Meatless Monday: Compassion By the Book

A friend recently announced she'd rather enjoy animals than eat them. She then passed on homemade roasted organic chicken and happily ate quinoa and broccoli for a dinner rich in protein, vitamins and antioxidants. She didn't miss the chicken at all. She is six years old. The announcement kind of shook up her family -- it was her mother's roast chicken -- but they're going with it, are supporting her and are eating less meat themselves. Will my friend embrace meatlessness for life? Who knows? The fact is, she has the imagination to make the jump from animals we love to the food we eat.

Then there's my five year-old niece. I'm guilty of pushing green beans on her though she prefers ham, of going on about our animal friends and how we need to preserve the delicate balance of our beautiful world, yadayada. But the truth is, while she'll eat green beans, she still prefers ham and when it comes to where that ham comes from, she's not ready to know.

I was thinking about these two girls when I looked over Ruby Roth's Why We Don't Eat Animals. Subtitled A Book about Vegans, Vegetarians and All Living Things, it's the first book geared to children to address the humanitarian aspects of a plant-based diet. "A factory-farmed pig may spend her whole life alone, fattened in a pen so tiny that she won't even be able to turn around," Roth writes. Despite Roth's color illustrations of our farmyard friends, this is not exactly Charlotte's Web. Animals are shown caged, confined, cramped, some have blood and open sores -- exactly the way they are in factory farms. Why We Don't Eat Animals tells the truth. The question is, is it too much? And how will children react to it?

"I thought the book was very well done," says Trulie Ankerberg-Nobis, registered dietitian, member of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the mother of a three-year old. "People underestimate what children are capable of understanding." She wonders, though, "about giving too much information of the evils of the world. I don't want to sit my daughter down in front of a PETA video and show her what's going on in factory farms. There would be an age I would feel comfortable telling her about that, but not where she is and what I know of her maturity level."

That doesn't say much for my own maturity. I'd expected to love Roth's book -- gorilla goddess Jane Goodall does, as does vegan pinup Alicia Silverstone and a goodly number of Amazon reviewers who say it's their three-year old's favorite book. However, as someone considerably older than Roth's target audience (ages four through ten), I found her book dark. I'm a longtime vegan who abhors factory farming. I'm totally behind Roth's message, but I question her method and wonder if it's age-appropriate. It's a cruel world, all right. But at what point do you tell that to your kid?

My six year-old friend didn't need Roth's book. My five year-old niece isn't ready for it. There are all kinds of ways to teach compassion, though. By cooking with my niece, I can show the connection between what we eat and the choices we make. We both like it and she's taken an interest in what she's eating, she's just not ready to see beyond the plate yet.

Whether you give your child Why We Don't Eat Animals or explain why we don't eat animals, compassion, like produce, is worth cultivating.

Kid-Friendly, Cow-Friendly Burritos

These are easy, healthy, compassionate and designed to get kids involved. Have them choose their own toppings and roll up the tortillas.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 red or yellow pepper, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
4 cups fresh spinach leaves
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
sea salt to taste
6 whole wheat flour tortillas

sour cream
shredded cheddar
chopped scallions
shredded lettuce
diced tomatoes
sliced jalapenos

Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion, peppers and garlic, saute until vegetables turn tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in cumin and chili powder. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove lid, raise heat back up to medium-high and add tomato paste and black beans. Work spinach in gently, until it wilts and mixture is heated through -- about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350. Wrap tortillas in foil, heat in oven for 10 minutes.

Stir cilantro into spinach and black bean filling and season with salt. Place a generous spoonful in the middle of each tortilla and add lettuce, tomatoes, or any desired topping. Roll up and enjoy. No extra points for neatness.

Serves 4 to 6.