Should You Trick the Kids Into Eating More Veggies?

Chow on 07.28.11
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Breakfast, lunch, dinner. These are three times of the day that are unpredictable. As in, what do the kids want to eat? Do they like peanut butter today or not? Is chicken OK, or do they not like chicken anymore? How about corn, do they like corn? Oh, OK, but only if I de-kernel the cob. A new study says you can increase your kids' vegetable intake if you hide veggies in their food. Really? But what if you get caught? Don't we tell our kids enough fibs? And will this even work?

First, a little on the study. Then, a little story about my family.

Penn State researchers tested the hiding technique on 39 preschool kids, ages 3-6. The children were fed meals with pureed vegetables added to their "favorite foods," and ended up consuming twice as many vegetables and 11 percent fewer calories over the course of a day.

Pureed, in case you're not familiar, is what happens when you take a perfectly good vegetable and push 9 or 10 on your blender settings, for frappe and whip.

Barbara Rolls, holder of the Helen A. Guthrie Chair in Nutritional Sciences at Penn State, says the puree method is a way to lower calorie intake, get kids to eat more veggies, and battle childhood obesity.

The study kids were served zucchini bread for breakfast, pasta with tomato sauce for lunch and chicken noodle casserole for dinner. Perhaps the use of adding veggies to "favorite foods" may be a stretch here. Zucchini bread and chicken casserole? My kids wouldn't eat that.

Anyway, the researchers added pureed bits of broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, tomatoes and squash to the foods, and say the kids ate the veggie-enhanced versions without making the yucky face. In case you think children are just easily fooled, the researchers say they had similar results in feeding veggie-laced entrees to adults. The kid study results were published July 20 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Not a great place to find recipes, I'm afraid.

Now to the family part. Is this really teaching kids anything? How long before they start cooking for themselves, or going out to dinner and ordering everything but vegetables? "Why should I order veggies?" your kid might ask himself (or in my case, herself), "my mom and dad don't feed me veggies."

My wife tried out the "Deceptively Delicious" cookbook a few years back from Jessica Seinfeld (Jerry's wife). In short, it didn't work. One meal laced with squash was rejected by my kids. As in, "What's wrong with this food?" To which I replied, in my head, "Well, honey, we put liquid squash in it. Wha'ts not to like?"

When it comes to food, not everyone likes all types of vegetables. But we know we have to eat them, and some of them can be good to eat. People always cut on lima beans, but I actually like lima beans. I don't really like cucumbers. But I asked for "more cucumbers, please" when I was dating my wife and went to her mother's house to eat. Yum, cucumbers.

So I'd say it doesn't do much good to hide vegetables in your kids foods. Even if they don't notice? Yeah, because you're going to get caught. And because most kids and grown-ups have a palate that can detect such trickery, based on my experience. You have to learn to like, or at least eat, some things that are good for you, a little bit every day. If you go through life being tricked into not eating vegetables, you'll probably never order the carrots when you go out to dinner. You'll always opt for the fries. The same thing goes for serving veggies on the side at home. A little ranch dressing can go a long way.

One more thing. Rolls, from Penn State, says she doesn't think it's wrong to hide veggies in food. "Parents modify recipes all the time," she says. "For example, it is well-accepted that applesauce can be used to replace oil in cake batter.”

OK. But apples aren't a vegetable. And my kids love applesauce. At least the last time I checked.

--- Photo of pureed squash. Credit: Eugene Peretz

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