Debating the Merits of “Stealth” Veggies

I must admit I’m fascinated by the food fight between the “deceptive” and “sneaky” cookbook authors.  And I’m eagerly awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit Missy Chase Lapine filed against Jessica Seinfeld, author of Deceptively Delicious. Lapine alleges that Seinfeld stole ideas from her book The Sneaky Chef, which was published six months earlier.

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This controversy stirs up so many intriguing issues — originality of recipes, ethics of publishers and agents and the power of celebrity. While the authors argue over potential “vegetable plagiarism,” I’m more concerned about the actual content of these best-selling books. Is the advice being dispensed really good for kids? 

Now, it appears the “hide and seek” approach is catching on with the food industry.  The trend tracker Mintel says the hidden nutrition strategy is gaining ground with manufacturers and predicts multiple new products for children with vegetables and fruits hidden inside.

Yes, children’s diets do need improving.  And eating more fruits and vegetables is a good place to start.  But, to me, the sneaky approach sends several wrong messages.

Tricks are for kids?

As a registered dietitian and mother of veggie-loving twins, the concept of camouflaging vegetables just hit me wrong. Does deception really belong at the dinner table?

For starters, disguising vegetables reinforces the notion that these foods are so bad they must be hidden. Early childhood is a critical time of palate development and children need to be exposed to vegetables or they’ll never learn to eat them. Relying on these deceptive recipes may encourage you to throw in the kitchen towel and stop offering “real” vegetables to kids.

Most troubling, though, is the actual nutritional quality of the recipes. Janice Bissex and Liz Weiss, the Meal Makeover Moms, tested some of the recipes in Deceptively Delicious to see if they worked and, more importantly, to see how nutritious they really were. Once they got cooking they found that several of the recipes provided a measly amount of vegetables – some only about 1 tablespoon per serving. They thought the recipes were so focused on sneaking in small amounts of vegetables that they often missed the boat on overall good nutrition.

For example, a chocolate pudding recipe included pureed avocado but surprisingly no milk, so it contained no bone-building calcium. It was also high in sugar (10 teaspoons per 1/2-cup serving) and contained, oddly, uncooked cornstarch that they said gave it a gritty texture. Many recipes in the two books are overly time-consuming and embrace the narrow concept of “kid food,” such as chicken nuggets doused in a broccoli puree before being breaded and fried. The two dietitians thought many of the dishes didn’t even taste good – which is quite ironic since the recipes are attempting to mask the taste of vegetables, yet the final product wasn’t appealing.

I totally agree with the concept of boosting the nutrient density of the foods kids eat (such as adding grated carrots to meat balls or finely diced bell peppers to pasta sauce), but I struggle with this deceptive approach.

Jessica Seinfeld has readily admitted in media interviews that she resorted to these stealth tactics with her children because she grew tired of “bribing them, begging them, whining at them” to eat their vegetables. But studies show that pressure like this doesn’t work. When you bribe or force children to eat certain foods, they like those foods less. 

So what can we learn from this cookbook controversy? For me, I’m even more convinced that there are better ways to get kids to eat their veggies.

We should focus on making vegetables taste good, not apologizing for them. If we do, children will learn to eat vegetables the same way they learn to eat other foods.  Kids need time and multiple opportunities to eat vegetables.  Plus, they need to see parents enjoy them too! Getting kids involved in selecting and preparing vegetables can make them more appealing. Trips to farmers markets and even growing your own vegetables also can help.

We need to remember that we’re helping to establish food preferences that can last a lifetime so it’s worth the effort. There are no quick fixes.

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