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.]