If your family is making a transition into homesteading and providing for your own food needs, there is one difficult subject that will eventually come up.
How will your children handle the idea that an animal they saw walking around earlier this morning is now on their dinner plate tonight?
As parents we tend to worry that somehow we might traumatize our children if they know of or experience the processing of an animal down to its edible parts. If this is something you were doing before your children were born, then chances are they simply grew up with it and have never given it a second thought. If your children are already familiar with buying meat at the grocery store, but are disconnected with where that meat was before you bought it… it can be more difficult to decide how you will connect those dots.
Small Farm Livestock: Learning with kids
Your children are smart and learning with kids can be easier than you think. The first thing I feel you need to remember is that your children can handle a lot more than what you expect. They take in a lot of information every day, and this is just one more piece of information. That does not mean you should take your child outside and butcher a chicken with them without any discussion ahead of time – the exact opposite is actually true. Take a moment to talk to them first, find out what they already know and judge for yourself how well they are handling the information you give them, one little piece at a time.
If they start to get squeamish, just go back a step and find another way forward. Consider how you would explain any other subject to your children. You would perhaps give a general and vague statement to answer their question, but if they continue to prod you for information you would start at the beginning and give them a little piece of information at a time until they are satisfied. Then, as they get older, you explain a little more, and a little more, until they know what you know. This is the same process we are going to use here.
Animal Food Production: Have the Talk
Start by having the talk and asking your children some really simple questions, such as:
- Do you know where eggs come from?
- Do you know where milk comes from?
- Do you know where hamburger/ham/chicken comes from? (Yes… even chicken)
This is a great way for you to discover what their understanding already is. If they know all the answers to these questions, move right along. If not, take a moment to give a general overview. Not all children know what cows, pigs or other animals even look like outside of what they see in cartoons. If they do not know where hamburger comes from, explain that it is made from a cow. If they do not start asking the question of “how”, then you can ask simple questions like “What do you think about that?” Questions such as these will help you focus the discussion.
One time the Children Learned we could make Jelly from plants in our yard.
Raising Livestock for Food: More Questions
You will have to ask more questions and keep getting more in depth as you move along. Sometimes you will get to skip ahead in the conversation, but in general here is an example of how things might go:
- Do you know where chicken comes from?
- From the store!
- Do you know where it was before it was in the store?
- Well, did you know it is made from an animal?
- What animal do you think chicken comes from? (Yes, even though chicken meat is called chicken… ask this.)
- I don’t know.
- Well, did you know there is an animal called a chicken?
- That is where this comes from – it is a part of that animal.
I realize that this conversation is probably suited for a 3 or 4 year old, but I hope it gives you the concept behind the idea here. You do not have to jump straight to the statement of “We are going to start butchering our own chickens for our dinner.” Instead, you can step your way into it. Give your child a general idea for how the animals are treated that end up in the grocery store. Not the worst horror story you ever heard, but ask if they think animals would rather live outside or inside and why. Ask if they think animals like being in huge crowds or if they like being able to spread out a little. These questions help you explain how the animals on your property are healthier, loved and cared for on a more personal level than those that end up in the grocery store.
Tips and Ideas
Rather than give you pages of possible conversations, let’s talk about some tips and ideas that you can implement. All children are different, of course, and some will be concerned about the very idea that the hamburger they love came from a living animal. Others will think it is cool. Here are some things you can do to step into the process for the first type of child:
- Start with what the animal produces, rather than it’s meat.
- This means using eggs, milk, fiber, etc, before you get into the thought of having to kill the animal.
- Establish the difference between pets and animals that will be used for food.
- Never name animals that will end up on the table. However, do give names to all of your pets or animals that you know will be around for a long, long time. This gives your children something to hold on to – so they will know that dinner is not “Mr. Fluffy”.
- Keep your children involved.
- Children want to be a part of the process. Have them help collect eggs, or count chickens, do the milking, catch the fish, or whatever their abilities are.
Our experience is that, in the end, your children will be excited about the whole process. We have actually had our children cheer when they know the food is from our property and we have had them moan in disappointment when we told them it was bought in the store. Again, they want to be a part of the process!
Make it happen: Feed the family
Start with the simple questions, even if they seems obvious. It will help you get your bearings on where to go from there. Start by first using animal products like eggs, milk, etc., and be sure your children are helping with that process. Have them collect eggs, teach them to milk the cow or goat, let them help in whatever way they can. Talk to your children about how they would rather have animals treated – do they think your animals are happier than animals in factories? Over time, provide some home-grown meat for dinner and see how your family reacts. As your children grow, involve them in the processing as well. Before you realize it the whole family will be a part of raising, caring for, collecting from, cooking and eating what you produce on the property – and all of it will be second nature.