Groceries and the Thorny Questions of Life

ICK01-at244by-Anna Sattler

(Not my child. Photo credit: G & A Sattler)

Just when you think it’s an ordinary day, wham! Life with children is never routine.

My older son is in preschool. He eats like most kids his age, but I’m not complaining. (Not today, anyway. He ate hummus for lunch!) He would prefer to subsist on sunflower butter sandwiches and milk, with sweets thrown in whenever he can get them. The only abnormal thing in that is the sunflower butter. We are a peanut-free house, but so are a lot of people these days. No biggie. We insist that he eats at least one bite of everything at dinner time before he announces, “I hate it… Thank you for the lovely meal, Mama. May I be excused?”

One bite of salad. One bite of applesauce. One bite of lasagna. One bite of carrots. The three- or four-bite ordeal usually takes less than a half-hour, so I count myself lucky. As a kid, I was capable of sitting at the table for over an hour to avoid tasting green beans. (Well, I think it was over an hour. Time went slower back then.)

Recently we had a breakthrough. He tried a bite of pork roast and declared that– wait for it– he loved it! Then he actually asked for seconds. It was incredible because for the past year, he had insisted that he didn’t like meat. The pediatrician assured me that a meat aversion was pretty normal. The texture is unappealing to many kids. As long as he ate a fair diet in other ways, a few bites of meat a week would provide enough iron. And so, with the exception of my “Tyrannosaurus Rexes Are Carnivores!” campaign, which was a total flop by the way, I made my peace with having a vegetarian toddler. And then when he shocked us all by actually asking for pork roast in the grocery store, I made a mental note that his vegetarian phase had passed.

This left me totally unprepared for what happened today. It’s inevitable. Just when I think the parenting job is pretty smooth sailing, expect a wave to appear out of nowhere.

We were flipping channels on television and saw a PBS cooking show. They had apparently taken a field trip to the farm on this episode. The host was standing in the butcher’s shop next to what I can only describe as enormous hanging beef carcasses. My son’s eyes grew big. “What’s that?” he asked. Can you guess what happened next?


A little while later, I wrestled the boys into their clothes, socks, shoes, and coats and we were headed out the door on grocery day. “Don’t you dare buy beef, Mama!” my son said. “It comes from a cow. Only cannibals eat beef.” What could I say? (I decided that now was not the time to explain the correct meaning of cannibal, which he incidentally pronounces as “cannon ball”.) In the most natural and laudable way, my son was recoiling at the cycle of killing-to-eat that is such an intrinsic part of life on this earth. When you stop to think about it, there is something deeply perverse about killing to eat, taking life to preserve life, but who thinks about that? It takes the fresh eyes of a child to see the conundrum.

How could I squash this noble instinct in my child? Not after all my hard work to get him to respect all forms of life: the plants in the garden, our pet cat, animals of all kinds. The lesson had sunk in after all. But going vegetarian? I was not ready for that. So here it was, the theological quandary that my preschooler had thrust upon me as we were on our way out the door. How can God sanction eating meat if he truly does love all of creation and all life is sacred?

What popped out of my mouth in that moment was the story of how Adam and Eve didn’t eat meat in the garden of Eden. Then, I admit, I got side-tracked and pointed out that if we wanted to stop eating meat, we’d need to eat all our vegetables to stay healthy.

At that moment my husband stepped into the fray from another room. “What do lions eat?” he asked. My son brightened up immediately. “And Tyrannosaurus rexes?” “But Papa, they don’t exist!” Suddenly, I remembered that the apostles ate fish. My son brightened again. He was on a roll now. “And God helped them catch it!” my son added. (He loves the story about how Jesus tells St. Peter to try once more and the nets nearly break with fish.) That clinched the argument for him. He had no more guilty qualms about eating meat today.

But the question was far from resolved in my own mind. If you think it has an easy answer, then you haven’t thought seriously about the question yet. As a Christian, I believe that the closest anyone can come to describing God with mere words is to talk about his love. God is radical, transcendent, all-encompassing love. He teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves and even to love our enemies. He says that not so much as a sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge (Matt 10:29). So how could the Son of God incarnate casually bless his apostles to catch fish? Or eat fish even after he was rose from the dead (Luke 24:43)? If my son gets around to asking me, I can only think to tell him that it was a condescension to our human weakness, to the way of the fallen world. And that “from the beginning it was not so (Matt 19:8).” Paradoxically, our loving God does not condemn us for killing in order to eat meat, even while he continues to love and care for the animals that we consume.

For now, I will continue to buy meat and vegetables as I always have, but I am not done thinking about the thorny questions that my son raised today on the way to the grocery store. And it is not the first or the last time that he has made me see things from an unexpected angle. Thank God for our children!

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4 Responses to Groceries and the Thorny Questions of Life

  1. Beth says:

    Well written and well done! a thought problem that doesn’t prescribe the right answer.

  2. maryeholste says:

    Thank you! I’d love to hear how other people have handled this question in their families.

  3. Aran says:

    I also think it is useful to talk about how wasteful it would be to just throw away a dead animal that could be food for someone else. With my kid, I don’t talk about HOW the animal dies. Instead I just say that when an animal like a chicken dies, it is better to eat it than to just throw it away. I have also explained that some animals are not very good at food, which is why we don’t eat dogs or cats when they die. With really perceptive kids, I think this is going to be an ongoing issue. For example, I think domesticated animals are the easiest ones to justify eating, since it can be argued that those animals wouldn’t even exist if humans didn’t breed them. Wild caught fish on the other hand are living lives of pure freedom and liberty, which we humans end. It is this latter situation that seems like the more difficult one to explain — especially if the kid has seen Finding Nemo. For what its worth, my own mother always served us food that looked like the animal. She would prepare whole chickens and cook up the giblets and serve them to us as snacks. We would eat a lot of whole fish like trout, smelt and sardines. She also cooked up a variety of animals like goose and rabbit.

    • maryeholste says:

      Aran, thanks for your suggestions! I like your point that eating the chicken makes better sense than just throwing it away. Was someone in your family a hunter? I admit I’ve never seen rabbit meat. Do you remember your reaction to seeing “the whole animal” served up as a kid? I guess it’s not exactly a new question. Killing and eating meat has been part of the human experience from the beginning.

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