Hiding Veggies In Food: Benefit Or Betrayal?

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Parents rarely need to coax their kids to have ice cream. But they frequently cajole, plead, bargain, bribe and even threaten to get them to eat more vegetables, fruit and other nutritious fare.

Then there's the other approach: Sneak it in.

And although that's certainly an appealing tactic for anxious parents, many experts don't think it's such a great idea.

"Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food" (Collins, $24.95) by Jessica Seinfeld, wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, is the latest tome to advocate stealth nutrition for kids. As the mother of three young children -- two of them picky eaters -- Seinfeld writes that frequent family fights over food led her to resort to "loving deception."

Her culinary epiphany occurred when she realized that the orange hue of the macaroni and cheese she was cooking for her two older children matched the color of the butternut squash she was pureeing for her baby. She stirred a little puree into the macaroni.

"The texture was perfect, so I stirred in a little more, testing to make sure that the flavor didn't overpower the macaroni," Seinfeld writes. "Feeling only a little guilty that I was tricking my children, I stirred in enough of the squash to feel satisfied that I was giving them a respectable portion of vegetables."

Her kids didn't catch on, eating every bite without a word of complaint. They were "totally innocent of my deceit," notes Seinfeld, who says that meal marked the end of telling her kids to "eat your vegetables."

From there, she experimented with slipping in other nutritional "mickeys." "I have become an expert at hiding vegetable purees and other healthful additions -- foods my kids wouldn't touch otherwise -- in all of their favorite dishes," she writes.

Among her commando nutritional tactics: cauliflower hidden in mozzarella sticks, butternut squash in quesadillas, zucchini and banana in oatmeal raisin cookies, carrots in deviled eggs and beets in chocolate cake. "The whole family is happier," Seinfeld writes, "and we can finally enjoy mealtimes again."

This stealth approach also works for Missy Chase Lapine, author of "The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids' Favorite Meals" (Running Press, $17.95). Lapine's first child, Emily, began life as an adventurous eater, gobbling caviar as a toddler. Not so for her second daughter, Samantha, a picky eater who also had a strong gag reflex.

Soon, Emily balked at the same foods that her sister refused. To keep the peace at family dinners, Lapine resorted to short-order cooking, preparing one meal for herself and her husband, another for her daughters.

This strategy fell apart during a disastrous dinner with her brother. So Lapine looked for new ways to sneak healthier ingredients into her daughters' meals. Those guerrilla chef tactics also work for adults, Lapine notes in her forthcoming "The Sneaky Chef, How to Cheat on Your Man (in the Kitchen!): Hiding Healthy Foods in Hearty Meals Any Guy Will Love" (Running Press, $19.95). The whole family can now eat Covert Quesadillas, Tricky Taco Soup, No Sin Potato Skins and other secretly healthful fare, thanks to her sneaky chef bag of tricks.

But should they? And should you resort to tricking your loved ones to eat more nutritiously?

The practice of adding a little sugar to make foul-tasting medicine go down is as well-known as the tune Mary Poppins sang to popularize it. But when it comes to food, that strategy sends the wrong message -- and risks creating an atmosphere of mistrust among children.

"Betrayed" is how registered dietitian and therapist Ellyn Satter puts it. "Kids almost always catch on eventually," notes Satter, author of "Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense" (Bull, $16.95). "Kids are smart. They'll figure it out. And when they do," she says, "they not only feel betrayed, but patronized."

And they may wonder: If mom does this, what else does she do?

Sure, adding bean paste to the tomato sauce on a pizza can be an incremental step toward better nutrition "without having the vegetables dance on the top," says David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life program at Children's Hospital in Boston.

But Ludwig, author of "Ending the Food Fight: Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/Fake Food World" (Houghton Mifflin, $26), says the broader message conveyed by stealth cooking is that "vegetables have to be hidden and mixed with large amounts of fat and sugar to be edible. . . . We don't have to sneak vegetables under the rug."

The sneaky approach also may hinder the natural development of a child's taste buds. Learning to accept new foods is literally an acquired taste. Babies are born with a preference for sweet, salty and fatty flavors -- representing the prime ingredients of breast milk -- and an innate protective reflex against other tastes. Scientists believe this neophobia, or fear of strange new flavors, may help guard them against toxic substances when they are most vulnerable.

As children age, their taste buds mature. They learn to like more complex flavors (pungent, bitter, sour and spicy) if they are exposed to them. Serve food limited to the kid-friendly, basic flavors and you risk keeping their "taste preferences in their most primitive state," Ludwig says. It takes an average of 10 tries for a child to willingly accept a new food.

That's why you can find dinner-table detente if you understand the importance of offering kids a variety of foods without pressure to consume them. Even better, sit down and enjoy the meal with them.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company