Are you a veggie sneak?

Are you one of those parents who sneaks pureed carrots into your kid’s cookies, or cauliflower into the mashed potatoes? Such “stealth health” techniques have been touted in celebrity cookbooks and all over the internet. Is this something that you feel compelled to try? Does it work? Is it a good idea?

White cauliflower with green leaves
White cauliflower with green leaves / Horia Varlan / CC BY 2.0

The why and the why not.

There are two schools of thought here (of course). One side promotes adding “hidden” vegetables to favorite kids’ foods to augment the nutritional content of the dish and get kids to consume more veggies overall. The other side of the table contends that evasive veggie maneuvers don’t teach children to appreciate the taste of vegetables, and so do nothing to encourage them to consume a healthy diet that contains plenty of vegetables as they get older. I see merit in both arguments, actually.

Some children eat a very limited diet, and if my child was one of those kids I would be doing what I could to pack nutrients into foods on his or her approved food list. Bring on the mashed beans, beets and broccoli! I could find numerous ways to incorporate them into soups, casseroles and baked goods—indeed, there are lots of recipes and tips for doing just that. In fact, some of these ideas help lower the fat content of foods as well, especially in the case of baked goods.

However, I also agree with the non-hiders because there is research that shows that repeated exposure to a food increases acceptance of that food by children. In other words, somewhere around the sixth time a child tries a little taste of an initially unpalatable veggie, he or she will start to get used to it and the resistance will go away. That takes time and effort, but so does helping a child learn to tie his shoes, or brush his teeth. Not providing a child with multiple exposures (or any exposure) to vegetables is certainly easier. If a child never actually sees a vegetable on the plate, however, how will he or she learn to like that vegetable?

Is disguising vegetables effective?

If your child eats the veggie-boosted dish, then that could certainly be called a success. But a recent study showed that kids ate just as much of a food when they knew that a vegetable was “hidden” in it (such as broccoli in a spice cake) as they did when they were not informed about the added veggies. It made no difference to them—as long as they were familiar with that particular vegetable. Cookies with chickpeas added were not a hit, for example, and the kids reported being unfamiliar with chickpeas in the first place, which the researchers think made the kids wary.

Try a variety of techniques.

Like most things in life, there is no single, easy answer. In my home, I do a little bit of stealth veggie cooking and a little bit of regular old “serve it, and serve it and serve it again” style cooking. I think they both have a place. I augment the nutritional content of some of my kids’ favorite foods with additional vegetables (and sometimes with additional protein) and don’t call attention to it. For example, I add mashed kidney beans to homemade spaghetti sauce sometimes, and I thicken homemade pureed soups with leftover mashed potatoes or cooked broccoli, or add canned (rinsed and drained) white beans and hit it all again with my immersion blender.

In my world, that’s just cost-effective, creative, nutritious cooking. I certainly don’t match colors of vegetables to my kids’ favorite foods or try to work veggies into recipes just to see if I can get them past my kids’ palates (a la pureed butternut squash mixed into macaroni and cheese), but I do make it a habit to bulk-up casseroles and other mixed dishes with vegetables (all in plain sight).

I want my kids to know what different veggies taste and look like, so I serve plenty of items with little adornment. At my house we eat vegetables in many forms—raw, cooked, mixed into other foods and as stand-alone dishes. My kids like salads of all kinds and plenty of different veggies, but like everyone else, each has a couple things he or she just doesn’t like (hello beets and parsnips).

The bottom line: don’t assume your child will not eat something just because it doesn’t seem like “kid food.” Let them try it and try it again—you might be surprised at what they like “as is.” But also, don’t be afraid to get creative with your use of vegetables—it’s the cook’s prerogative!