What rhymes with chicken?

Kathie Auton - 15 June 2012

Boy watching a field of lambsMy last post was about talking to children about where their veg comes from. About trying to persuade them that eating the greenstuff is a joy, not something to be endured, and about allowing kids to learn about food from a very early age. My city kids, never more than ½ mile from the nearest coffee shop, have a very different life to my own, slightly muddy upbringing in the Staffordshire Moorlands.

Partly because of this, we do try to seek out the countryside when picking outings and holidays, and a recent holiday took us to Tremeer Farm in Cornwall. In keeping with the surrounding organic farmland, the owners also follow organic methods with their own animals and plants. The farm keeps its own hens, pigs, sheep and some delicious-looking Dexter cattle. Obviously a great setting for talking to the kids about where food comes from. In fact, on a couple of occasions - had they asked - we'd have been able to say 'from that field just there' in answer.

Which leads me to think, is there a right way, time or age to talk to kids about meat? I'd personally feel that drip-feeding little nuggets of information is better than having to sit down and break some truths to a child at a later stage. Listen, son, its time you learned that Father Christmas doesn't exist, your dad delivers the Easter eggs, the Tooth Fairy is just me with a quid, and by the way, we're eating Fluffy the Lamb for Sunday lunch… A friend's daughter recently pointed out that 'chicken the animal rhymes with chicken the meat'! I hasten to add that this was a very young child, so it's simply a clever observation. But it does beg the question, how do you answer? Me, I'd favour a very relaxed 'yes, that's because they are the same thing'.

Why do I think this is the right way forward? Well, because if you're okay with eating meat, then be okay with it. Meat is animals, that's what it is. And actually, my dad shouting 'mint sauce' at fields of gambolling lambs was a very good way to go about it! I grew up with that feeling of 'always knowing' what meat was and where it came from. Yes, I did have a few years of earnest vegetarianism, but actually I'm glad I did, as it has made me someone who cares about what I'm eating. If you're okay with your children eating meat, then be honest with them. Of course, there is no pressing need to be overly graphic, but it has to be all right to say that beef comes from cows. If they ask specifics, and mine have, I say that we eat animals, like birds eat worms and cats eat fish (both concepts they've probably got from books).

Children feeding a lambToday in the supermarket I told my son I was 'just looking for the free-range bacon', 'what's free range he asked?', 'It means the pigs get to live outside, which is how they like to live'. And in that short exchange, I hope, something might have sunk in. We are, after all, raising tomorrow's carnivores.

If these sorts of things are talked about in a relaxed, matter of fact, manner from right at the start, you'll avoid the possibility of a sudden, dawning realisation at a later age. And, if you're worried that your child would be horrified, ask yourself this; are you happy with the way the animal you're eating has lived and died? One way of ensuring that your meat comes from animals who have had the highest levels of animal welfare, is to look out for the Soil Association mark and in this way, you can talk positively about the life the animal lead and the sort of farm it came from.

On holiday on the farm there were, of course, lots of opportunities to talk about where our food was coming from. We had some staggeringly delicious lamb from the owner's freezer and, in glorious juxtaposition, we cooked it on the fire while my son and daughter bottle-fed Junior, one of this year's orphaned lambs.

On the cooking front, one suggestion I have for introducing children to the idea that they are eating an animal, without being too guts and glory about it, is to serve a whole fish. I've found my kids like the fact that the fish looks like a fish and choosing a likely specimen from a fishmonger's counter can be good fun. As for meat, there is less opportunity for eating the whole animal. Apart from your roast chicken, of course. My dad's way with this was to flip the bird the right way up and make it cluck. Again, it sounds daft but it is real, isn't it?

And perhaps before enjoying your roast this Sunday, you might like to know that LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) are holding Open Farm Sunday, which aims to get people visiting farms and thinking about where their food comes from. LEAF's recent survey showed some worrying statistics on the lack of food knowledge in our country. It's hardly surprising considering that three in ten adults born in the 1990s haven't visited a farm in more than ten years. The Soil Association have a handy list of participating organic farms here.

Boy following a farmerField of sheep

Kathie has two young children and is taking a break from teaching to be a full-time mum. She is passionate about cooking and growing good food and takes any opportunity to get her kids involved in the kitchen.

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