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Turkey. Goose. Lamb. Roast Beef. Ham.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, and perhaps big meal preparations underway, kids may have some questions about why we celebrate how we do. Or it might be a good time to get them thinking about it.

“Large animals on the table,” says Amy Bentley, food historian at New York University, have been part of the way people celebrate holiday feasts “for millennia.”

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And meat wasn’t just a way to celebrate. It may have even shaped human nature. “Some people argue we have the big brains and intelligence that we do in part because of protein that came from meat eating,” says Bentley.

But eating animals can also be “a fraught topic,” Bentley says. To start with, she observes, “we are meat.” So some have ethical concerns about eating other animals. Others have practical concerns about the way the meat industry affects the environment.

And kids in particular, Bentley says, are “especially responsive to these issues.” So how can parents start good conversations with kids about meat?

Elementary age kids can guide the conversation with their own questions, Bentley says, and “Parents shouldn’t be afraid to answer them.” According to Bentley, even simple questions like “Why do we eat this way? Why don’t we eat bacon?” can “get to core values of who we are as a family, what culture and religious traditions we belong to.”

Middle school kids are ready for a bit more complexity, and Bentley suggests that it’s a good time for parents to share their personal opinions on meat. Like the tension between the high cost of pasture-raised meat, and a limited budget. Or the fact that they eat meat, but aren’t totally comfortable with factory farming. It’s O.K, Bentley says, for parents to admit that they haven’t really come to a solution yet. The important thing is “for kids to begin to think there are different kinds of good – not necessarily one right or wrong answer for everybody.”

High school kids can start to take a broader perspective. Bentley points out that Americans have far more choice about food than many other people. “Eliminating entire categories of food would be unthinkable in other countries,” she says. “Or laughable.” Having this perspective can encourage gratitude in kids—and give them some important perspective when they start to make their own choices about food.

At all ages, Bentley says, it’s important to remember that food isn’t just about ethics or nutrition. “Food is beautiful, delicious, and nourishes our body and our souls. And family dinners are sacred. So let’s enjoy each other, and enjoy this delicious food.”

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