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Why Hiding Vegetables Misses the Point

December 13, 2009
5 Comments

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 myself, 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” cookbook series. You can see right here on 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 things 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 consume vegetables 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. Modeling behavior and attitudes, sending a clear message, repeating it, and being consistent are keys to effective teaching. 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. 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 throw spinach in the lasagna or sweet potato into the pancakes 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?

Entrepreneur and food and education writer, Stacie Billis has been using her MA in developmental psychology, background in children’s media, and expertise in food and cooking to help make the world a better (and more delicious!) place for families. After years of developing educational media for children, she decided to put her experience and passion to work building her own brands. Her writing and recipes can be found on her blog, ChowMama. ChowMama is a celebration of real food for real families made real quick. Combining a food-centric parenting philosophy and family-friendly recipes, ChowMama offers parents a practical and honest guide to nourishing their families, body and soul.

5 Comments

I use both methods. I give my daughter veggies at meals even when I know she probably won't eat them and I eat them with her encouraging her to take at least one bite. Broccoli is a prime example. She LOVED broccoli puree when she started on solids, but won't touch broccoli now... I still serve it.
BUT I'm also a fan of the deceptively delicious recipes. I like the idea of adding a little extra nutrition to dishes I might be making anyway.

My 3 year old loves veggies, and she went through brief periods of not liking ones she loved 2 days earlier, but we got throught it without hiding them in food, I completely agree, with everything you;ve wrote. When she went through periods of not liking veggies, we came up with new ways for her to want to eat them...

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Great post! This was the best line for me:

"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."

My two year old eats what her parents eat (vegetarian and tons of veggies) and even though she'll occasionally boycott something, the rest of her plate is healthy anyway so she really can't go wrong. We keep mealtime drama free and she's learning that healthy is normal for our family. :)

I have thought the same thing about hiding vegetables, its backwards to developing a healthy palate. My children eat everything we eat (which is a very healthy, mostly plant diet), by offering variety, different preparations and trying to get them involved in the kitchen as often as possible. There is nothing like participation in the mixing, adding ingredients and help with cooking that will make a child be a willing participant to eating what they've made...

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What a great article!! The only thing I would add is research shows that children have to be exposed to new foods as many as 12 times before they will try it. That seems like so many!! But, I have seen it work in my own house. I kept putting broccoli on my son's plate, told him he didn't have to eat it, and weeks later, that broccoli was eaten...

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