September 06, 2021

Eating in Everyday Life

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

My 13-year-old has suddenly stopped eating meat. This came as a surprise to my wife and me, considering his voracious appetite and penchant for eating a variety of meats. It wasn’t long ago he was eager to participate in the chicken sandwich wars, comparing offerings from popular fast-food establishments. We live in Buffalo, which I consider a meat-centric place. After all, this is home of the chicken wing, and lesser-known meat treats that Western New Yorkers are proud to be associated with, like beef on weck sandwiches. Many a fund raiser in our region rely on chicken dinners sold in the parking lots of churches, schools, and fire halls.

My wife and I both come from meat and potato families. In my childhood, dinner was usually comprised of meat, a starch, and a vegetable. I remember eating pork chops, chicken, beef tacos, steak, and subs with cold cuts. My mom’s family is Italian. Our family Sunday dinners were pasta with meatballs and sausage. My kids have grown up eating breaded chicken cutlets that my dad makes, and my mom’s meatballs. Growing up Catholic, meat was only something to avoid only on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent. What family traditions have shaped the way you eat? What religious customs can you think of that influence how people eat?

When my in-laws heard about our son dropping meat from his diet, they expressed concern he wouldn’t get enough protein. He already doesn’t eat peanut butter, and he’s not loving eggs these days, either. He can eat only so many black beans and protein bars. My mother-in-law incorporates meat into most of her cooking, and family gatherings on holidays and special occasions almost always include meat.

Around Saint Patrick’s Day each year she makes corned beef and cabbage. Easter means ham, and Thanksgiving is all about turkey. It’s hot dogs on the 4th of July (the day of the year when people compete in the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, with the record being 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes).

How can I describe my father-in-law? Let’s put it this way: you’re not going to see him eat a veggie burger or hummus wrap. The only thing he’ll put on a grill that isn’t meat is corn on the cob. He and my brother-in-law hunt for deer and are happy to come away with venison in the form of steaks and jerky. He reminds me of a bumper sticker I see on occasion: “I love animals. They’re delicious.” I understand my in-laws’ concern, and I know our family members will be supportive. Grandparents just want to make sure their grandchildren eat.

Our son’s new eating habits haven’t dramatically changed the way we eat at home. It’s pretty easy to leave out meat from meals or find substitutes. We’ve used Impossible “meat” to make tacos and are trying out different brands of meatless “chicken” products to see what he likes. It’s when we don’t feel like cooking and stop at a drive thru or get takeout when we’re struck by how central meat is to those places.

Other than pizza, most convenient places to get food have menus that thrive on meat products: McDonald’s (our 10-year-old’s favorite fast food), Burger King, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, KFC, Popeyes, Sonic, Five Guys, Subway, Arby’s (with their famous slogan “We have the meats”), etc. I’ll note that our 13-year-old has tried the Impossible Whopper from Burger King and gave it his stamp of approval. The rice bowls at Chipotle are filling without meat, plus sofritas are an option for vegetarians and vegans. Even the taco chain familiar to all Western New Yorkers, Mighty Taco, now serves Impossible tacos. So there are options.

Something that interests me is the role that nostalgia plays in what we eat. I spent a ton of time in my youth at a pizzeria in Niagara Falls, New York, one block away from the street where I grew up. To this day, I still enjoy a steak and cheese sub from there. I devoured one about a month ago and could recognize that it wasn’t the taste of it that I truly appreciated, but more that it reminded me of good times hanging out with friends. Are there any eateries that have sentimental value to you?

If our son sticks to not eating meat, he’ll be in company with a small share of the population. According to Gallup, about 5% of Americans identify as vegetarian, and fewer are vegans. That said, Gallup research shows that 23% of Americans report a reduction in their meat consumption. Concerns about health and the environment are main reasons that people cite for eating less meat. Women have reduced their meat consumption more than men, and nonwhites have reduced meat consumption at a higher rate than whites. Age and political ideology are worth mentioning too: younger Americans, and liberals, are more likely to be vegetarian.

If you don’t eat meat, or are eating less of it, is it for health reasons, environmental concerns, or some other explanation? When it comes to your daily eating practices, what social influences can you identify?

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