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Talking to Kids About Where Food Comes From

By kathypatalsky |

tofu sandwich

tofu sandwich

Diets, food, and nutrition — those topics used to only interest adults. But it seems more and more kids are coming face to face with real food issues in the classroom, with their friends, and with family members. Everything from food recalls, peanut allergies, pink slime, type 2 diabetes, edible schoolyards, school lunches and obesity, meatless Mondays, and veganism …

Slowly and surely kids are becoming more aware of food politics, nutrition, and health issues. Food has become political as adults constantly debate about what diet is “the best.” And naturally, kids, who seem to pick up on everything, have picked up on the food tension and controversy as well. So I want to know, what do you think about discussing food politics with kids? Are diets and food issues simply too mature for tiny ears? As a vegan, I am often put in situations where I have to describe my diet to curious kids …

Discussing vegan. Recently a book called Vegan is Love by Ruby Roth sparked much controversy regarding how we talk to kids about animal products and veganism. As a vegan myself, I was amazed that so many people called Ruby’s book “controversial” — especially since I can relate to that moment where I started to think very carefully about the words I choose when discussing food and a book to help lead the way seems like a good idea. But does the book go too far? Or not? I haven’t read it, so I can’t say much about its specific contents, but it does remind me of my own life and how I discuss “vegan” with kids.

What is a vegan? A few years ago I was trying to explain my vegan diet to my four year-old nephew for the first time. Back then he didn’t get it. He didn’t know what in the world a “vegan” was. He didn’t understand why I wouldn’t share his snack of cheddar goldfish crackers – or why I said “no thank you” when offered some of his ice cream sundae dessert. I mean, why would anyone in their right mind turn down ice cream, right? He looked at me like I was nuts.

Flash forward. He just turned six. And I was shocked when during a routine aunt/nephew phone call, he started randomly talking to me about my diet. There we were, discussing his favorite new toys when all the sudden he started explaining to me how he knew I didn’t drink milk and how I won’t eat eggs. He referred to me as an herbivore — like “the herbivore dinosaurs.”

The conversation lasted a good ten minutes. He asked me if I ate certain foods and why not and how about this, and that. “You can’t eat mama’s cookies because they have eggs in them! Oh my goodness Aunt Kathy, they are so good!” He circled around certain foods and then suddenly asked me flat out why I was vegan. I went blank.

Was I supposed to start explaining to my sister’s six year-old son that I was vegan because I didn’t feel right about eating animals? And how I never really felt right eating meat — and that I don’t eat any animal products, and on and on? Here is a curious and seemingly well-informed child wanting answers — how in the world do I shut down and simply say: “Oh, well, just because …”

The obvious answer for me was to pass along the detailed “why vegan” question answering to my sister — the parent. But somewhere inside myself, I felt frustrated that I couldn’t just talk freely about my truth. I was conflicted. Is it wrong to discuss what are essentially “food politics” with kids?? I mean, it wasn’t like he asked me where babies come from. Or maybe this was kind of the same thing …

Has discussing food with kids become the new: “Where do babies come from?”

Is it now … “Mommy, where does my hamburger come from?”

Maybe some of you think it is simple. Hamburger comes from cows, right? Well yes.

But with most kids, the questioning probably won’t stop after a simple answer is given. More details will be asked for. “But how, mommy, do the cows turn into hamburger?” And so where do we draw the line in the discussion?

Maybe one answer is to focus on simply teaching young kids one true thing: Food is controversial. Kids and adults don’t always agree on what to eat. And that is OK! Instead of making food a “right” or “wrong” — lets start by simply agreeing to respect one another.

What do you think? Do you think parents should be open with their kids about food issues — political or not? I’m curious to hear how you handle kids and food chatter, and how you explain special diets, food allergies, and health nutrition issues with them.

Get the recipe for the chipotle tofu sandwich pictured above – on Healthy Happy Life.


Read more from Kathy on her blog, Healthy. Happy. Life!

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About kathypatalsky



Kathy Patalsky is a blogger, author and photographer. Her website features creative vegan recipes. She is the author of 365 Vegan Smoothies (Spring 2013). She is also the founder of

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14 thoughts on “Talking to Kids About Where Food Comes From

  1. Danielle says:

    Thanks for sharing this story! I too would be unsure how to describe my dietary choices to children, as I am slowly turning from vegetarian to vegan. I would be afraid of scaring a child and leaving their parent with even more difficult questions by their parent. I wonder how I will one day tell my children why we eat vegetarian or maybe even vegan. One thing is for sure it is important that children know where their food comes from. That means knowing that their hamburger came from a cow. I have yet to have to explain myself to a child and I hope to find some good suggestions in the comments!

  2. Sara says:

    Just be honest. I have a vegan Aunty and she always said stuff like ‘milk is for baby calves’, ‘I don’t like eating dead animals’ and ‘I don’t like eggs because they come from a chooks bum’. This did not traumatise me. She also made it clear that I had to think about these things and make up my own mind. It probably helped that we were in the country and it was no shocking secret where meat came from (for example, we used to raise lambs with names like ‘roast’ and ‘chops’). In the end I elected to be ‘mostly’ vegetarian, not vegan and to get my eggs and dairy from places that I knew treated animals well. I say ‘mostly’ because I sometimes eat meat, for example a wild shot deer or wild caught fish. For me, it’s always been about how the animal is treated and that comes from my Aunty making me think about it from a young age.

  3. Emily says:

    Absolutely, kids should be privy to food politics and beliefs. We need to remember, we’re raising ADULTS, not kids. Obviously, we need to keep it on a level they can understand. But stop lying to them and “protecting” them. My 8yo son knows the basics of sex, nutrition, finance, and he has never believed in Santa Claus.

    We’ve never had the vegan discussion because we’re not a vegetarian family. But if he asked, I would help him make an informed decision. Isn’t that our jobs as parents??

  4. Kristen says:

    Great topic. My niece and nephew have severe food allergies, so maybe that makes them less curious about others not eating things…. but explaining vegan to family members- older and younger- can be challenging, so I really appreciate your thoughts! I think being honest but not too detailed for the little ones makes sense. And being aware that older family members may not agree with our decisions. I recently read an article that mentioned “Animal Welfare Approved” products, so I mentioned this to my parents to try and get them started on being more aware of food choices… I think sharing information in small amounts can be helpful and not too overwhelming.

  5. Kristy | Keepin' It Kind says:

    When my husband and I made the switch from vegetarian to vegan, we had to explain to his children (eleven year-old twins) why we would no longer be going out for frozen yogurt or having eggs for breakfast. We simply told them that we do not want to cause pain and suffering to any living being. When they asked how milk causes pain, we told them exactly what happens on dairy farms. When they asked about eggs, we explained in detail how these birds are tortured. We let them ask the questions instead of forcing a lot of heavy information on them. We purchased the documentary “Vegucated” because we had gone to the LA premier and loved it. We let it sit on the table for awhile until they started asking what it was and asked to watch it. It would not be suitable for young children, but they were just old enough to be able to understand and it opened up even more dialogue. They now read nutrition labels on their own and though they are not vegan when they are at their mom’s house, they make more compassionate and healthy requests (my stepdaughter told me that she refused a cereal because it had whey in the ingredients list!). I think it is important not to push it on them, but to be perfectly honest, and not “sugar-coat” the truth, when they ask.

  6. Susan Kelley says:

    This has always been tough for me with my nephews. I have told them I don’t eat animals because I love them, and the oldest (nearly 9) now gets it and doesn’t seem traumatized. I look forward to him asking more exploratory questions!

  7. Sol says:

    Kathy, I’m really thankful for sharing this story! I ‘ve appreciated :) I’m from Guatemala, Central America and being vegan or trying to be is really difficult, kind of controversial and awkward. I enjoy all you tweet, so thanks again :)

  8. Jen says:

    We eat 95% vegan. When my 6-year-old daughter and her friend ask how they make hamburgers, we graphically tell them what happens to the cow, then say, “Doesn’t sound very tasty now, does it.” Of course, they’re gagging and totally grossed out, but with kids, it’s not real. Like all violence in our society, it’s not real unless you see it in real life – but if we all had to kill our own supper, everyone would eat a lot less meat. I never developed real empathy until I had kids, which is why we’re only 95% there. The other 5% of us have to live in the real world and it’s mostly for our kids.

  9. Dawn Rose says:

    My family is a mix of vegan and vegetarian, with me as the meat-eating exception. Now that I have my own family, and a very inquisitive 4 year old, the topic has come up a few times. Like “Grandma Toni, you don’t like burgers? But I love burgers!” In the beginning my mom just explained that she doesn’t like certain foods. But I came to the conclusion that my kids have a right to know. Now, when walking thru the meat department my daughter asks “is this one cow or pig?” If she eventually decides she wants to be vegetarian, I will support her decision and adjust my grocery list accordingly. And when my son is older I will respect his decision, too.
    I have always encouraged open conversion about everything with my children (although hopefully the birds and bees conversion can wait a few more years) We talk about why it’s not good to eat lots of junk food and sweets, and why a balanced diet is important. I encourage trying new things before passing judgement and if she legitimately doesn’t like something I give her an equivalent substitution. (like my daughter doesn’t like peas, so I make her green beans instead)
    I believe honesty and communication is key, especially with children who are just learning what everything means.

  10. sandra says:

    This is a great article. I can see how it would be difficult to explain why you are vegan, but I also think that being honest is better than not. I do not think that children at age 6 need to be sheltered from the fact that we eat animals, even cuddly ones, for sustenance. It is not bad, it is how life works. It is a lesson about the world presented by the child’s curiosity. What better way to teach?

  11. Nicole says:

    My boyfriend’s sister and her husband do not tell their 4 year old daughter that ppl eat animals. They always shush if someone tries to ‘uncover’ the ‘secret’. What advice would anyone have for this? His family is vehemently against vegetarians and vegans which offends me to no end bc I totally agree with this lifestyle. Help anyone?

  12. Mary says:

    Thank you for this informative article. As a Clinical Exercise Physiologist gone stay-at-home-mom of 4, I am always interested in educating them about healthy food choices. I even learned a few things from this!! Come visit me at

  13. Gary DiNardo says:

    I haven’t read Ruby Roth’s book either, but I think it would be impossible for it to be TOO honest. Balance her book against what must be tens of thousands of cookbooks telling people that a cow or a chicken deserves no more ethical concern than an onion or a potato, and you have a book that would appeal to any kid with a rebel inside waiting to break out.

    Parents should, in fact, get out in front on this issue and NOT wait until a child holds up his laptop in front of his parent’s face to show horrible videos taken by undercover investigators of factory farms and abattoirs. The images are there for EVERY person to see, so parents can’t get away with trying to say everything is sweetness and light in American agriculture. That dog don’t hunt no more.

  14. Charles Parker/Happy's Greenhouse says:

    What we are trying to do is to simply allow the conversation about healthy food to exist between parents and children. Get them talking. If an awkward moment arises about where the yummy hamburger comes from into a discussion about where yummy veggiburgers come from, let the conversation exist and see what happens. Children are like sponges and will take in whatever is in front of them. It is up to the parent to honestly deal with the answers,, even if awkward. It might just save their child from a lifetime of degraded health due to early food habits. If they are simply having the conversation with their children, that is better than silence, whatever the outcome.

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