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Adoption Blog: Man Up!

“Brown Boys Don’t Eat Meatballs”


As I have mentioned before, cooking is one of my passions. My wife, Leslie, and I have long held an appreciation for good food, as well as the skill and creativity involved in the transforming of raw ingredients into refined dishes. Often after experiencing a great meal at a restaurant, we try and replicate a favorite entrée at home. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it takes a try or two, but usually we get pretty close in the end.

We’re also pretty particular about the quality of the food we eat and the products we purchase, especially when it comes to what we feed our son, Manu, who we adopted from India. This year, for the first time, we’ve bought into a CSA (community-supported agriculture) from a nearby farm that provides us with weekly deliveries of fresh organic produce, picked that same day.

When we shop at our local grocery, we stay out of the center aisles, instead focusing most of our attention on whole grains, lean meats,  cheese, fresh fish, and still more fresh vegetables. When perusing the produce section, we like to play a little game of name that vegetable with Manu. He can tell the difference between an onion and a leek, he likes saying “radicchio,” and he can spot an artichoke a mile away. Distinguishing one green from another is still a little tricky, but he knows where to find the kale and the Swiss chard. We’ve set up a little garden on the side of our house so that he can watch the vegetables grow, help with watering and harvesting, and better understand where some of his food comes from. He’s really enjoying it so far, especially the tomatoes and okra!

A few nights ago I asked Manu what he wanted for dinner and gave him the list of options based on what ingredients we had ready to prepare. He decided on salmon. “Good choice,” I told him as I turned around to begin prepping the meal.

“I like fish!” he exclaimed. A moment later he added, “But not meatballs.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, as meatballs were not among the choices I had just offered.

“They don’t give me meatballs in school,” he said in a slightly sullen tone.

“What do they give you?” I asked, more confused than ever.

“A cheese sandwich.”

“Do the other kids get meatballs?” I asked. He nodded and then added, “Brown boys don’t eat meatballs!”

I realized suddenly what was going on. Earlier that day he had been served an alternative lunch because of a request we have made with the administrators of Manu’s preschool. One of his best friends in the class, who is also Indian (and brown), has the same restriction—thus Manu’s perception of racially biased food service.

Leslie and I have been very particular with his preschool about which foods we like him to eat and which we would rather that he didn’t. For instance, we don’t like him to drink juice while at school, preferring instead that he eat whole fruit, and we have also asked that he eat fruit when desserts are offered. It’s an uphill battle, as most of the teachers don’t seem to understand our reasons, but it is important to us to try, as best we can, to be in control of what he eats and hopefully teach him the importance of good nutrition. But the meatballs are a different matter.

While there is a myriad of health reasons why we should object to him being served processed, fatty balls of meat, they don’t factor heavily into our decision. Had they been just as processed and fatty but made of pork, lamb, or turkey, we would have less of an issue with them; but they’re made from beef.

We’ve been consuming less and less red meat for years, but the decision to withhold beef from our diets as well as from Manu's—arguably the most culturally significant food restriction we can impose upon him—has little to do with healthy eating. For us it is about preserving a vestige of his Indian heritage that he would likely have observed had he remained in his birth country. Generally speaking—for religious and cultural reasons—most Indians do not eat beef. While we do not personally hold such beliefs, we want to keep his options open for him as he matures, should he decide to follow Hindu traditions, so, as a family, we all abstain from eating beef. I don’t want to have to explain later why we fed him hamburgers, knowing that if it weren’t for us, he probably would never have eaten them.

But is my fear of his possible sense of cultural loss later in life only going to cause him to resent me sooner for ostracizing him so publicly in front of his peers? To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve never liked the fact that he is singled out by getting water when other kids get juice or a banana when the rest of them are eating doughnuts—food and drinks can be the source of such a strong bonding experience when shared among friends—but because I can fall back on my deep beliefs about eating whole foods over processed foods, I can justify, and attempt to explain rationally, those perceived sacrifices. Though nutrition also could come into play with the beef, my guilty conscience is the overriding reason for the dietary restriction. Is that fair?

Am I wrong in trying to help him become something that he can never be? Culturally, he is not Indian, so should we keep up the fantasy by holding on to an Indian custom that, because of his young age, he didn’t experience even while he was there? The only thing he understands at this point is that brown boys in his class don’t get the same lunch as everyone else. It doesn’t appear to bother him yet—he seems to understand it to be a status symbol of sorts—but it really bothers me. Being Indian in America already sets him apart from most of the children he interacts with. Add to that his Caucasian parents and there is no escaping the visibility of his situation. I don’t want him to feel that much more different from the other kids—I hope we’re not compounding the problem.

In my heart I believe we’re doing the right thing. I want to give him every opportunity to develop his Indian identity and to allow him to become the person of his choosing. But I would hate that this good intention might eventually give him cause to resent his heritage before he learns respect for it.

I was at a loss for words as to how to respond to his very straightforward and direct statement. Leslie assured him that it was not because of his skin color, but rather that we as a family have chosen to have a beef-free diet. That seemed to satisfy him—for the moment.

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This is a hard one .  I thought about this for awhile before posting.  One question though stuck out in my mind and that is this:  is this something that he will see both parents also modeling..not eating beef?  If so it should not be a real issue and he can go right along with his family’s dietary patterns.  If not and he is seeing his parents eating beef then there is a problem because it will be quite a while before he is able to process the reasoning for that and in the mean time you are wanting him to bond to you and your family.  Every child wants to be like mom and dad and yet every child wants to be just like their peers and therein is a conflict.  I have raised 3 children to adulthood and one was adopted.  I have noticed that I can introduce customs to them as children but they make their own decisions as adults and often not ones I would choose.  You said most obstain from beef but apparently some do eat it.  If he decides at an older age to cling to his cultural patterns and has eaten beef will this disqualify him or cause him difficulty in his conscience? Maybe the best thing is for the family to refrain from eating beef altogether until he can formally make up his mind since you think that is so important.  Absolutes are hard as in “I’ve never eaten beef”  Is there no place for grace in this religion or country customs?  Just food for thought and my 2 cents.

By cynthiacampbell on Friday, August 12, 2011 at 8:35 pm.

You need to do whatever you feel is right for your son.  Teaching him to eat healthy food is great.  Teaching him to prefer healthy food is even better.

As for the beef restriction, I guess I don’t understand why you would stop eating beef because he hypothetically was likely not to if he had been brought up as a Hindu, if he had stayed in India, if, if, if….  The reality is that he is not in India now, he is in a culture where lots of beef (too much beef) is eaten.  And there are plenty of people from India in America who do eat beef.  ( I know many.)  While I respect your idea about imposing a lost cultural heritage on him, I don’t foresee a situation in the future where you would have to defensively explain to an outraged adult son why you ever let him eat beef.  Unless you are bringing him up as Hindu, or as though everyone in the family is still in India, it seems a little forced.  If, when he is older, he chooses to follow the prevalent dietary restrictions of his birth country, then you can certainly encourage it then.  But, after all,  if you feel strongly about it, then do it.  Is it a rule that you cannot become Hindu if you have ever eaten beef?  I agree with you that if he strongly desires to fit in with the others in the prevalent American culture, he may actually resent what you are doing.  Only you can see if that is likely to happen.

I try to encourage healthy eating, give fruit for dessert etc. at our house, but am certainly not so rigid about it that my kids can’t have juice at daycare or ice cream or popsicles on a hot summer day.

By kzmom2005 on Friday, August 12, 2011 at 8:46 pm.

Hi Cynthia,

As I mentioned in the post, we have decided, as a family, to obstain from beef, and that includes myself and my wife. You are correct, some do eat beef, but according to statistics, over 80% of the population does not. In fact, most of those are vegetarians, so the fact that we eat meat at all is something of a compromise. We do plan to let him make his own decisions as he gets older, but for now we’re just trying to give him the opportunity to retain a little of the life he left behind after being adopted, should he want to later in life.

Thanks for your comments, I appreciate them!

By Jeff on Friday, August 12, 2011 at 8:53 pm.

Hi Candace,

You make some good points. The way I feel about it currently is this: He was removed from his culture without his consent. Maybe it’s over-the-top to abstain from beef, maybe it’s not, but I feel like I owe him something for taking him half-way around the world, and this is a little something I am able to do for him.

And he gets his share of treats, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that we want to be in control of those treats, and try and make him prefer healthier choices.

Thanks for your comments!

By Jeff on Friday, August 12, 2011 at 9:01 pm.

I can see both sides to this.  And while I don’t think there’s any one right answer, I also don’t think there’s a wrong answer. 

First of all, I home school.  When my daughter and I walk past McDonald’s in the mall, she may ask for a toy in the case up front, but she wouldn’t dream of asking for food.  She thinks nothing of sitting beside someone in a restaurant while they drink soda and she drinks water.  She was once handed a cup of Kool Aid at a home school event.  She made an awful face and handed it back.  That shocked the mom who offered it to her, but if you’re not used to that kind of thing, it doesn’t taste even good.

Of course, she’s not eating in a cafeteria each day.  If people question her dietary preferences, it’s over pretty quickly.  She won’t be dining beside them 180 days of the year.  That’s tough to be so different at such a young age.

On the other hand, it’s never too early to learn to stand for something, and standing for one’s own culture is a good, positive thing.  If he is strong enough to do this as a child, he’ll be a very strong adult.  Raising responsible, strong children is what parenting is all about.  He needs to have a reason, a motivation, for his behavior so that it becomes something he does for himself instead of doing it just to please you.  But I don’t think this is a bad thing at all—unless he begins to sneak food behind your back.  Then it’s time to re-evaluate.

By Jeanne on Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 12:40 am.

I reread and see that you have decided to obstain from beef as a family and that is a good thing.  Just like families that don’t eat lamb or pork it is something that he can identify with as a family dietary pattern.  We as a family drink water at most meals , even out in a restaurant and it does not seem strange to my children.  But, in a school setting or party they are allowed soda and sugary drinks and other foods that I may not serve at home.  I do not want to draw too much attention to differences and not cause them to want to rebel against our wishes no matter how much healther they may be.  Children still wish to be just like their peers and generally do not like to call attention to any differences and it may cause him difficulty as he grows up.  At any rate he will be the one to ultimately decide what he will eat.  And you have given him a good foundation to make the decision.  One thing I have learned is to say “Yes” to whatever I can so that when I have to say “No” it will be much better received.  You do have a lot of restrictions on food and it may be that you would decide just which ones are the most important that he follow and then let up on the others when he is at school.

By cynthiacampbell on Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 1:56 am.

Oh Jeff, I have so many thoughts about this interesting post that I don’t know where to start. Here goes:

1. I can’t tell you the number of devout Hindus I met in India itself who enjoyed telling me that they’d eaten beef in restaurants, or had tasted it once while traveling etc just to know what it was like!

2. We rarely eat beef as a family, and my Indian daughter just won’t eat it because she hates the taste.

2. We tried to enforce all those healthy eating patterns when our kids were in preschool. As they’ve gotten older and more independent, they’ve been exposed to tons of junk food and they LOVE it. I miss the days when I could better control what they were eating, hearing, watching etc. It’s amazing what gets through once they hit elem school. My girls learned the words to “Baby Got Back” from a girl on their soccer team. Where that girl learned a 20 yr old inappropriate song, who knows. Enjoy these innocent and healthy days with your son!

By Sharon Van Epps on Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 7:21 am.

Thanks again for the comments everyone!

I’m under no illusion that we’ll be able to control everything that he eats going forward, and to be clear, we don’t get bent out of shape when he’s given juice or other junk food occasionally; I simply don’t want that happening every day, which it would in pre-school if we let it. I think maybe I put a little too much emphasis on the healthy eating part of the post; I was trying to draw a contrast in why our feelings about beef are different from our general feelings about food, and I think I might have come across as a bit preachy, which was not my intention.

I’m sure you’re right Sharon, about Hindus and beef, and I’m also pretty sure that Manu will have it at some point; maybe he already has and we don’t know it. I sometimes wonder why I’m trying to support a cultural/religious custom that I don’t necessarily believe in myself. I’m not sure why, but it just seemed natural to us after we brought him home.

By Jeff on Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 11:34 am.

Jeff, this is a judgment call.  Parents make them everyday.  Sometimes they’re good calls.  Other times they’re not.  There are worse calls you could make than this.  The important thing is not the call you made, it’s how you communicate with him about it.  Make sure you are approachable and open to conversation.  Share with him your reasons, and listen to his response. 

Someday you’ll be doing this very same thing with issues that are far more frightening than processed meatballs.  This is a practice run for both of you.  However it turns out, it will be okay.  That won’t always be the case.  Appreciate the moment.  smile

By Jeanne on Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 4:29 pm.

Thanks Jeanne, I like your perspective on this. grin

By Jeff on Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 7:08 pm.
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