To Sneak or Not To Sneak . . . Hiding Healthful Ingredients in Kids’ Food

by Bettina Elias Siegel on July 29, 2010

We’ve all probably done it at one time or another.  A little carrot baby food surreptitiously stirred into the spaghetti sauce, some butternut squash mixed into the mac-n-cheese when no one’s looking.  Or maybe you’ve moved beyond the stuff of amateurs, regularly taking on such high-wire challenges as putting chick peas into your chocolate chip cookies and yellow squash into your cupcakes while evading detection by the younger set.

When you’re confronted with a child who consistently refuses to eat vegetables (and sometimes also fruits), it’s easy to see the appeal of food sneakiness.   You’re only increasing the nutritional value of the food you’re serving, so what harm could it do?

But every time I’ve engaged in a little clandestine food-doctoring – and I’ve certainly done it now and then — something doesn’t quite sit right with me.  Maybe it’s just a sense that I’m violating the basic trust that ought to exist between any cook and any diner:  if you know I have an aversion to a certain food (rightly or wrongly), is it fair to nonetheless slip it into my meal?

The whole idea of food sneakiness elicits a wide range of responses.  On one end of the spectrum is perhaps the best known proponent of the practice (although there are others):  Jessica Seinfeld, wife of Jerry and author of “Deceptively Delicious,” an entire cookbook devoted to slipping veggies past your unsuspecting kids.   Seinfeld’s preferred M.O. is to steam and puree a variety of vegetables which she then freezes into 1/2 cup portions for later sneaky cooking.  (Her claim that she and Jerry — who certainly cannot be lacking for household help  –  make purees together in their kitchen every Sunday night sort of strained my credulity, but who am I to say?)   To her credit, Seinfeld isn’t all about sneakiness: while she’s doctoring up her kids’ food, she also serves a “visible” vegetable every night so that the kids can get used to seeing and, eventually, it is hoped, eating them in their whole state.   But clearly she has no problem with deceiving her kids about what’s in the food they eat.  (Or, at least until she published a bestselling book about it, which I’m thinking may have let the cat out of the bag.)

On the other end of the spectrum is Ellyn Satter.  Satter, whom I’ve mentioned elsewhere on The Lunch Tray, is a registered dietician and author of many books on feeding children including “Child of Mine:  Feeding with Love and Good Sense.”  Her mantra is that parents decide what is served and when and where it is served, but kids decide whether and how much to eat.  Neither party should cross the line by taking on the role of the other.  Here’s what she has to say in Child of Mine about food sneakiness:

Proud cooks tell me about their ingenuity in concealing grated carrots in the meatloaf  . . . and beets in chocolate cake.  . . . . Truth be told, I have tried a few tricks like that myself and found out they didn’t work – my children were always onto me.  The rule of thumb is that if you are working harder than your child is to get food into her, you are crossing the line.  Moreover, like my children, your child will soon figure out that you are lacing her food with vegetables and she will stop eating not only the vegetables but the food itself.  The key here is intent.  It’s fine to put grated carrot in the meatloaf if your child has already mastered undisguised carrots. . . . However, it’s not fine if your intent is to trick her into eating carrots.  If you are dishonest with children about their food, they become suspicious, cautious and reluctant to try new food.

And then there’s this purely practical (and humorous) take on food sneakiness from one of my favorite bloggers, the writer Catherine Newman (writing here for Wondertime magazine):

I don’t have an ethical problem with guerrilla nutrition. I have a practical one: Sneaking wholesome purées into your children’s food may acquaint their bodies with valuable vitamins, fiber, and phytonutrients, but it does not acquaint their palates with vegetables’, well, vegetableness. How will they ever learn to like vegetables if the vegetables are always — to quote The Godfather — disappeared?

This is to say nothing of the fact that the method often calls for vegetable portions best suited to the nutritional requirements of Thumbelina. A quarter cup of mashed cauliflower lurking in a dish that serves eight — isn’t that, like, a teaspoon per serving? If I’m feeding my kids a mere teaspoon of cauliflower, I’m just going to make them choke it down off the actual spoon like medicine. I don’t really have time to be whisking it into a lemon meringue tartlet.

So, TLT readers:  to sneak or not to sneak, that is the question of the day.  Share your thoughts here, and please also take a moment to link this post to Facebook and to any parenting web sites, forums or chat rooms that you regularly visit.  I’m guessing that this is one topic likely to stir up a wee bit of controversy among parents.  [Rubs blogger hands together and cackles delightedly.]

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Htownlisa July 29, 2010 at 7:41 am

While I agree with trying to use the healthiest ingredients possible, I also believe that children should be taught healthy choices, which is far more important for overall future health. For example, if you are using white whole wheat flo…ur to bread your chicken nuggets, make your pizza crust, grinding up extra veggies to hide in the tomato sauce, etc, are you teaching your children that chicken nuggets and pizza are the best choices? What if you aren’t the one making them…..
As an example, there is a very large school district that I am aware does these things. These children are learning IN SCHOOL that chicken nuggets (fried) and pizza are part of a healthy balanced diet. Then, do they feel it is good to eat that sort of thing from fast food establishments at night? The fast food vendors would have you think so.
I think it goes back to education, and leading by example. Children should be taught (through example) that healthy food is delicious and beautiful, and taught how to make good choices. Thanks for starting the conversation, Bettina. Sorry for the long response!

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bettina elias siegel July 29, 2010 at 7:51 am

Htownlisa: I hadn’t even thought of that angle – that via food sneakiness you may be teaching that an otherwise not-so-healthy food is an OK daily choice. (But I did take on my school district for the same practice in the very first post on this blog.) Thanks so much for sharing. I’m really curious to hear what other parents have to say, because I know there are many dedicated sneaky chefs out there . . . – Bettina

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Susan Rubin July 29, 2010 at 7:53 am

As a parent of 3 and a food educator, I’ve had over 14 years of personal and professional experience with picky eaters. Being sneaky and deceptive may sell books, but it only reinforces picky eating behavior.

I’ve seen great success with picky eaters of all ages through growing food. When kids grow food in vegetable gardens at school, home or camp, they become deeply connected to their food. This is a completely different relationship than the typical “eat this” situation we parents set up at a meal.
My website and blog offers some useful resources on this issue
http://www.drsusanrubin.com/a-picky-eater-victory/

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Rachel May 14, 2012 at 6:45 pm

I agree that by engaging children in the production of their food increases the likelihood they will consume the fruits of their labor. However, what do you do when that is not a feasible option?

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Donna July 29, 2010 at 8:01 am

Did you see how quickly the Seinfeld book went on super-sale and turned up on the shelves of 1/2 Price Books? It sold many copies at a deep discount and, I imagine, largely due to her hubby’s last name. The recipes in that book were preposterous. Even then there were ready-made organic baby foods that you could slip in (now there are purees of every kind)…making one’s own purees as a precursor to actually making a dish when one has young children at home…well, I can think of a zillion ways that that time can be better spent (sleep, for example).

As for the deception issue, I don’t love the idea of sneaking in a food you know they wouldn’t eat otherwise, unless there is some medical condition that requires it. Even then, I’d rather hand them a vitamin. I can live with lots of substitutions that they would otherwise eat, though, like some applesauce to reduce the sugar and oil in brownies, whether they know about it or not. It doesn’t have a huge impact on the overall nutrition, but every bit helps. Now that the girls bake most of the brownies, they’re usually subbing in the applesauce themselves. I don’t have qualms serving them certain things like pumpkin or zucchini bread without disclosing the ingredients until they ask. Sometimes if they taste before I fess up, the likelihood of them eating the new item increases. Then again, these are ingredients they wouldn’t reject outright, but might not think of as belonging in a particular recipe.

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bettina elias siegel July 29, 2010 at 8:10 am

Donna: I actually bought the book at a 1/2 price discount! And I had the exact same thought about the purees when I read the book — has this woman never heard of baby food? It sounds like you had I have similar philosophies about food substitutions or additions — if I have some other valid reason to throw something in there (like, as you mention, applesauce to reduce oil) or if something may enhance the taste (I actually like the carrots in the sauce for sweetness), then I do it. But when it’s downright sneaky, something totally unexpected lurking in the food, I say no go. Thanks for sharing! – Bettina

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Donna July 29, 2010 at 8:11 am

One additional thought…I do agree w/ HtownLisa that it’s better to let them know for the reasons she outlines. The reason my girls sub in applesauce now is because they understand that it improves the nutrition, however slightly, and doesn’t impact the taste. Nobody tells them not to eat a brownie made elsewhere and nobody says it’s ok to eat twice as much of the applesauce-spiked brownies. It’s all about the messages you send.

I’d rather serve whole wheat bread crumbs, or frankly no bread crumbs, on their chicken, but they know full well that McD’s recipe isn’t the same. Improving the nutrition of your baked chicken nugget isn’t a problem as long as the child knows that all chicken nuggets aren’t created equally. Another reason not to deceive.

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Jamie July 29, 2010 at 8:55 am

I just want in on this post as I’m sure sparks are going to fly :)
I am not a fan of sneaking healthy foods.
People often comment on how my son adores vegetables.
I often recite these tidbits that I’ve read elsewhere:
It can take up to 15 tries of a certain food before a toddler will eat it.
So just because your child hates broccoli 3 days in a row doesn’t mean you should stop trying.
VERY SMALL portions for kids!!! I’ve never needed this but it sounds fairly brilliant: take an empty ice cube tray and put 1 or 2 pieces of veggies in each compartment. This allows for choice, variety and low commitment.
And what I’ve come up with one my own:
I find this true in all areas of parenting: kids don’t do what you SAY, they do what you DO. What’s on your plate?
Don’t pressure the issue. If there’s no power around it the kids tend to let it go.
I keep finely chopped, steamed veggies in the fridge at all times. I “doctor” every dish we make. It’s not sneaky but finely chopped veggies can eliminate texture issues.
Another thing to remember is toddlers don’t have preconceived notions of what “goes together”…For example, I finely chop broccoli and put it in a PB & J sandwich or scrambled eggs.
To be fair: I don’t have a picky eater but I’d like to think I cultivated that early on.
Looking forward to the myriad of comments that I’m sure this topic will warrant!

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bettina elias siegel July 29, 2010 at 10:26 am

Jamie: Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts. I love the idea of a kid eating a PBJ & B sandwich! – Bettina

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Sue July 29, 2010 at 12:12 pm

re: “huge vegetable lover but eat far less fruit…I’ve recently noticed, hey, my kids don’t eat that much fruit!”

I’m the same way, and then suffered this shame: my 6 year old, a huge fruit guy by nature (apparently not by exposure), called me from a week-long stay at his grandparents with this report: “Grandma made the BEST THING for dinner tonight: fruit salad! I’ll have to get you the recipe.”

One year later, he’s the fruit salad maker at our house. :)

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bettina elias siegel July 29, 2010 at 11:42 pm

LOL! :-)

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Linda Clement July 29, 2010 at 10:22 am

My youngest, now 18, says her baking is better than other people’s because she bakes with love… I’ve run into a lot of that idea, from the novel ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ and the whole Slow Food movement –food prepared with love for the people who are being fed makes for better food.

It seems to me that the ‘intent’ in devious cooking is malicious, and it starts a round of ‘I am smarter than I think you are’ which doesn’t bode well, in my opinion, for the future of the eaters nor the cooks involved.

It may surprise Westerners that ‘picky eaters’ are an entirely Western phenomenon. Where food is scarce, or extremely valuable, no one turns their nose up at eating –anything. In India, children eat complex curries with multiple ‘challenging’ vegetables, right from first solids. In China, spiced dishes are not altered for children’s palates. In fact, our expectations of what foods kids will or will not accept is entirely based on faith, not reality at all.

The lesson? Serve children the foods you eat routinely, because they’re used to the smells and looks of them by the time they’re in the last half of their first year of life, especially if they’re nursing –because then even the flavours are familiar to them. If you eat crap routinely, expect your kids to prefer that to whatever virtuous foods you think they ‘should’ be eating…for the same reasons you do.

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bettina elias siegel July 29, 2010 at 10:26 am

Linda: So true! I’m a huge vegetable lover but eat far less fruit, for whatever reason, and I’ve recently noticed, hey, my kids don’t eat that much fruit! Despite the fact that fruit’s always in the house, I’m obviously influencing them unintentionally with my own behavior. Thanks for coming by The Lunch Tray and sharing your thoughts. – Bettina

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Viki July 29, 2010 at 10:48 am

I’ve done the ice cube tray, not veggies in Each compartment, but in some, fruit in others, cheese too.
With my oldest, we were young, we went the baby food route.
My youngest though, pretty much ate what we ate. She loved sharp cheddar cheese and broccoli from a very young age. Tomato, not so much…but other fruits and veggies, no problem. If we ate it she wanted to try it.
I really don’t like the idea of all this sneaky trickery of hiding mush in other foods. I think it will backfire on you in the long run.
I love what Linda said:” If you eat crap routinely, expect your kids to prefer that to whatever virtuous foods you think they ‘should’ be eating…for the same reasons you do.”
Can’t wait to trot that one out to my oldest who will soon have my first grandchild!

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Em July 29, 2010 at 11:01 am

Food psychology has, over the years, yielded the (to me unsurprising) information that familiarity leads to liking. Kids are hard-wired to be suspicious of new foods because when we were wild critters roaming around in loincloths, things they stumbled upon might have been toxic. However, the most reliable way, apparently, to combat this is to introduce new foods paired with familiar (and well liked) ones: cauliflower in cheese sauce, for instance. So while sneaking veg into food may give kids nutrients, it doesn’t, it seems to me, do them any long-term favors.

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Karen July 29, 2010 at 11:08 am

I’m not a sneaker, but I did just start putting fresh spinach into my basil pesto, at a ratio of 1:2, spinach to basil. It works great and I feel better for all of us getting that little bit more iron. And I tell the kids and show them how I make the pesto, so it’s not sneaking at all.

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NotCinderell July 29, 2010 at 6:09 pm

Not criticizing your pesto recipe, but just reminding you that herbs are also leafy greens. It’s rare that we eat them in large enough quantities that they make a nutritional difference in our foods, but in dishes like tabbouleh and pesto, they definitely do. Just because spinach has the reputation for being a nutritional powerhouse doesn’t make basil any less so.

More info here: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/spices-and-herbs/213/2

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Tracy July 29, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Wow, I guess I am the only one who absolutely loves the SNEAKY CHEF!! I offer my children their 5-7 different types of fruits and veggies every day in their natural form. However, I also have made many recipes out the sneaky chef and deceptively delicious cookbooks because I was looking for healthy recipes. I think many of the recipes taste great and I have gotten a lot of great ideas out of the cookbooks. For example, I never would have even thought about making my own popsicles from fruit, yogurt, and 100% juice. The pancakes from the sneaky chef are by far the best pancakes my family has ever had and the only sneaky ingredient is whole wheat flour and wheat germ. We regularly put pureed carrots into our pasta sauce because it gives it a yummy sweet flavor. My kids help me cook and bake some of the recipes and we discuss the “sneaky” ingredients so they know it is a healthy ingredient and adds some extra vitamins or fiber to our diet. In both of the cookbooks there are sections that discuss the benefits of fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, etc. It also discusses that both of the chefs continue to offer their family fruits and veggies in the regular form as well as in the recipes. We love both cookbooks and all eat a little healthier since its been introduced into our lives! I will say the kids and I enjoy “tricking” my hubby into eating sweet potatoes and beans because he doesn’t like either of them! We have had lots of fun…

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bettina elias siegel July 29, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Tracy – I’m glad you spoke up in defense of sneaky cooking! I think there are many parents who do this all the time and with only good intentions. But are you a true “sneak” if you tell your kids what you’re doing and why? To me, that’s just nutrition education and a good thing. – Bettina

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TeresaMcD August 19, 2010 at 10:39 am

Great topic! I’m all for sneaking foods in to kids, what they don’t know IS good for them! I’ve been reading a lot about traditional diets from Sally Fallon and Weston Price and it is scary to learn what can happen if kids don’t get enough Vitamin A and other vital nutrients ie dental decay, crooked teeth, stunted growth, poor vision, etc. So for that reason I’m loading my kids’ foods with minced liver, cream, butter, eggs, cod liver oil, whole milk and fish. Luckily they love the dairy products, eggs and fish so the only thing I need to sneak in is the liver. I put it in their pasta sauce and think of it as their meat sauce. I think this is good, we should do everything we can to provide our kids with the healthiest foods possible.

I don’t worry too much about veggies. My son loves them but my daughter only likes corn/potatoes. I wouldn’t be against sneaking these into foods, I would think of it more as adding healthy ingredients in the recipe. But I would heavily encourage eating the actual veggies as well. Getting healthy foods into kids is a constant thought/worry as a mother! Great article!

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bettina elias siegel August 19, 2010 at 10:42 am

Teresa: Thanks for the comment — and for the pro-sneaking perspective. As you’ve seen, that view has not been much defended here. Please keep visiting The Lunch Tray and sharing your thoughts! – Bettina

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Jackie December 29, 2010 at 12:19 pm

I am pro adding any nutritional value to any and all foods. We chose to use whole grains and sugar free juices so why not do things to add natural vitamins and folic acids and antioxidants to macaroni and cheese. It just another ingredient. Same as adding salt and pepper, cumin, thyme, tomato paste. They aren’t betrayed because they don’t care. As long as it taste good. Thats what they care about.
If someone in my family were to have a religious or moral objection to say… veal, I wouldn’t mix that up into meatloaf and giggle about it later. That… is betrayal If my daughter made a rational decision to not eat carrots because of the plights of workers on carrot farms, I would absolutely not trick her into eating them. But because she is 3 and her only objection to carrots is the mere existances of the carrot itself and the word vegetable, then she will not eat carrots, but she will eat carrot cake and spagetti and a ton of other things with pureed carrots as an Ingredient. I however, serve fresh fruits and/or vegetables (including carrots ) with every meal and do lots of encouraging.

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bettina elias siegel December 29, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Jackie: That’s about the best said argument in favor of sneaking I’ve seen! But, just curious, would you feel the same way if your daughter is still anti-carrot at, say, age 8 (and I’m not just pulling that number out of a hat — that’s the age of my little veggie-phobe)? The older the child and the more vehemently articulated the objection, the more I feel like I’m violating a trust by sneaking, even if my motives are all good. What do you think?

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michelle March 23, 2011 at 8:04 am

We do both…hide some veggies and offer her some veggies…I do not see any problem with that at all…As a mom I want her to be healthy and I also want her to start loving or at least tolerate some of the healthier food.

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 23, 2011 at 9:31 am

Michelle – I do agree that if you ARE going to sneak, you definitely also need to do what you’re doing, and offer the “real” thing as well. Thanks for taking the time to comment on TLT – I love when these older posts continue to have some life.

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TakuroSpirit February 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm

I’m posting nearly a year later, but just found this. My three year old has developed a sudden and IMO manufactured aversion to vegetables based on horrible TV characters like Caillou (blech) and her recent start in pre-school. I suspect she is echoing other kids as she used to happily munch down raw carrots, cooked broccoli, corn, and peas. She especially used to LOVE sweet potatoes and would get very excited when she saw them on her plate. Now she won’t eat any of it. The bit about forcing kids to choke down a tiny portion like medicine has me scratching my head. How do you force a kid to eat? I’m certainly not going to shove food in her mouth and force it shut like giving my cats their pills. I say this is dinner, no food until breakfast, she says “okay” and wanders off to play. Cries of I want a snack are met with eat your dinner and once again – no! Basically where we’re at, it’s either I sneak veggies into her food or she eats ZERO vegetables.

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Bettina Elias Siegel February 21, 2012 at 8:23 am

TakuroSpirit: I’m glad you commented (there’s no expiration date on these posts!). I remember that exact Caillou episode even though my kids are much older now – the one where he won’t eat bok choy at his friend’s house! Ugh. But I wouldn’t necessarily blame Caillou for your daughter’s sudden about-face on vegetables. My son did the exact same thing at a much younger age, and other parents have reported similarly baffling shifts in behavior – their child always loved a certain vegetable and then won’t touch it. The longer I’m at this parenting thing, the more I feel that the real solution to veggie avoidance is consistency, a low-key attitude and saint-like patience. You might be interested to read this recent post, where my 9-year-old truly surprises me with respect to vegetables. Good luck, and please stay in touch! – Bettina

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MamaRalf April 8, 2012 at 9:27 am

I recently discovered this blog and love it! As to this issue, I used Jessica Seinfeld’s recipes often, not only to add nutrition for my daughter but also for myself!! Let’s face it, mac-n-cheese, pizza and chicken nuggets taste good. Like a lot of others have said, kids will want to eat junk if you do. So I try to set an example that it’s not all grilled fish/chicken and veggies. When we make these things we always have extra veggies, salad, etc. And yes, a lot of the recipes don’t have a ton of actual veggies in them, but it’s better than the garbage we would get at a restaurant. Also, it’s easier to get her to choose healthier options when we are out. If she says she wants one of those things I just say we can make it at home the next day or something and she is usually ok with that.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 8, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Welcome to TLT, MamaRaif. So glad you like it and I appreciate this perspective. I think everyone comes out differently on the “sneaking” issue but if this works for your family, that’s what counts!

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MamaRalf April 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Sorry – I know this is an old post, but I wanted to add (I meant to write this in the original post) that one of the reasons behind adding certain veggies is to get kids used to the taste sometimes before you even give it to them by itself. I guess in theory, if they are used to the taste then they won’t be as likely to spit it right out when that have it alone. As to whether that really works, I have no idea because my daughter doesn’t eat a whole lot of veggies! I am currently reading a lot about Ellyn Satter and her methods and am hoping my daughter will come around like yours did! But I hope it doesn’t take so long… :) She is 3 1/2.

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Shannon June 27, 2012 at 12:31 pm

This is a great post. I love all the comments too. I don’t have kids yet, but am looking to learn all I can about feeding them, so I am ready when they come along. Thus, I wonder…how the do the foods you eat during pregnancy affect the foods your child will like after he/she is born?

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Bettina Elias Siegel June 27, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Shannon, there is research out there that indicates that foods eaten in pregnancy can influence children’s preferences after birth. I know of one study where the moms ate either carrots or carrot juice (can’t recall which) and their children showed a higher predisposition to liking carrots. Pretty amazing!

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