Healthy Food Advice Welcomed

By Christine Cupaiuolo — June 24, 2008

This is a little off the beaten path, but it is most definitely health-related.

My 5-year-old niece visited for a sleepover this weekend, and despite being told that getting her to eat vegetables was pretty much impossible, I decided we’d make a build-your-own veggie burger.

She selected a black bean patty for the head; I chose a portobella cap. We both added carrot sticks for the arms and the legs, kale for the skirt or shorts, chopped garlic scapes for the eyes and nose, and a yellow tomato slice for the mouth.

Alexandra replaced the tomato with a ketchup smile, but then offered that the tomato would make an excellent hula-hoop. I smiled smugly. This meal thing was easy; all it took was a little creativity.

We took pictures (proof!). Then we started to eat. Or, rather, I ate.

Many parents and caregivers are probably familiar with what came next. Alexandra broke up pieces of the bun and dunked it in ketchup (“But it’s a vegetable, tia Christine!”). The body parts swirled around on the plate until they resembled a cubist painting.

Clearly I had no idea what I was up against.

After Alexandra left the next morning (following whole grain pancakes with blueberries, bananas, carob chips and a real chocolate chip or two — I was a pushover by 8 a.m.), I came across this L.A. Times story on the various methods used to get kids to eat vegetables, including pureeing veggies and hiding them in sweetened foods. Melinda Fulmer writes:

Everyone hopes that their kids will eat their fruits and vegetables so they’ll grow into big, strong adults who will eat the nine daily servings recommended by the U.S. government. But everyone also knows kids rarely put “broccoli” at the top of a list of favorite foods.

So an increasing number of parents are loading the foods their kids will eat with produce they think they should be getting. And food makers are lending a hand, offering a growing array of processed foods that sneak vegetables and fruits into chips, juice and nuggets.

But some nutritionists and public health experts wonder if parents these days are relying too much on the sneak attack. They doubt if kids will ever develop a taste for vegetables in all their leafy glory if they are hidden in smoothies and macaroni and cheese. Some say this well-intentioned sneaking could produce kids less likely — not more — to eat greens.

“Children should learn to make healthy choices,” says Pat Crawford, co-director of the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley. “It really comes down to whether we are feeding our children for nutrients, or for the potential development of healthy patterns that are lifelong.”

Many mothers say they were turned on to hiding vegetables in their kids’ foods by bestselling cookbooks such as Jessica Seinfeld’s “Deceptively Delicious” and Missy Chase Lapine’s “The Sneaky Chef.” Both offer kid-friendly recipes with hidden vegetable and fruit purées in such items as pizza and pasta.

Some of the big food companies that have entered the fray by including helpings of fruits and vegetables in everything from chips to pancake mix are also continuing to include sodium, fat and sugar in amounts that would seem to negate the health benefits. Consider, for instance, that “a 1-ounce, 130-calorie serving of Frito-Lay’s Tangy Tomato Ranch chips offers 210 milligrams of sodium, 3 grams of sugar and 5 grams of fat along with its half-serving of vegetables.”

I also visited a cool blog mentioned in the Times — Fresh Mouth, where a family of five had one mission: to eat only fresh food or processed food with 5 ingredients or less for 30 days. It takes some serious commitment, but Fresh Mouth also makes it seem fun.

So, dear readers, are any of you hiding vegetables in your kids’ meals? What other methods have worked for you?

18 responses to “Healthy Food Advice Welcomed”

  1. What works for me – and I have an ASD kid, so YMM DEFINITELY V – is the simple old stuff:

    “Eat it or go hungry.”

    Then, copious praise for trying new things.

    Of course, we also used tactics like calling spinach ‘stegosaurus food,’ which ended up with spinach salad with avocados and sauteed whitefish being his favorite food.

    So maybe mine’s an anomaly in more ways than one, I dunno.

  2. I think the sneaky veggies thing is ridiculous and harmful and doesn’t teach kids a darn thing about the glory and wonder of the vegetable world. What I’ve found to work is this:

    *Take kids with you to the farmer’s market. Let them pick out stuff, then help you prepare it. Sounds pollyanna, but it really works with my kids.
    *Recognize that not everyone likes everything, and that’s okay. Me, eggplant makes me wanna puke. With my daughter, it’s zucchini. So neither of us have to eat those things 😉
    *Recognize that the converse is true – everyone likes SOMETHING. My daughter doesn’t really have a huge breadth of veggies she likes, but she has something from every group, and I’m happy. For dark leafy greens, spinach and romaine lettuce. Beta carotene, carrots. She could eat black beans all day. Asparagus, broccoli (stems only, go figure). It’s okay if your kids don’t like every single veggie in the world, but there are some they will like. Just keep encouraging them to try new things.
    *Similar to VASpider, my rule is ‘take 2 full bites, and if you don’t like it, I accept that’. I don’t make secondary dinners, though, no way. I’m a single, working mom and I do NOT play that.

  3. My son is two and is growing up in a completely vegetarian household. We don’t keep chips and cookies and stuff in our home, either–so the kid would starve to death if he refused to eat fruits and vegetables, and he’s not about to choose to go hungry. He does go through meals where he’ll only eat pasta or bread … but he also goes through meals where he refuses to eat anything but the broccoli or capers (I swear) or lentils or whatever.

    My point is that I think the easiest way to get kids to eat vegetables and whole grains and other good stuff is to be enthusiastic about them yourself, prepare them in yummy and interesting ways, and have it simply be the norm in your home. But you can’t do that for a visiting niece, unfortunately!

  4. I also use the “eat it or go hungry” tactic. My daughter’s two years old, and she loves broccoli! She even eats it raw!

    The only entrees she turns her nose up to are pasta-heavy foods, which I don’t mind. She goes hungry those nights. 🙂

    I do think it is counterproductive to “hide” veggies, because who will “hide” them when your children are adults?

  5. Thanks for all the fast feedback!

    Personally I’m a fan of the idea that familiarity breeds acceptance — if vegetables are always included with dinner — enthusiastically and creatively — then at some point the food stops being the yucky other and instead becomes the norm. (At least that’s my hope!)

    I realize that’s not entirely possible for the visiting eater, but for future sleepovers, I will keep trying to interest her in the vegetables and herbs growing in containers outside and try the take-two-full-bites rule. I’d also like to try foods that I’d never think she would eat, like capers (how cool!) and lentils. I have a weakness for Ethiopian food, which is eaten with injera bread, not utensils, so that might be fun …

    Alexandra’s grandmother mixes tofu, a little fried, in her pasta and she’ll eat that, but I think the fact that grandma has always incorporated this into meals helps a lot.

  6. I agree that hiding veggies is impractical, doesn’t teach the value of good nutrition and frankly, it’s more deceitful than I am comfortable with.

    Two year olds are easy though! They are non-judgmental and adventurous eaters. My son devoured the spiciest most exotic dishes at that age. We broke world records in the broccoli, spinach, zucchini, peas, collards etc. department. Then BAM! starches and protein only from age 3 onward. I’m told it’s a developmental phase… well it’s a heck of a long one! I still make sure it’s whole grains whenever possible, and I do provide a side of veggies. He is expected to finish everything on his plate. We do explain when asked why. Every time. It does get tiresome. But, going on 6, he knows about basic food groups and what they provide for our bodies. He gets it when he’s told to have a few bites of vitamins to accompany all that energy he’s consuming. He grimaces and complains but he does it. The other day he made me explain what too much dietary fat does to the heart. He understood. Adults need the same kind of convincing, and most of us have exactly this kind of internal dialogue with ourselves while making day to day food choices. I can’t see a better time and better way to start building that habit.

  7. I have a cautious kid, and I like that about her, it’s okay –in time, on her own, she’ll learn to eat a wider range of foods (I was the same, and I did).

    The summer before Kindergarten, we did a “new fruit/veggie per week” challenge, where she had only to try one new item per week to get a little reward on Friday (a secondhand book or video or something). Yep, bribery, but with the benefit that after each week, another item was added to the repertoire of familiar foods.

  8. Hiding the veggies via puree just seems wrong to me – how can children ever learn that there are veggies they may like if they never actually experience them? Kudos on the creative approach with veggie people.

  9. I would not make her eat any of it because if you force a kid to eat something they do not like, they will never acquire a taste for it. In the 70’s my parents discovered the green, yellow and red bell peppers, and they put them in everything. To do this I will not eat anything with bell peppers.

    Does she like corn or avocados? I am not sure about this, but kids might be more sensitive to taste. As we grow up we dull our tastes buds with coffee, wine etc. Some tastes are acquired over time. What about fruit; does she like fruit? I try to introduce healthy grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, fruits, yogurt and other healthy foods. I have to admit that I did not eat much veggies as a kid, but I was and am healthy and never overweight. Have you tried some of the veggie/fruit juice combos ie: carrot and orange juice? I would not stress too much about this as long as you can get her to eat other healthy food. Make cookies with whole wheat four and some oats and nuts along with the chips. It may not be the healthiest, but it is a compromise nonetheless.

  10. You’re trying and that’s the first step! Fresh Mouth is a day-by-day effort for us. The benefit is it keeps us all constantly conscious about food choices. And that’s how the kids (and we)really learn.

    I found a great methodology for feeding kids. It’s by a “feeding and eating expert” named Ellyn Satter. She says, “Feeding demands a division of responsibility. Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding; Children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating.”

    This is a really nice philosophy. The onus is on the parent to provide wholesome choices. And the kids have control about whether or not they eat. If you put out a variety of healthy options, they will eat something.

    We’re always looking for recipes and new ideas, too. Send them our way if you happen upon them.

  11. At this point, I’m just looking for any fruits and vegetables she’ll put in her mouth. So, my picky 5-year old eats an inordinate amount of lettuce and blueberries, but hey, at least it’s something. If I let her have her way, it would be string cheese and crackers 24/7. Hiding pureed veggies? Deceptive and setting her up for even more pickiness down the road.

  12. I am enrolled in this program in NYC. I highly recommend the founder’s book.

    Joshua Rosenthal’s “Integrative Nutrition”

    I think it is fascinating and invaluable book about nutrition and diets. It may even change your life.

  13. Don’t sweat it. Most kids prefer certain foods at certain ages and gradually expand their interests as they grow up. Lots of kids won’t eat things that adults love. With my two daughters I worry far more about the obsessive interest in dieting they’re being fed at school with constant messages about “healthy” eating that have no basis in fact.

  14. There are two things to try baking healthy ie: spelt or oat flour, brown rice or maple syrup (100% real syrup) or molasses instead of sugar, nuts and oats with a some dark chocolate chips.

    I started experimenting with raw versus cooked veggies and many taste better raw: zucchini, fresh peas from the pod. I am continuing with the experiment all summer.

  15. What’s wrong with hiding veggies in food? Isn’t it all about moderation?

    I know I have been introducing my 2 year old to all sorts of veggies and he loves asparagus, broccoli when dipped in hummus, cucumbers, bell peppers and more. I also try to balance his diet with whole grains, fruit, dairy and protein. However, when I do make other meals, I do ‘hide’ veggies in it in order to get a higher nutritional content into the food. It’s not about replacing veggies with hidden purees, it’s about making all the food we put on our bodies better for us and teaching a love for healthy and fresh food.

  16. I agree with you Mark. That is often times why you can add really nutrition items to smoothies and not taste it, but still benefit.

    A side note. I see that babies are being diagnosed with Rickets because they are not getting enough vitamin D from breast milk. Many women are short on vitamin D, and cannot transfer enough to their babies. Maybe when they encourage women to breast feed, they should also teach healthy eating habits. Junk in equals junk out.

  17. Mark, I think that’s a great approach — who can argue against increasing the nutritional value of some meals? Especially when your 2-year-old is also into veggies! What gives me pause are the companies that try to pass something off as healthy — look! we added spinach! — when the product is still pretty bad in terms of overall nutritional content. And don’t get me started on marketing to kids …

Comments are closed.