My youngest daughter tends to nibble and poke at her food, oftentimes leaving most of her meal uneaten. And, while overall she eats pretty healthy, I think she qualifies as a picky eater because there are so many foods she refuses to eat. Lucky for me, included on her short list of foods she likes are vegetables like broccoli, cucumber, carrots, and green beans. But, I know a lot of parents who struggle to get their kids to eat any vegetables at all – leading to a little supper subterfuge: hidden vegetables.
How do you hide a vegetable? You cook it, puree it, and secretly add it to other foods – like adding pureed carrots to pizza sauce or pureed spinach to brownies. Some parents think this method is genius and others think it only reinforces picky eating.
Here’s Chef Ann Cooper’s opinion (captured by our friends at Parent Earth):
Beth Bader, coauthor with Ali Benjamin of the acclaimed book, The Cleaner Plate Club, designed to help parents understand picky eating says “while stealth nutrition offers a short-term solution, it doesn’t help form long-term healthy eating habits. Avoid the puree approach, but still try chopping vegetables fine and adding them to pasta sauces, or incorporating them into a recipe such as shredded carrots in a turkey burger.” (You can read more of her tips at Dr.Greene.com.)
And, while it’s not a direct opinion regarding hiding vegetables, a recent article by Dr. Andrew Weil discusses adult picky eaters (an increasing cultural phenomenon) and how their eating behaviors may have been established as children. He theorizes that it’s largely an American issue because, as he says,
“nowhere else in the world is it so universally taken for granted that children should eat differently from adults. Our hypercommercialized society is the first — and, I hope the last — to create an entirely separate universe of child-specific foods and dishes. Most are overpriced, nutrient-poor assemblages of sugar, salt and fat, often garishly colored…It does kids no favors, and sets them up for a potential lifetime of poor health and social embarrassment, to excuse them from family meals of real food. Everyone benefits from healthy eating, but it is particularly crucial at the beginning of life. Providing your children with a variety of healthy foods — and gently but persistently continuing to offer them exclusively during a child’s "picky" phase — are among a parent’s most important obligations.”
What’s a frustrated parent to do? Here are some tips from Dr. Sears:
- Plant a garden with your child. Let her help care for the plants, harvest the ripe vegetables, and wash and prepare them. She will probably be much more interested in eating what she has helped to grow.
- Slip grated or diced vegetables into favorite foods. Try adding them to rice, cottage cheese, cream cheese, guacamole, or even macaroni and cheese. Zucchini pancakes are a big hit at our house, as are carrot muffins.
- Camouflage vegetables with a favorite sauce.
- Use vegetables as finger foods and dip them in a favorite sauce or dip.
- Using a small cookie cutter, cut the vegetables into interesting shapes.
- Steam your greens. They are much more flavorful and usually sweeter than when raw.
- Make veggie art. Create colorful faces with olive- slice eyes, tomato ears, mushroom noses, bell-pepper mustaches, and any other playful features you can think of. Our eighth child, Lauren, loved to put olives on the tip of each finger. "Olive fingers" would then nibble this nutritious and nutrient-dense food off her fingertips. Zucchini pancakes make a terrific face to which you can add pea eyes, a carrot nose, and cheese hair.
- Concoct creative camouflages. There are all kinds of possible variations on the old standby "cheese in the trees" (cheese melted on steamed broccoli florets). Or, you can all enjoy the pleasure of veggies topped with peanut- butter sauce, a specialty of Asian cuisines.
And, try, try, try again. According to Dr. Alan Greene, depending on age, it can take anywhere from six to 89 tries before a child will learn to love a food.
Patience, my friends. Patience…
How do you feel about hiding vegetables? Any other tricks for dealing with picky eaters you’d like to share?
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