I just saw this Chef Boyardee commercial, and it really ticked me off.
It made me really consider the practice that some parents feel they have to resort to of hiding veggies from their kids. Is it OK to hide vegetables in other foods to get your kids to eat them? It’s not an easy question to answer.
Usually, from what I’ve seen, parents have only the best intentions when they pick up copies of The Sneaky Chef or Deceptively Delicious and start making black bean brownies and cauliflower mashed potatoes. Those parents are concerned about their kids. They’re worried that their children’s preferences and eating habits aren’t providing them with the kind of nutrition they need. It’s the same idea behind kids’ multivitamins and those Pediasure drinks that claim to fill in the gaps a picky eater might have when it comes to nutrition.
But I think it’s incredibly important to consider the implications of those sorts of tactics.
Beans or brownies?
Let’s say we whip up a batch of black bean brownies and feed them to our children. The kids are happy to scarf them down, and mom is happy because the kids got a dose of protein and fiber with their snack.
But what have the kids learned from this snack?
Have they learned to like beans? Probably not, because the brownies are designed to mask the flavor and texture of the beans and eliminate anything even remotely beaney. They’ve learned to like brownies (which, at least in my house, we don’t need much help with!).
Have they learned to make a healthy choice for a snack? Again, probably not. If mom isn’t giving them her usual lecture about treats being treats, etc., they may start to think that brownies are an acceptable choice for an everyday snack. Maybe that’s fine at home, where the brownies are full of beans, but what happens when they choose brownies at a friend’s house, at a school bake sale, in the cafeteria line, or at a coffee shop? It’s not teaching them to make the best choices overall—especially if the distinction is never made for them that the brownies at home are “healthy” and other brownies aren’t.
If the kids willingly eat something with hidden veggies—whether that’s brownies, mac and cheese, Chef Boyardee, or whatever—but don’t know there are veggies in it, then all the parent is doing is reinforcing the child’s love of those less desirable foods. It might be helping the acute problem a little bit (of the child’s lacking nutrition), but it’s not tackling the root of the problem at all.
Where’s the trust?
Another big issue for me is the issue of trust. What happens when the child finds out that there is butternut squash in her macaroni and cheese? I could easily see it becoming a major trust issue, depending on the nature of the child. Will she be willing to eat anything home made after that? Will she be upset and angry?
I’m not sure a few tablespoons of squash in the cheese sauce are really worth the potential fallout here. And in most of these “sneaky” recipes, the ratio of vegetable to the rest of the portion is pretty low. It has to be for the vegetable to remain a secret.
A good first step.
But what if you discuss the veggies with your kids? If you tell them that there are beans in the brownies or cauliflower in the mashed potatoes—and they like it anyway—I think that could be a great first step towards acceptance of a heretofore abhorrant veggie. Introducing a vegetable in a non-threatening way, mixed almost imperceptibly with other foods, could be a very good tactic to get picky and reluctant eaters to try something new.
The most important thing to remember here, though, is that it is only the first step—meaning, you’ve got a few more steps to go!
- Make a hidden veggie dish and, when your child likes it, talk about the vegetables in it.
- Gradually increase the ratio of the new veggie in that and similar dishes. Talk about the taste, the texture, the aroma, etc.
- Offer small portions of the veggie by itself, maybe with an appealing sauce, and remind kids how much they like it in other things.
As long as you use the hidden veggies as a stepping stone, this tactic could be a great tool in your arsenal against picky eating.
But it has to be just one tool of many, because picky eating is a HUGE problem that isn’t magically going to be solved by a brownie full of beans.