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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13 Comments

  • Regarding the “problem” of getting kids to eat vegetables, I find myself amused by the antics being described in these “trick your kids” books.

    For a number of years, my partner and I have been involved in Operation Front Line’s national program that provides healthy cooking classes to young children.

    Prior to that – coming from a VERY large New England Irish family, I had cooked for large numbers of young children in various homes.

    These experiences have brought me to believe that a child’s tasting abilities are quite different than an adults. They dont “taste” what grown ups do, even when they eat the same foods. Over time, as they grown they develop different likes and dislikes. However – they also LEARN new likes and dislikes.

    * no one has ever been born “liking” the taste of Scotch Whisky… it is a learned preference.

    [ In my humble opinion]

    If a Mommy “teaches” her children that only foods that look-like-treats are “good”,

    She may be helping her child develop a life long preference…

    For unhealthy treats!

    Far better to involve our children in the choosing, purchasing and preparing colorful, REAL foods.

    I have never know a child to refuse to “try” a dish that they themself choose and helped prepare.

    * clearly not possible if our plan is to “decive” the child as to what they are eatting…

    Ciao 4 Niao,

    The Enlightened Chef
    – Chef J

  • Liz Spittler -ADA Times

    What a great topic! ADA Times reviewed both of these titles for the spring issue–plus Missy Chase Lapine’s newest one, ‘The Sneaky Chef: How to Cheat on Your Man (in the Kitchen)”–and all three reviewers struggled with the same issues you are addressing.

    I mentioned it to a friend of mine who swears by sneaking vegetables into her two-year-old’s food. She said that she sees the point, but that when you are as desperate as she was to get her daughter to eat anything at all, you’ll do anything. (And honestly, after witnessing the nightmare of feeding this girl, I can see what she means.) However, I am definitely going to forward your info about the recipes to her. I know she thinks they are more nutritious than they actually are!

    Liz

  • Well said, Janet. As a cookbook author, health counselor and mom, I agree with you – “nutrition through deception” approach does nothing to empower our children to make healthy choices. As a parent, it is not my job to get healthy food into my child. But it is my job to 1) provide healthy food, 2) provide a good example and 3) educate and empower my children to understand their bodies and be able to nourish themselves. How is a child served by being taught that cakes, puddings and the like are a healthy part of their diet. Fool them at home with hidden ingredients, but when they are away from home and base their meals on these same foods (minus the scant amount of hidden vegetables), who is the fool?

    Teach your children, involve them in all aspects of meal preparation from the garden to the table and let go of your own judgements about and agendas around found. Allow food to nourish, and go to great lengths to avoid using it to manipulate.

    Terry

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  • ModeMomma67

    You know, if your kids will eat veggies because they helped pick them out, prepare them, etc., more power to you! That’s really wonderful! However, my 5 year old has NEVER eaten veggies…well, not since the days when I was feeding her all of her food. We have consistently offered veggies in varying forms, of varying types over the past 4.5 years and she refuses to eat them. My dh and I eat veggies, salad, a variety of fruits and good foods – she simply refuses to try anything new. Regardless of how many times we offer it. She has grocery shopped with us, picked fruits & veggies that she’d like to try and has helped prepare them….And, then promptly refuses to eat them. So, there are simply some children for whom the “keep offering and they’ll eat it method” just do not work. Unfortunately, the 5 year old now has the 3 year old on the same track. So, if I can sneak some sweet potato into their french toast or pancakes, or sneak some pureed spinach, carrot, cauliflower or what have you into their pizza sauce, then I’m happy! They’ve gotten some veggies into their diet and I know they’re eating better than they were.

    It may not be my job to make them eat healthy foods, but I’m darn sure gonna do what I can to get some into them, in any way I can!

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  • Janet – this blog is very impressive! And it’s fun to read. I’m hooked! Mary

  • Janet

    Hi Mary,
    Thanks so much! So glad you stopped by for a visit. Hope you’ll subscribe and become a regular reader. So good to hear from you.
    Best, Janet

  • Tex

    (Late to the party, as usual.)

    I’m going to end up sounding older than I am, but I swear I’m under 35.

    There were some vegetables that I genuinely don’t like–no amount of threatening can get me to eat lima beans, and Mom and I battled for years over whether or not to put raw bell pepper in salads–but, mostly, I was pretty good (Mom confirms this). The rules at our house were that you had to finish your milk, and you had to eat some vegetables. My parents weren’t exactly health-food nuts but every dinner involved a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. They didn’t put sauces on things, and they never fried anything.

    We didn’t have much money and my mother wouldn’t buy processed food, so there were no hot dogs, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, soda, juice, sweet cereal, etc., as potential alternatives if we held out long enough against tuna casserole or baked chicken. You ate what you were served or you didn’t eat. I don’t recall it ever crossing my mind to demand a special meal.

    I’m not sure how much of it was that I was a kid who would eat almost anything, and how much of it was that there was apparently no concept of “kid food” at our house and we never developed a taste for the things to which parents often resort when their kids won’t eat vegetables.

  • cyrell

    I remember when my mom made waffles with pumpkin in it..i hate pumpkin…and i knew something wsa wrong with the waffles, they tasted off..and when my mom gave me the literary finger and told me she put pumpkin in them it only cemented my hate for pumpkin.

    There are some things which i had never eaten as a kid like turnips, brussel sprouts and the like.

    Some things like cauliflower i eat now when i got them in a restaurant dish because it tasted so much more appealing then what my mother made.

    My daughter ate salad when she started eating solid foods, she would grabb them from my plate and shove them into her mouth. Sometimes she liked tomatoes, sometimes not.

    I let her eat from my plate and i never really had a problem with her eating habits.

    If you make a fuss when kids do not want to eat something it just hardens their decision to not eat that specific food.

    Adding some carrots in a potatoe soup or other vegetables is not wrong as long as it is not a vegetable the kid absolutely hates.

    But adding broccolie to a brownie…no…carrot cake or a sweet carrot pudding like it is served in india..yes…somehow carrots are different.

    Never trick a kid with something it absolutely hates and if you do and the kid does not recognize the hated vegetables, for gods sake..do not tell.

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