Tuesday, September 21, 2010

To Hide or Not to Hide?

A couple of years ago, a cookbook aimed at parents--and mothers in particular--was published that advocated "hiding" vegetables in children's food. The cookbook author suggested a variety of ways to puree different vegetables and fruits so they could be added to various "kid-friendly" foods. Apparently you can puree certain vegetables and add them to desserts and all sorts of things to boost the nutritional content. The idea was basically to trick your kids into eating their fruits and veggies.

Most parents are familiar with how important it is for children to eat a well-balanced diet these days. We know it's critical for kids to eat healthy foods, and that includes the dreaded fruits and vegetables. There's actually good reasons that many kids balk at vegetables. Most have a bitter aftertaste that we, as adults, are not as sensitive to. Children, however, taste the bitterness in many vegetables and it's not pleasant to them. This leads to a lot of kids turning their noses up to the vegetable course at the family table.

It's been my experience there are other reasons kids reject vegetables as well. One of the reasons may be that kids like things simple...one thing at a time, please. They don't do well with casseroles or complex mixtures. Most herbs or fancy cooking techniques are lost on young children. Simple preparation and simple flavor go a long way.

It's very easy for parents to get sucked in to power struggles and other unpleasantries at the dinner table. There are two things children can control--one is their eating and the other, their bathroom habits. Much as you can make a child sit on a toilet but not urinate, you can make him sit at a table but not eat. And arguing doesn't aid anyone's digestion.

It's easy to see how parents would be tempted to "hide" vegetables in their children's food. More recently, I've seen several commercials for Chef Boyardee where parents are trying to "hide" the fact that there are vegetables in the ravioli sauce. First, I kind of wonder, personally, if there's really a serving size of vegetables in that sauce (I guess it depends on who we're serving here!). But more importantly, have we really convinced our children to hate vegetables so much that we should lie to them about it? That it's necessary to trick kids into eating an entire food group?

Part of our job as parents and educators is to help children understand their own needs. One need we all have in developing healthy eating habits is sometimes finding ways to consume stuff that maybe isn't our favorite, because it's good for us. Teaching this lesson is tricky, though, and I've seen it backfire on plenty of parents. I actually knew a family many years ago whose two-year old ended up hospitalized because of food power struggles. The child simply refused to eat certain foods, and the parents were at a loss as to how to help her. The more they harped, the less she ate. It became a vicious cycle, replayed at every mealtime, until their young child was in dire need of certain nutrients. It's an extreme example, but one that most of us can relate to on some level. Who hasn't heard at some point, "What's THAT?"

As a preschool teacher, my role in a child's nutritional habits is much smaller than that of a parent's; however, it's important that every educator think about the impact food has on children. Here are my personal "teacher" rules regarding food: snacks should be nutritional; they should be offered rather than forced; they should be fresh and appeal to a child's palate. Snacks are offered based on their nutritional value, not on their popularity. Of course it's important to note which snacks kids really love, but research has shown us that most kids have to see a food seven times before they'll try it. It's perfectly fine to continue to offer a snack that kids may or may not accept. Often I would have parents ask me if their children ate snack, and I honestly couldn't tell them. I don't feel that snack is critical to development. Typical eating patterns for children vary widely, but usually follow the pattern of an increased appetite for days (or even weeks) followed by a decreased appetite for days. It's normal for kids to go through periods of just not being hungry. And it's also normal for kids to eat--and eat even things they're not crazy about--once they become hungry.

When my kids were younger, one of them was very adventurous in her diet. She was interested in trying lots of different foods and flavors and commenting on her favorites. In fact, she really enjoyed watching food network and for many years we were treated to her Rachael Ray impression--tasting a new food and then smiling as she rolled her eyes all around in her head, making various "mmm" noises before describing the deliciousness of the dish. My son, however, didn't have the same love of adventurous flavors as my daughter. He struggled quite a bit in eating a balanced diet, and we as parents struggled with him. As a mom, I was constantly worried about the foods he ate--was he getting enough nutrients? Enough variety? Was he eating too much fat or sugar? Too many processed foods? What if he chose these foods when he was away from me? Whatever would I do??? (I have some control issues, in case you didn't know that yet.)

As I was struggling with my son and his palate, one of my friends gave me the most common-sense, best food advice I'd ever had as a parent. Offer lots of different foods at the table. Make sure there are things he likes along with things that may be new or different or even disliked by him. I choose what goes on the table and he chooses what goes on his plate.

I immediately saw a change in the amount of variety, as well as the amount of arguing, that went on at mealtimes. My son, left to his own devices and a wider array of choices, filled his plate with a well-balanced meal. And I didn't lie. I never made any weird purees or "hid" veggies in desserts or anything like that. I didn't have to. It wouldn't do any good, life would teach me, because he's now a teenager and still wants to know exactly what is in his food. I have never been able to lie to my kids, so lying about what is in his food would never have worked for me. Not to mention I think it's a slippery slope, lying to children about what they're eating. I wouldn't want someone to lie to me about what's in my food. And to me, trust and honesty are far more important than tricking my child into eating any vegetable.

Tomorrow I'll write about some healthy ideas for simple foods that kids can prepare and eat....and no, there's no hiding of vegetables necessary!


  1. I'm sure you will post on this tomorrow, but I can't help but share just how much more willing children are to eat a variety of foods when they are directly involved in the preparation process. If children get to plant the seeds and water the plants and help weed the garden, they are much more willing to try things. When children get to help pick out a vegetable at the grocery store or help cut it up or cook it at home, they will be more likely to try a few bites. Growing, choosing, or cooking a vegetable makes it more familiar instead of just something weird that ended up on their plate at dinner.

    Choice is also a great motivator for children. When I was little and my brother and I stayed with my grandparents, we got to take turns choosing a vegetable for dinner. My grandmother chose one veggie, we chose the other, and we looked forward to eating them all! Letting children have a little control over what goes on their plates can go a long way for those who struggle with trying different types of food.

  2. Absolutely, Erin. Both of my kids are pretty proficient in the kitchen and we started that very early. Being able to choose as well as learning to prepare your food goes a long way in making one interested in trying it. As a teacher, I tried to make sure there were lots of opportunities for kids to help prepare snack on a regular basis. They took great pride in sharing the food they had prepared, and were much more likely to eat it!

  3. I think hiding vegetables is strange. For one, if it tastes good to them they will eat it, they don't have an aversion to the word broccoli or something. MY kid will drink a spinach smoothie, sounds gross but he has no idea that it sounds gross, he tasted it and liked it and thats that. Also cooking the food, and then recooking it into the hidden thing dramatically reduces its nutrient content so just leave it out!
    Most importantly our job here is to teach children. How is that child as an adult going to know a balanced meal and how to prepare healthy and tasty food? I know I'm repeating you but it is just so true