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On ‘forced’ food choices and children

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

My granddaughter, Anasuyaa, five, is a vegetarian and a very healthy eater. She loves vegetables, specially broccoli. She doesn’t like maida in any form, including cakes. She likes the idea of icecream, but will rarely go beyond a few licks. My son went through a phase of offering her lollipops, which she took to please him but never ate. Her idea of a great meal is lots of salad, two rotis, a little rice, dal, mushrooms, and vegetables

A few weeks ago she was given an egg by a friend’s mother, which she ate. She told me and I was very angry. When I took the matter up, the only defence that the person came up with was “Anasuyaa is very thin and she needs protein” and then she followed it up with a standard accusation: “How can you force your child to be vegetarian. She should be allowed to eat what she wants .What you are doing is not democratic and it’s bad for the child. ”

This is the most annoying argument of all, and is pushed by the feebleminded. So, vegetarians and vegans should be ASHAMED for making their children eat so, while the others, no doubt, offer their infants an a la carte menu at each meal time?

Parents force their choices on you the day you come to the world, starting with the name and religion. Every parent forces their children to eat in a particular direction. But the parents, who force their child to eat meat at a young age, are doing much more damage, because they start early in ruining the child’s health and laying the foundation for obesity and organ breakdowns. They also take away the natural sensitivity the child is born with towards the rest of creation.

A family stays together with food. All culture, all respect, starts with food choices. Anasuyaa is the gentlest soul I have ever met: she picks up snails from the pathways and carries them to one side to see that they are not run over. We have not taught her that. We have simply let her be the way the universe meant humans to be, pure, gentle, with curiosity and compassion towards all. Even her teachers say that she is unique in her respect for everyone. And I owe that to the fact that we have left her vegetarian, mostly vegan, and explained food to her since she was two. How many parents explain food to their children? How many understand nutrition themselves?

Your children are not born feral. Every activity is forced on a child – make sure your choices are good and mindful, and then make the child do them. My son’s IQ is over 150, Anasuyaa has come first in several chess championships, and is often first in her class- if you want to be a tiger mother and expect wonderful things from your child, start with giving them the food that their body and soul really needs.

I have parents who say to me very proudly: “My child hates vegetables”. That is an example of really bad parenting. If the three year old rejects a vegetable the first time they simply remove it from the diet. But it takes three-four times to get a child to accept food, any food (I am not talking about sugar, at all). These are parents who probably don’t like vegetables themselves, and force the child into their own food tastes.

Sometimes the media is so strange. I have read nonsensical news stories about “Vegan couple force their diet on child, kill toddler”. If your child is obese, or diabetic, because you give them pizzas, pastry, or hamburgers, twice a week, or if you warm up food in a microwave … that’s fine. What about the parents that force kids to eat McDonald’s, junk food and sweets, a bucket of chicken, or luncheon meat sandwiches. These are the ‘forcings’ that should be shamed. In this case, the parents did not keep their child vegan – they simply fed her just fruit, which is criminal idiocy – as much idiocy as feeding chicken soup to a child that is ill (chicken soup is used in labs to grow bacteria). So many of our children in India are vegan naturally, and look how well they do.

If an elder child insists that her younger sibling be vegetarian, then she is the radical and fanatic: not the parents who force chicken nuggets on the four year old because they know best, and the child should have what she wants. The same parents do not allow her to have sweets, or any cereal that contains too much sugar, no matter how much she cries.

Another oddity I see in people is that if a child is vegetarian because of religious reasons, its fine. But if you keep a child vegetarian because you care about their health, the environment, climate change and suffering to animals, that’s considered radical. How weird that society values religious decisions over moral ones.

A friend of mine is very rich, and an art collector. His grandson, aged four, really loves cows. So they have statues of cows in their garden, and he talks to them. And then sits down to dinner and eats their meat. If I try and tell him, their whole family warns me off because it might upset him and put him off meat. But, if a simple identification of what he is eating puts him off meat, then surely it’s a sign he shouldn’t be eating it?

A lot of children don’t realise that the meat they are eating are dead animals. They don’t talk about it at school, because teachers see it as the parent’s job. But we need better food education, and now it is important that that we don’t hide where food is actually sourced and what it’s actually made of. You owe it to your child to “force” them to recognise animals as sentient beings, instead of forcing them to eat them. When the child is old enough, and wants to eat meat when he is older, that choice can be left to him. But, until then, a healthy and ethical food should be the norm.

Many years ago, I asked a leader of my party why his children ate meat when he and his wife were vegetarians. This leader is a Ram Mandir Hindu who shot to fame through Ayodhya. His reply was, “In our house we have democracy”. My next question was “So, if your daughter and son smoked, drank, and had multiple partners, or walked about scantily dressed, is that ok as well?” At which point he said: “Tauba tauba”, and foolishly added: “Ram was a hunter”. “In the jungle”, I replied. “Are your children archers? Do they kill their own food? ” He was by then sick of me as a fanatic, but I pursued it:“So, you are ok with having dead bodies on your table in order to establish the sacred foundations of democracy? And you are so noble that when your children were toddlers you fed them meat with your own hands in order to make them true democrats? And your children, when grown up, guided by the sacred light of democracy, could not respect the family traditions of vegetarianism and their parents? ” And he answered, “Aaj kal modern zamanaa hai”. I stopped arguing: anyone who accepts the killing of other species as a “modern” thing cannot be argued with.

The world is changing. It was very fashionable to think of a vegan as a crazy flat-earther. Now, veganism shows a superior class of person, more committed to the planet, more interested in health for themselves and their children. It is the carnivores that are on the back foot: destroying health and other species is no longer fashionable. Remember the Christian beatitude always, when you feed your children: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”. Compassion is an economic imperative: it keeps you and the planet healthy, and what could be

better than that.

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