Wednesday, September 29, 2010

5 Reasons Why I Don't Hide Vegetables in My Family's Food...and What You Can Try Instead

The article below originally appeared in the Dinner Together September 2010 Family Issue Newsletter. The article received such a positive reaction from readers that I thought I'd share it here too. One reader posed an interesting question after reading the article, and I'll share my answer below, following the article.

5 Reasons Why I Don’t Hide Vegetables in My Family’s Food… and What You Can Try Instead

by Kathleen Cuneo, Ph.D.

Parents frequently ask me what I think about the cookbooks based upon the concept of sneaking vegetables into our kids’ meals. I have never made any of the recipes in these cookbooks. I know when my kids were younger, there were times when I would have been tempted to try something like that because I worried more about their eating than I do now and I was not yet educated about Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding. Since those cookbooks did not exist when my oldest - and pickiest - daughter was a toddler, I did not have the opportunity to try this approach. From where I stand now, however, I’m glad I didn’t. And even though now I have had opportunities to try this approach to feeding, I have consciously decided not to. Here’s why:

  1. It’s too much work. It takes enough time just to plan and prepare meals in addition to all my other work and family responsibilities. I really don’t want to take extra time to prepare special vegetable purees to later hide in my meals. Instead, I prefer to spend time and effort into trying new ways to prepare vegetables that taste good. I’m always looking for new recipes to experiment with on my family.
  2. I want my kids to learn to accept and enjoy vegetables. If their only experience of vegetables is hidden in another dish, they are denied the opportunity of learning that they might actually like some vegetables. Instead, I offer a variety of vegetables, prepared in different ways throughout the week and apply Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in my approach to feeding my kids. I also frequently ask my kids for their input in planning meals, including their fruit and vegetable choices.
  3. I’m not very comfortable being deceptive. I can barely pull off the Santa Claus story, and that’s something I value. I don’t value being sneaky when it comes to food. In the long run, I believe that I would be undermining my children’s trust in me. My kids are pretty savvy and can tell when something tastes different. They would be more likely to reject something when they feel they’ve been tricked. Instead, I’m very upfront about what food is on the table and don’t put much pressure on them to eat it – at least I try not to most of the time.
  4. I think it can backfire. I don’t want to inadvertently teach my kids to dislike vegetables by sending them the message that they’re not good enough to be eaten as they are and must be hidden. Instead, my kids see my husband and I enjoying vegetables.
  5. Taste matters. As I said above, I think many people can tell the difference in taste when something is added. When I eat a brownie, I want it to taste the way I expect a brownie to taste. Actually my kids frequently prefer their foods to be separate rather than mixed in casseroles or soups, and I don’t interfere with them picking individual disliked ingredients out of their meals because I have some respect for their individual taste preferences.

So if you are using the sneaky approach, I encourage you just to take a moment to think about it. My intent is not to cause guilt, but rather to give you some things to think about. Most parents who hide vegetables in their children’s food are usually motivated by the admirable parenting goal of having their children “eat healthy,” but I’d like to suggest that you shoot for a more long-term goal of teaching them to make healthy choices on their own. Hiding vegetables limits their opportunities for learning.

Copyright © 2010 Kathleen M. Cuneo, Ph.D.

After reading this article, a reader asked me if I thought it was okay if vegetables were included in a recipe without the intention of being sneaky. For example, her family enjoys a macaroni and cheese recipe which also includes squash and a pasta dish which includes spinach. My reply to her was that I think it's absolutely okay to include vegetables in recipes. I do it myself frequently. It's the intentional deception that makes me uncomfortable. I'd love to hear your thoughts as well.

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