'I'm never eating animals,' says the 5-year-old, stunning her meat-loving food writer father

Nick Kindelsperger
Chicago Tribune

Of all my family's traditions, our Christmas Eve feast remains my favorite. Instead of ham or turkey, I somehow convinced everyone 10 years ago that we should make fried chicken from scratch. We marinate the meat in buttermilk overnight, toss it in a highly seasoned flour and then fry it in a cast-iron pan until golden. The whole house smells like a fryer, and the kitchen requires a serious scrub down afterward, but I couldn't care less. I think about this meal all year.

As we were sitting down this past December to Christmas Eve dinner, my daughter looked at the towering platter of fried chicken and casually remarked, "Is that from a real chicken?"

"Of course," I said.

"Hmm," she slowly intoned. "I'm never eating animals." And right then, before the start of my favorite meal of the year, my 5-year-old daughter decided to become a vegetarian.

For any meat-eating parent, this would be a big deal. But as a food writer, the news came like a blow to the gut.

When I told my friends this story, most couldn't help but laugh. "I mean, don't let her see your Instagram feed," said one. This is true. Sometimes it looks as if all I do is sink my teeth into cooked animal parts. For my articles, I like to try as many dishes as I possibly can before making any judgments, which leads to quests where I stuff myself silly on 40 burritos or 234 tacos. I've taken trips to Cincinnati solely to devour chili and to North Carolina for barbecue. While my wife and I eat lots of vegetables at home, meat has been a fixture of my weekly cooking since we've lived together, from whole chickens and pork shoulders to steaks and sausage.

But I took my daughter's declaration seriously. In a way, I was proud of her. While I had no interest in following suit, knowing that meat comes from actual animals is important. She doesn't yet know anything about factory farms or the ecological impact of cattle. She just likes animals and doesn't want to eat them. My wife and I let her know that we'd help. The first step: She'd have to eat vegetables.

My daughter could subsist happily on rice and noodles. Throw in cheese, some bread covered in peanut butter, yogurt and cornflakes, and that covers about 75 percent of her food intake. Not that my wife and I don't try. Like all hyper parents, we vainly push vegetables on her every single day. She'll tolerate green peas. She'll nibble on a carrot stick. I once saw her eat broccoli and like it, but she now refuses to acknowledge the event. Most times it feels hopeless. She won't look at kale, thinks cauliflower smells bad and scoots beets away whenever they are close. We keep trying.

We've had some successes in the fake meat department. Honestly, I'd rather my kid mindlessly scarf down veggie nuggets than chicken nuggets. She thought veggie dogs were OK. The veggie burger, however, got a thumbs-down.

She'd never exactly been a big meat eater. Steak interested her for only two bites, and she used to dig the crunchy breading of fried chicken more than the meat. But we thought doing without cured pork products might break her. She's decimated whole charcuterie plates before, requested ham at lunch for weeks on end and loved nothing more than swiping multiple free sausage slice samples from a particular stall at our local farmers market.

When we explained that ham and salami came from a pig, she paused for only a few seconds, before asking, "Does the pig need that part to live?"

"It does," I replied.

"Then I'm not eating ham anymore." She's kept that promise.

I have to admit, some past memories now feel slightly tinged with sadness. Like the summer days when I'd take her to Red Hot Ranch, one of Chicago's best hot dog stands, and set her on the standing counter to eat a hot dog with fries. I felt connected to the city in those moments, and relished that she thought adding ketchup sounded gross.

But then I realized that we'd create new ones. She loves helping me make bread. Though sometimes more flour falls on the floor than ends up in the bowl, when the crackly loaves come out of the oven, she devours the results more quickly than she ever did chicken meat.

Mostly, it's been amazing how easy this change has been. We have friends whose kids are vegetarians, and they've given us loads of tips. Her school offers a vegetarian option every day. Most kids parties only serve cheese pizza anyway. While the hot dog at Red Hot Ranch may be off -limits, she can still eat the stand's incredible hand-cut french fries.

Coincidentally, I'm working on a massive burger feature right now, which requires me to eat multiple burgers a day. I've never eaten so much ground beef in my life. To help me survive for the time being, I'm strictly vegetarian at home. We might keep it that way.

I have no idea how long this will last. She is 5. Her favorite animal has changed twice since Christmas. After three years of telling us blue was her favorite color, last week she switched to red. (That last one really threw me off.) But the decision of whether it's right or not to eat meat is an important topic to consider no matter your age.