Why Hiding Vegetables Misses the Point

December 29, 2009

I recently wrote a piece on hiding vegetables for Mamapedia. In case you missed it there, here it is.

I’m often asked about how to get kids to eat vegetables. Of course! What parent hasn’t struggled through a kid-imposed ban on veggies? Even the most intrepid little eaters will suddenly decide that vegetables—even ones they happily enjoyed days before—are off the list.

Having spoken to tons of parents and survived toddler picky phases first hand, I appreciate why this is such a common question. Every parent wants to make sure that her kids are eating a well-balanced diet. But, truth be told, I think it’s the wrong question to ask. And so to the inquiries, I offer an unconventional and, for some, uncomfortable answer:

Stop worrying. And, by all means, don’t hide vegetables. Instead, be bold and do just the opposite—serve them frequently and enjoy them openly.

Peek-a-boo: I don’t see you
Hiding vegetables is the practice of sneaking veggies, usually purees, into kid-approved dishes. While not exclusively, the dishes tend to be carb, cheese, or meat heavy kid-menu standouts like pancakes, mac-and-cheese, and meatloaf. Yummy stuff, indeed. But also the makings of a diet built on comfort and fast food staples.

The practice was most recently popularized by Jessica Seinfeld’s book, “Deceptively Delicious,” and the “Sneaky Chef” cookbooks. You can see on parent communities like Mamapedia that it’s an incredibly popular thing to do… because it works! How could it not with a rotating menu of creamy pastas and quesadillas?! And who can blame moms for giving something that works a go? Certainly not me! But (you knew that was coming), though hiding vegetables may get nutrients down the gullet every night, it’s a short term “win” that undermines the long term goal of helping our kids establish healthy eating habits for life.

Focusing on the right problem
Most parents (understandably) consider not eating vegetables the “problem” that needs to be solved. But what’s at the root of this “problem” behavior? There are two basic explanations for refusing veggies. One is that your kids are going through a picky phase. The other is that they simply don’t like vegetables.

There is evidence that children start getting picky around 2-years-old. Evolutionarily, this coincides with increased mobility—when baby might be exploring places without mama or papa immediately nearby to protect them. Pickiness, natural skepticism of new foods, prevented the cave baby from putting just about anything (like a poisonous berry) in her mouth. This protective adaptation persists in children today.

Not liking vegetables as a general rule is a little different. Some kids don’t have a taste for vegetables. But here’s the thing about taste: it develops. (That’s why kids who grow up in India, for example, have a taste for spicy curry, but may not like the ketchup that so many American kids love.) And just like all other aspects of our children’s development, it takes time and we play a major role in how tastes take shape.

Hiding vegetables may successfully get you through a picky phase and may even disguise vegetable flavor so that vegetable-averse children eat the good stuff. In other words, it may solve the behavioral problem. It won’t address the root issues of pickiness or taste, though, and this may set your child up for a lifetime of veggie dislike.

Sound all doom-and-gloom? It may not be! Kids are constantly changing and experimenting. The pickiest eater may turn into her generation’s most famous chef. But, according to research, the habits our children form when they are young will lay the foundation for their eating habits for life. So, more likely, distaste for vegetables will persist into their adulthood. With obesity and diabetes on the rise, who wants that?

So, then what?
If we shift our focus from a daily battle to get our children to eat vegetables at every meal to a long-term goal of getting our children to develop a taste for vegetables, things get a little easier. The pressure on any given meal is relieved because all we have to do is (drum roll, please!) keep calm and stay the course. That’s it. No battles. No separate meals. No extra cooking and pureeing. (I’ve heard advocates for hiding claim that pureeing veggies barely takes extra time. Not sure about you, but just getting dinner on the table is hard enough for me. Steaming, pureeing, and making separate portions takes more time than I have most nights.)

Let me get more specific, keeping in mind that helping our kids develop a taste and love for vegetables takes time, commitment, and patience.

Keep Calm
This part is self-explanatory, but it’s also the hardest part! Dealing with a picky eater or self-proclaimed veggie refusenik is frustrating and worrisome. Frustrating because of the endless power struggles. And worrisome because you can’t help but wonder if your child is getting the nutrients they need. Seriously. Can a child develop normally on a diet of cheddar cheese and sliced turkey alone? These feelings are normal. But turning the dinner table into a battle zone will only make things harder on everyone.

Instead, keep faith that this, too, shall pass and that our kids are good at getting what they need. If they couldn’t go a while on cheese and turkey alone, then pickiness wouldn’t be a very smart adaptation. We’ve got to trust that nature has our kids covered to some extent. And, if you’re not big on Mother Nature, research suggests that young kids often need less food than their parents think they need. If they’re hungry or their little bodies need something, they’ll know and they’ll eat.

Stay the Course
Remain focused on the long-term goal: trying to help our children develop a taste for vegetables. When it comes to other aspects of our children’s development, we often look to learning theory. It’s no different with our new veggie goal. We need to employ tools for effective teaching: modeling behavior and attitudes, sending a clear message, repeating it, and being consistent. So if you want your kids to learn that vegetables are versatile, delicious, and the foundation of a healthy diet, you have to eat and openly feed them a wide variety of vegetables prepared in all different ways. And, remember, if the veggies don’t taste good to you, they won’t taste good to your kids! Take time, look for recipes, and experiment (i.e., have fun!). It can be as simple as choosing in-season veggies that are simply roasted with garlic and olive oil (a seriously quick and flavorful preparation). The consistent message at home has to be that we all eat vegetables, they are yummy, and an openly accepted part of most every meal.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t throw spinach in lasagna (on the contrary) or sweet potato into pancake batter if that’s what tastes good to you. These are great ways to enjoy vegetables. But don’t go out of your way to conceal that vegetables are a part of the meal. It’s important for your kids to know that those pancakes taste yummy because of the sweet potato, not despite it.

To those of you with non-veggie eaters, this probably sounds like an uphill battle. In many ways it is. You may be in for a long haul. But if you keep calm, is that so bad? Isn’t all of parenting a long haul? It’s what we do! And, with the right attitude, we can relax and make meal time fun again. I promise—your kids will get it eventually. Don’t they always?

19 Responses

  1. Jeanne says:

    Great post! I whole heartedly agree about not hiding veggies in food. I think our kids are little sponges and if we as adults can show them the good eating habits, it won’t be a forced decision for them when they are older. It will just be a part of who they are.

  2. Michelle says:

    Absolutely! I’m always amazed when people try to trick their kids. One of the most important things to remember is that kids are always watching you. My soon to be three year old loves eating salad every night, not because she likes to eat the dressing (although she does love ranch when at restaurants – we use a basic italian at home), but because we eat it every night. Sometimes we have eating issues, but that’s par for the course with toddlers! Fruits and veggies so far haven’t been on our difficult list.

  3. […] As a mom who fights the Dinner Wars daily I was very interested to read ‘Why Hiding Vegetables Is Missing the Point’ by Stacie at ChowMama. […]

  4. sarah henry says:

    I’ve written about the hiding veggie phenomenon myself for BabyCenter.com (interviewed both the Sneaky Chef Missy Chase Lapine & Jessica Seinfeld of Deceptively Delicious before they sued each other) and I agree with your basic premise here, chowmama.

    That said, some kids may prefer their veggies pureed, in a soup or sauce say, and I see absolutely nothing dodgy about that. Just so long as everyone really knows what’s being dished up for dinner.

    For an amusingly pointed pov on this subject, check out former NYT food critic Mimi Sheraton’s account on Slate:

  5. wendy says:

    I also agree that we should always show our kids good eating habits. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with modifying a recipe to include more nutritious foods, even if you need to puree it and “hide” it. I use this practice all the time with my own food. I “hide” ground flax seed in my smoothies for added fiber and Omega 3s. I modify my pancake recipe to include oats, bran, and cottage cheese for added fiber, protein, and calcium. I think modifying recipes to make them healthier is a good practice…even if your kids don’t know it is being used.

    Bon Appetit

  6. Jennifer says:

    This is such an insightful and inspiring article. We’re about to have our first and we’ve put a lot of thought into how we will establish healthy eating habits from the start. I remember from my own childhood that my mother always served fruits and vegetables at every meal, and even when we got picky (my brother went through a no strawberries, no mushrooms phase!), she never gave up. Sometimes she would make a casserole in which some of the veggies were cut up too small to pry out (mushrooms!) but not as a general rule. In the end, she ended up with one vegetarian (me) and one full-on omnivore (including mushrooms, strawberries and several things mom never even thought to cook up). I hope I can follow the same common sense that my mother and the ChowFamily have tried to instill! Many thanks!

  7. […] are some tips for surviving with a picky eater. Here’s what Dr. Greene told me about making sure that kids get “enough” to eat. […]

  8. […] won’t hide vegetables, so my options are pretty limited. I’m left changing things up as best I can, relying on […]

  9. […] they have with their children’s other activities. I’d love for them to understand how hiding vegetables misses the point. And I’m not the only one: read what Marion Nestle has to say about stealth […]

  10. […] Then you just have work on being okay if the kids don’t eat their veggies. That’s a whole othhhherr issue. […]

  11. […] hear you guys now: isn’t that hiding veggies? Well, it is if you don’t say anything to your kids. And it isn’t if you tell them. The […]

  12. […] know how I feel about hiding veggies, right? My aversion to the practice has more to do with the fact that it’s a lot of extra […]

  13. […] I was reading some food blogs yesterday and a post on One Hungry Mama really stuck with me. I don’t want to have to hide veggies to get my daughter to eat them […]

  14. […] separate meals or hide vegetables. Short-term solutions like that are more work for you and totally miss the point. You may get your little one to ingest nutrients, but you haven’t done a thing to inspire a […]

  15. […] parents of older kids. But hear me out. (Many of you laughed when I wrote, more than once, about why hiding vegetables misses the point and that turned out to be sound–even […]

  16. […] do. Here are some resources that I hope help: 5 simple ways to feed baby while feeding yourself, why hiding vegetables misses the point, introducing high allergen foods. But I also hope that you don’t stress out too much. I get that […]

  17. […] count myself among those who discourage hiding vegetables, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t play with the way I serve […]

  18. […] won’t hide vegetables, so my options are pretty limited. I’m left changing things up as best I can, relying on […]

  19. […] parents of older kids. But hear me out. (Many of you laughed when I wrote, more than once, about why hiding vegetables misses the point and that turned out to be sound–even […]

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