare, etc.), it remains challenging even for adults to adhere to a particular regimen under all circumstances. You could, as mentioned above, pack food for your kids and ask your sister-in-law to keep them from eating anything else, but it sounds as though that ship has already sailed. Your kids now have a taste for animal products and, especially at their young ages, are unlikely to follow your rules when you’re not around—and your sister-in-law has made it clear she’s not willing to be the enforcer. Although I’ve seen some kids enthusiastically follow their parents’ dietary guidelines under all circumstances (keeping kosher for example), I suspect that’s the exception. As a rule, children will scarf down a forbidden hot dog or gummy bear the moment their parents look the other way.
I don’t mean to trivialize your convictions, but these food restrictions are not due to life-threatening allergies or food intolerance, which would clearly require strict adherence. This is a choice you have made for yourself that you wish to impose on your children. The situation is similar to trying to raise your kids in a specific religion. It can work if you start young and keep them insulated from other alternatives, but sooner or later they will discover what else is out there and may find they prefer that.
By trying too hard to enforce your program, you may permanently alienate your children from it. Conversely, by allowing them to sample other options when outside your purview, you will enable them to make informed choices for themselves as they grow up. Many children raised as carnivores or junk-food junkies decide on their own, later on as teens, to pursue an organic or vegetarian/vegan diet.
You can continue to keep your home (and family trips to restaurants) vegan and organic, and explain to your children why you believe that’s best. But avoid giving them or your sister-in-law a hard time about what they eat at her home, other people’s homes, birthday parties, picnics, etc. You don’t want to make them feel as though your dietary regimen is some kind of penance, and you don’t want them teased or stigmatized by others. Kids can be mean about any kind of departure from the norm, and even adults get worn down by other people’s dietary dictates.
I encourage everyone to take dietary dogma with a grain of salt (or sea salt). The medical and ethical consensus, if there is one, is always changing, so you can never be sure what’s truly more or less beneficial for people or the planet.