My children give me food for thought

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

Children ask questions. Hundreds of them.

In the last few years I have managed to negotiate the tricky subjects of where babies come from, whether there is a God and why some children have only one parent. Other gems have included; What makes a rainbow? Why is the sea salty? Where does electricity come from? How does Mr Tumble get into the television? And my favourite – why do farts smell?

Like most parents I struggle to answer a lot of these, and if flummoxed I often pass the buck with an “ask your dad” response.

But generally speaking I am of the opinion that it is better to be as honest and matter-of-fact as possible when faced with a why, what or where.

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At least I thought I was.

The other day, as I negotiated the A12 traffic en route to the seaside, my daughter piped up from the back seat.

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“Why are chicken nuggets called chicken nuggets?” she asked.

“A nugget is just another word for a piece of something. And chicken nuggets are pieces of chicken,” I replied.

“Yes, but why chicken?” she persevered. “It’s got the same name as a bird.”

I took a deep breath.

“The nuggets are made of meat from the bird called chicken,” I said.

She turned her serious blue eyes on me.

“Meat is made from dead animals?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied.

“It is very wrong to kill animals, Mummy,” she said, frowning. “How could you do that and then make me eat it?”

Oh boy.

For most of us, eating meat is a regular, not particularly thought-provoking, experience.

It never occurred to me that my children did not have a clue where their food came from or that I should be prepared for the day when they made the connection between food and farmyard.

In slight desperation, I defended my position as an animal slaughterer by pointing out that the animals we eat are killed without pain and that it was, in fact, the butcher who prepared the meat for us.

I also tried the “circle of life” approach, argued we are top of the food chain and that our relationship with meat began back when cavemen had to hunt to feed their families.

I got a blank expression in return.

“I am never going to eat animals again,” she announced, arms crossed.

That night I went over the conversation in my head. I had answered truthfully; I had not tried to sugar-coat the facts. But something niggled me. I couldn’t really justify to my own four-year-old daughter why I ate meat myself.

We have all seen the pictures of calves squeezed into crates, grimaced at the idea of tubes forced down the throats of geese to make fois gras and found it hard to equate lambs skipping through a meadow with our Sunday lunch. But, of course, brutal farming methods are not used in these parts. And somehow, as a steadfast carnivore, I have not let such horrors ever come between me and my dinner.

I have consoled myself with the fact that I choose to eat the meat of ethically-raised animals with the knowledge they are well-treated in life and death. I am also all for eating the whole animal rather than wasting much of it.

But these arguments are not easy to explain to a child that adores visiting the farms around Suffolk to coo over cows, pet the pigs and chase the chickens.

And as an animal-lover myself I am afraid she might see my rationalisations as brutal double-standards.

After all, while I am happy to eat a steak (medium-rare with a splash of peppercorn sauce) or carve up a joint of lamb (with lashings of mint gravy), I would never dream of killing it myself.

My daughter’s godfather is a staunch vegetarian, so I turned to him for advice.

I was worried her desire to avoid meat entirely might cause her problems nutritionally.

Last year a couple in Greece trying to adopt were turned down because they were vegetarian. A nutritionist said imposing such a diet on a child could cause all sorts of problems with growth and development – an utterly ludicrous suggestion, but I was still concerned.

“Her favourite foods are ham, sausages, bacon and chicken nuggets,” I began. “So I’m not sure what she is going to survive on if she is determined not to eat any of them.”

“Just explain to her what is meat and what is not and let her make up her own mind,” he said. “And supplement with vitamins if all else fails.”

At supper time the following evening we sat down to a roast chicken with all the trimmings.

“You can eat all the vegetables,” I told my daughter. “And I have some vegetarian sausages for you to try.”

“No gravy?” she replied.

“Afraid not,” I said.

To give her credit, she stuck to her guns. She ate more than her fair share of roast potatoes, a few boiled carrots and made a valiant attempt with the sausages, but complained they tasted like cardboard.

After we had finished eating, we trudged up to the bathroom to get the children washed and ready for bed.

I was rummaging in the chest of drawers for some clean pyjamas when I heard a shriek.

I dashed across the corridor to find my daughter perched on top of the loo seat, pointing a quivering finger at an enormous spider scurrying across the carpet.

“Kill it!” she screeched.

My two-year-old son, completely unfazed, bent over to examine the insect.

“I can’t kill it,” I replied. “You told me it was very bad to kill other creatures.”

She stopped screaming and looked at me.

“Here we go,” I thought. “She is about to realise she can’t have one rule for one animal and a different one for another.”

But before I could pursue the lesson in humanity any further, my son let out a hysterical giggle.

“I sort it,” he said, and with one swift move he squashed the poor beast with the heel of his little foot.

My relieved daughter clambered down from the cistern and took a good look at the remains of the bug.

“Phew,” she said, and with a grin hopped off to her bedroom.

Obviously, in her eyes, all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

But even better, it seems I am not the only one in our household with double-standards.

n Email me at or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup

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