Should Kids Know How Their Meat Gets to the Table?


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Our family is big on having kids in the kitchen because of the wonderful benefits of mastering valuable skills as well as spending quality time together. But it’s also important to us that our kids know where their food comes from. One of the great benefits of having an urban garden is the joy of including our kids in growing the veggies and herbs that show up on our table.

But what about meat? Should children be exposed to the nitty gritty of how their chicken dinner arrived on their plate? Our culture shies away from discussing death in general, and this avoidance can be seen in our attitude toward animal death, as well. Many children don’t make a solid connection between the meat as food and the animals it came from. And many adults don’t consciously connect the two either! It’s very easy to pick up a tidily wrapped up chicken breast from the grocery store without considering that it was from a living, squawking chicken. But is failing to expose our kids to the truth about their food doing them a disservice? Does avoidance of these difficult issues keep them from developing an understanding of food ethics?

I passionately believe that teaching children to honor and respect God’s creatures is very important. And that includes modeling an appreciation for the animals that contribute to our meals. As we are not a vegetarian family, I want to show respect for animals by educating our kids about the meat we eat, showing our kids how animals should be treated (not left to wallow in their own feces in a CAFO without windows or freedom to move!), and humanely slaughtered with dignity.

But what does that look like? I firmly believe that the manner in which each family handles this information should differ depending on each individual child’s needs and sensitivities. My son is not a sensitive child, so we deal with this issue differently than a family with children who might become more upset or disturbed by tackling these topics. (Our daughter is only 18 months so we haven’t had this conversation with her yet.)

The question of how much a child should know came to the forefront for us recently when some of our older layers (we keep backyard chickens) were sold to a friend for their meat. Our son is 4 and we discussed whether it was appropriate for him to see them slaughtered or whether it would be too much. We decided that exposure to the circle of life is important and that it would be deceitful of us to not tell him what happened to the chickens. So we talked with him about the plans to slaughter the three chickens and asked if he wanted to be there to watch. He said yes and seemed excited that he was asked to participate.

When the time came, he watched one chicken be slaughtered and then said, “I don’t think I want to watch anymore. I didn’t like the way the chicken’s head looked after it died.” So, I took him inside, snuggled up on the couch, and we had a great conversation about death. “It’s really sad when something dies, isn’t it?” I asked him.And sometimes it can feel scary or disturbing. Mama and Daddy feel like that, too. It’s hard for Daddy to harvest the chickens. It’s ok to feel upset. Are you feeling upset?” He said yes and we continued to talk about death, animals, and the important of treating animals well and causing them minimal pain at slaughter. “Did it hurt the chicken to die?” he asked. “Daddy knew how to kill the chicken without causing it to suffer. It was over very fast because we don’t want the chickens to feel pain.” He took it all in and then we started talking about something else.

When we were slaughtering our meat birds recently, I wanted to be sensitive of our son’s needs and desires so I asked if he wanted to be there. “I don’t think I want to watch,” he said. I told him that was fine. We could stay inside and color. When the time came, though, he decided he did want to participate. He seemed very comfortable and made commentary like, “The chickens are being very brave!” I was so proud when I heard him say to a chicken, “Thank you for becoming food for us.” A sacrifice is being made in order for our family to eat meat and I’m so glad that he is starting to understand that and appreciate the animals that make it possible.

That evening when we made a chicken stir-fry, our son was more aware than ever of where his food came from, but that didn’t spoil his appetite and he asked for seconds.

I’m glad that we can offer our kids an example of happy chickens with the chance to roam, enjoy sunshine, and revel in their chicken-ness! And we’ve discussed the differences between the life our chickens have and the terrible conditions at factory farms. I’m glad that our children will grow up appreciating how much it takes to have meat on the table. If we continue to be a meat-eating family, I want to impress upon our kids the important of respecting animals and honoring them as God’s creatures and introduce the complicated issues of food ethics.

Have you discussed food ethics with your kids? Do they know where their meat comes from?


About the Author

Haley is a Catholic wife and mama of three little ones, ballet teacher, and lover of all things Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, and Wendell Berry. Find her at Carrots for Michaelmas where she writes about urban homesteading, motherhood, literature, faith, homeschooling, and her undying love for bacon.

Comments

  1. I have to agree, it is important for kids to understand what they are eating, why and how it comes to thier plate. I spent the first 5 years of my life in a small city before moving to a farm, I remember slaughtering for meat and harvesting for fruit and veges, and also helping deliver calves, lambs and foals and having to put down horses who had become too old and blind or mame. I don’t remember being overly scared or saddened, as it just became everyday life, yes initially it was confronting but it became something that was just necessary. My 4yo hadn’t made the connection to the animal and we over looked it apparently so when someone mentioned we were eating lamb rather than cow one night at the dinner table it set off a big discussion and about 6 months of vegetarian diet for miss, slowly she has started eating meat again and now that she understands it she accepts it.

    • Great insights, Karla! I think it definitely helps for it to be presented as part of life early on just as you experienced when you were little.

  2. I firmly believe that every meat-eater should at some point watch or participate in an animal slaughter. (If you’re a vegetarian, you’re off the hook.) The meat harvesting we were a part of at the ranch where we did our internship were hard, sad, but very insightful and important to me. It was also interesting to see the reactions of the kids who lived on the ranch. One kid had lived around farm animals for many years and seen many harvests and had not been bothered, and then at 11 years old got very upset watching a pig get killed. But his parents had the opportunity to discuss it with him in a healthy way. Another kid had seen his first slaughter at 4 or 5 and refused to eat meat for about a year, but by 7 years old was very comfortable with the process and very curious about watching every part of the skinning, disemboweling, cleaning, butchering. The 4 year old girl seemed to have no problem with watching the process, at least none yet. But once, when a new female goat joined the barnyard, she asked: “is it a boy?” “No, it’s a girl.” “Good, then we don’t have to kill it.” The lesson I learned is that all kids will handle the process differently, and maybe react very differently at different times and stages of life. But overall, I did feel like those kids had an overall healthier sense of appreciation for all aspects of animal life.

    • Yes, Lois! I never had an appreciation for all it took to have meat on our table until we slaughtered our first chickens. It was more disgusting than I thought it would be and made me really think twice about our choice to eat meat.

  3. Sheena says:

    I remember the first time I witnessed the slaughter of an animal for our food. My Uncle is a cattle rancher as well as always having a farm with pigs and chickens as well. It was difficult for me to deal with the slaughter of a cow at first because, unlike a chicken, there is much more involved in the process of a large animal. Looking back on it I am not extremely thankful to have had that experience at a young age and really helped shape my appreciation of the food I eat as an adult. My daughters have been able to experience processing of a deer from the hunt to the table and they were able to process the whole thing very rationally and thankfully. I always say if you are going to eat meat and allow your children to as well they should know exactly what they are eating.

    • How cool that your girls got to experience processing a deer! I bet that venison tasted better because they had some ownership in the process :)

  4. I grew up in the country and vividly remember watching my father slaughter our family’s chickens every Spring. I will never forget how he offered thanksgiving before starting the whole process, or how my sister and I hid behind a tree until we got too curious and had to peek. Now, I’m married to a butcher and he works with customers who literally have no concept of the idea that their pork chops came from an actual animal. Suffice it to say, we’re pretty obsessed with teaching our children about where their food comes from. Keep up the good work! :)

    • Thanks, Mary Susan! Your comment reminded me of the time we bought half a pig and my husband and a friend butchered it themselves with the help of some Youtube how to videos, haha. It took FOREVER. I’ve been super impressed with butchers ever since :)

  5. Katherine says:

    I think your son has the right idea, his wonderful expression of gratitude for the hen’s life. My kids are all raised long ago, but one thing I learned is that giving kids meaning around impressive incidents is very important. If you teach your children that the chicken’s life has meaning because of the nourishment it provides us and that it was a good life, we cared for it’s every need in exchange for it’s gift of food, the incident will make sense to them. And I think the expression of gratitude to God is the key. If I were in your shoes at that moment, I would bless the chicken just before, kids or not.

    • That is a great insight, Katherine! Blessing the animal and saying a prayer of thanksgiving would be an important addition to the process. Thanks!

  6. This is great. I totally agree that it is very healthy for children (and us!) to realize where our food comes from and appreciate the sacrifice of an animal for meat. We took an identical approach with our kids when it was time to slaughter our chickens. Since raising our own poultry, we now appreciate meat and food more than ever before.

  7. It is so refreshing to hear this perspective, thank you thank you thank you! I think it is so important for we meat-eaters to be connected to the meat we eat.

    In Guatemala, where I lived for two years, kids watch the slaughtering process from a very young age and most are not even phased — I think kids may pick up on their parents’ reaction to the process, too. Not that some kids aren’t bothered by it on their own, but I think kids absorb a lot more culture than we realize from a young age. I know a residential outdoor school in Upstate New York forces their 6th graders and older to actually slaughter chickens at the end of fall term. While death is scary it’s also natural, and having that viewpoint I think makes death less scary and life more fulfilling. And as you mention it’s such a better way of teaching kids to honor animals, than pretending life and death don’t exist, and that as omnivores we don’t inflict death on other living things.

    Thank you!

    • Thanks for your encouragement, Steph! You have some great insights. I think you are absolutely right that ignoring death actually makes it more scary than allowing kids to start understanding it as a natural, although upsetting, reality.

  8. When our daughter was three, she came in the house one day to ask us to come outside and see her deer. As we lived in the city, we thought it was a product of her healthy imagination. Wrong! It turned out that the deer had first jumped over our gate and then the chain link fence into the neighbor’s back yard. Sadly, it had tried to clear a third fence, broke its neck, and fell back into the neighbor’s yard.

    We went to the neighbor’s door to let her know about it. Their family was quite poor, so the meat would be a most welcome contribution to their freezer. After calling the police to obtain the required tag, we cleaned the deer. My daughter wanted to stay to watch. She realized the deer was dead and that it would provide food for the folks next door, so she was very open to what was happening. She was there from start to finish and was not traumatized by the experience.

    She is now thirty years old and works as a paramedic. As a teenager, she worked as an interpreter for the doctors at our parish’s mission in Haiti. I sometimes wonder of this early experience played any part in her openness and life’s choices.

    • What a wild story! Your daughter sounds like a wonderful, compassionate woman. You must be so proud of her!

  9. Oh Haley, I think it’s just beautiful the way you exposed this topic to your child. I think you handled it /so/ graciously.

    As a new(ish) mother (a two year old and a 6 month old) I feel SO terrified of the world on behalf of my children, it brings me great comfort to know that there are HEALTHY ways to expose my children to the reality of the world and help them come to terms with those realities in a gentle and supportive way.

    Thanks so much for this post. <3

  10. veronica says:

    do you have any posts on pets? I’ve had some interesting experiences taking my cats to the vet recently. I’d like to be part of a discussion here. Thanks.

    • Yes! In fact, Cassandra wrote a great post about her cats and their diet. Just search cats in the search area at the top. I have some ideas for some dog related posts coming soon too.

  11. Funny Story. One day, when our eldest son was about 4, he was eating chicken for dinner. He suddenly stopped eating and looked up. “Mom, is this chicken “Puck, puck” (chicken sound) chicken?”, he asked. Never one to sugar coat things, “Yup” I answered, wondering what would come next. “Oh. Poor chicken…can I have some more of that chicken?” LOL

    I’m hoping our city will change by-laws allowing the keeping of chickens in the back yard one day. I envy you that:)

    • Great story, Cathy! I hope your city changes the ordinances, too! Chickens are so fun. I really want our town to change it’s ordinances about keeping goats. I want one so bad!

  12. Vanessa Brundidge says:

    This is very important to our family. In fact, I want my husband to teach our son how to kill and butcher a variety of wild game, livestock, and fish, preferably as young as possible. I feel that exposing him to EVERY aspect of “where the food comes from” will be beneficial for him. We already get most of our meat and fish from the wild or from local small farms (not from a grocery store). I hope that our son is able to do these things because it might make it easier for him to eat healthier and be more familiar with food prep/cooking as an adult.

  13. Michelle Waite says:

    I have two boys who are 8 and 10. We have butchered multiple chicken in our backyard, we have also taken chickens to a small processing facility and visited the farm we get our meat from on butchering day. One of my sons gets freaked out about blood and the other is fascinated by anatomy. They have both participated in the butchering process. My sons know more about pig butchering than I do. I was in the house washing organs. They both love to eat meat and they have met many of the animals we eat.

  14. Dean Forrest says:

    The tiny little country town that I grew up in offered two agriculture classes. One was intro to farming, and the other was meat lab. I opted for meat lab. In this class we were taught hands on the entire process of killing, gutting, and processing livestock. The first time we processed a cow, my entire thought process on meat shifted. On the rare occasion that I do eat meat, I do so with a sense of reverence. This animal died so that i could have a meal. If people would stop and think on that at each meal, as squimish as our society has become, we would have tons more vegetarians. I have explained the nitty gritty details of processing meat to all 4 of my children. I never wanted them to think that chicken or pork was made at the store.

    • Well, hopefully we wouldn’t have more vegetarians but people who support give thanks and respect to the animals who sacrificed their lives (and to plants for that matter) and people who support local farms, where animals are treated well while they are alive and humanely killed.

      • “Hopefully we wouldn’t have more vegetarians?” May I ask why? I’m pretty certain that the animals would be somewhat relieved. Giving thanks really is irrelevant, but yes, if people do persist in the slaughtering of innocent creatures; a little more respect wouldn’t go awry. However, what I feel the need to really stress is that these animals are not ‘sacrificing their lives': it’s outright murder, against their will (unless it does happen to be a suicidal chicken / cow etc)!! Factory farming is disgusting, and supporting local farms is indeed a step-up, but really I believe that if you want to feast on, and titillate your taste-buds with animal carcass (or any other carcass for that matter), that you kill the animal yourself. I believe that the child should know exactly how each ingredient gets onto their plate; and if you feel that it’s wrong for them to know, or to see the process, maybe you should reconsider just how ethical it is of you to feed them animal products. Planting some seeds, picking the fruit or vegetable, and cooking either of the aforementioned wouldn’t be an objectionable process for a child to participate in. Or how about cracking open almond shells and making your own almond-milk? The full process of plant-based meals is wonderful and enlightening; from seed to plate to mouth. Animal products, by-products (milk, eggs etc)- not so much. Food for thought. I hope I don’t come across too aggressive, I write this with a none threatening tone :)

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