Every parent knows the pain of dealing with a picky eater — and the fear that the child will suffer malnutrition from a constant diet of pizza, grilled cheese and noodles. Hence, there’s a great temptation to take the stealth approach to your child’s health by slipping undetectable amounts of produce into those same favorite foods.
Employing this tactic is easier than ever now, thanks to companies like Oh Yes Foods, which markets frozen pizzas whose crusts are loaded with pulverized produce, and Kidfresh, whose frozen entrees of mac and cheese, chicken nuggets and cheese quesadillas hide ample amounts of veggies like carrots, spinach and cauliflower. Considering that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine out of 10 Americans kids fall short of the recommended intake of vegetables, this all seems like a brilliant idea. Yet some experts caution against relying on this technique. “Yes, it’s a good thing nutritionally,” admits Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Monell Chemical Senses Center. “But if children are only exposed to vegetables in ways that mask their smell, texture and flavor, they may not learn to eat them.”
Perhaps the best approach is a two-pronged one: expose kids to actual, whole vegetables on a regular basis, but slip some extra into their food to supplement their intake. And while you don’t have to let them know what you’ve snuck in there, you’ll build trust by letting kids be part of the process.
“If your child is used to traditional mac and cheese, then tell them if you’ve added butternut squash or cauliflower,” suggests Toby Amidor, M.S., R.D., Healthy Eats contributor and author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen. “They’ll get to experience the new flavors, and you’ll avoid the backlash of them not liking the surprise factor.” For toddlers, Amidor recommends including vegetables in kid-friendly foods from the start — that way it will be what they consider normal, and no “sneaking” will be necessary later on. For older kids, get them involved in the meal prep. “Making them part of cooking can help kids embrace vegetables,” says Amidor. “Do build-your-own tacos or pizza and let them decide which vegetables to add.” They may start with a single slice of pepper, but with time — and repeated exposure — including vegetables in their meals will become a habit.
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.