FIVE DANGERS OF HIDDEN VEGETABLES

How do you like my sensationalist Yahoo! News style headline? 🙂

Semi-related to the subject of baby-led weaning, I want to discuss a popular technique for getting fussy eaters to consume their vegetables: hiding them.

Cookbooks abound for the desperate parents of picky tots, providing recipes that cleverly camouflage puréed veggies into such kid-friendly fare as chocolate cake, breads, brownies and smoothies. The mom-turned-dietician authors of these books reassure parents that the fortified junk food is in fact healthy, due to some minute quantity of the latest celebrated micronutrient skillfully secreted inside a kid-approved bounty of processed carbohydrates.

One book, which I won’t name for fear of giving it more Google power, boasts being “chock full of proven strategies for ingeniously disguising ‘superfoods’ in kids’ favorite meals. Like blueberries hidden in burgers, broccoli in meatballs, cauliflower in mac ‘n cheese, and wheat germ in cookies.”

(You can probably tell by now that I’m not a fan of this concept.)

Here is why I find this approach short-sighted:

1. Children need repeated exposure to new foods — that is, exposure to the foods’ tastes, textures, smells and appearances — in order to accept them. You may succeed at getting a quarter cup of puréed carrots down your child’s gullet in the short term, but you have done nothing to increase the child’s familiarity with and acceptance of the food in question. You cannot teach your child to like carrots by hiding them in a brownie!

2. You will, however, teach your child to like brownies.

3. Adding healthy ingredients to junk food does not neutralize the adverse effects of the junk food. Read that again. Repeat it out loud. Do you really want to stuff your child with white flour and sugar just for the sake of a couple of ounces of zucchini? I didn’t think so.

4. Hidden vegetables send mixed messages. Children do not know the difference between your “healthy” cookies and the cookies that would normally only be served as an occasional treat. Enthusiastically encouraging them to eat “health-ified” junk food tells them that junk food is perfectly okay to eat on a regular basis.

5. This approach only continues to cater to the child’s fussiness, rather than encouraging better eating habits. “But my child won’t eat anything other than pasta, bread and junk food,” you protest. Oh, but they will. Children will not starve themselves. In the absence of more appealing options, they will soon cave.

Most nutritionists will recoil in horror at what I’m going to say next (and please keep in mind that this constitutes my opinion only; not professional advice). I do not believe it is imperative for children to eat vegetables. A child eating a diet of high-quality meats, essential fats and a variety of different coloured fruits is probably getting all of the micronutrients he or she needs. Unlike adults, children can tolerate higher levels of (unprocessed) carbohydrate in their diets without becoming metabolically damaged, and fructose is not a huge concern, providing it is being consumed in the context of whole fruit; not as an isolated ingredient or additive.

I would far sooner see my child eat an otherwise balanced diet of whole foodthat is completely devoid of vegetables, than to see him eat a diet of refined and processed “beige foods” with small quantities of undetectable vegetables snuck in for good measure. I think that the known adverse effects of eating junk food far outweigh the potential adverse effects of not eating vegetables.

And although I hope that Oliver grows up loving his veggies, I refuse to engage in Battle Vegetable.

What is the strangest strategy or recipe you have encountered for trying to trick kids into eating their vegetables?

16 responses to “FIVE DANGERS OF HIDDEN VEGETABLES

  1. Thank you! I don’t have kids, but I abhor this practice!
    As for your third to last paragraph, I just read and article the other day about this. Some child experts are starting to say the exact same thing, so nutritionists may be out for your head for saying this, but you can just say you’re on the forefront of an emerging attitude!

    • Wow, I feel so… validated 🙂 Do you have a link to the article or can you remember where you saw it? I’d be really curious to read it.

      Thanks!!

  2. Thanks for this interesting post Carli–

    I’m the mom of a 7-month-old paleo baby. I totally agree that hiding veggies in junk food is really (really 😉 ) wrong-headed. However contrary to you I guess that veggies should weigh a lot in a baby’s diet during his/her first year. Two reasons for this:

    – Infants develop their tastes during their first year. And they tend to like what they’ve been used to eat. Therefore I think it’s good to diversify as much as possible the types of (healthy) foods you give to your infant during the first year. My daughter’s solid diet comprises pumpkin, sweet potatoes, zucchinis, broccoli, avocado, parsnip, sardines, mackerel, calves liver, grass-fed beef, and eggs. She loves her veggies served with plenty of butter (from grass-fed animals) and parsley sometimes. I’ve been feeding her this way since she was 5 month-old. Since eating veggies is really part of her habits already, I believe I’ll never have to use ‘tricks’ to have her eat veggies; but maybe I’m wrong though 😉

    – I’m not quite sure that following the paleo diet is less critical for infants than for adults. In particular, babies need plenty of healthy fats. As it turns out carbs and fats are often substitutes in our diets, in the sense that when we eat more carbs, we tend to eat less fat naturally. I give my baby fruits sometimes, but only as a treat –she’s got plenty of sweet flavour from my milk, and I think that’s enough sweet for now 😉 I totally agree with you that to eat a lot of fructose from fruits is not going to kill your infant, but still, it’s a ‘second-best’ in my opinion, and since the ‘first-best’ is not hard to implement, why not do it?

  3. Hi Elise,

    Thanks for bringing these points up!

    I guess I should clarify first that my opinions were geared towards the feeding of older toddlers and children; not babies. Babies are generally receptive to whatever we give them, which is why parents will often lament the fact that their previously vegetable-eating babies become such picky toddlers.

    For what it’s worth, I think children become picky the moment they are introduced to sweet, starchy, palatable, processed “kid foods,” snack foods and desserts, which have much better mouth feel and sweetness than all those veggies they previously enjoyed. And like you, I am hoping that keeping Oliver on a Paleo diet will circumvent the problem of vegetable aversion altogether.

    I believe wholeheartedly that babies should be introduced to a diverse array of vegetables, fruits and meats as soon as they are developmentally able to manage them. Children like what is familiar, so the more vegetables they taste/eat, and the more frequently they are exposed to them, the more they will be likely to continue to enjoy them. Oliver has vegetables on a daily basis, and so far we are fortunate that he seems to love them all.

    With regard to the second point, both Loren Cordain and Robb Wolf assert that carbohydrates (providing they are from whole food sources) should not be restricted in childhood, and that it’s okay for children to eat a lot more fruit than adults — including tropical and dried fruits. I am not saying it is less critical for infants to follow a Paleo diet; just that the carbohydrate source within the context of the diet (fruit versus vegetable) is of less critical importance than it is for adults. You’re right, though: fats are essential to development and should not be eschewed in favour of more carbs!

    I guess what I was trying to say (albeit probably not as clearly as I could have :)) is that in the event that Oliver decides as a toddler or child that he no longer wants to eat vegetables, I am not going to force the issue… and I’m certainly not going to disguise his veggies inside baked goods!! There will always be plenty of other healthy, whole foods available to him at mealtimes, and I’m confident that he will be able to get all of the nutrition he needs without turning meals into a power struggle.

    I hope that clarifies my position a bit better 🙂

    C.

  4. Thanks for clarifying your position Carli! Following-up on what you said, I have two questions for you:

    – Based on your own experience, do you think that the baby-led weaning approach may somewhat slow down taste development for the veggies/fruits, in the sense that a still-toothless baby can suck a little bit of everything, but in effect cannot eat significant quantities, compared to when the veggies/fruits are mashed. Intuitively I would say there is a tradeoff and this actually led me to forgo baby-led weaning, although I recognise it has many appeals. If my baby girl had teething before 6-month old, it would have been great because then baby-led weaning would have been totally compatible with her eating significant amount of veggies. What do you think?

    – Regarding the carb thing, would you consider giving cereals to Oliver? For me it’s very natural to give fruits (actually I eat lots of fruits myself –I’m not a very strict Paleo person 😉 ), but cereals, I’m not quite sure 😉

    • I would guess that in terms of taste development, there’s not much difference between baby-led weaning and the conventional approach. They don’t necessarily have to be ingesting the food in order to get a good sense of the flavour. Oliver will happily gum or suck a single piece of meat/vegetable/fruit for 10 minutes at a time, so I’d say he’s getting pretty good exposure there.

      Where the baby-led weaning is advantageous is in exposing him to all of the different textures of foods.

      Where purées definitely win, however, is in actually getting food inside the baby. At this point, Oliver doesn’t get anything more than just the juices of his foods, so there is no reduction in breastfeeding yet, and I don’t expect there will be for at least another couple of months.

      From my experience, teeth don’t make much difference. Oliver had two teeth when we started, and now has four. With four (front teeth), he is able to break off small pieces of food, but he still can’t chew them before he tries to swallow them, so it’s actually a little bit scary. The better idea, probably, is to keep the foods soft enough so that they can “chew” them with their gums (we haven’t exactly been doing that, I will admit).

      Regarding cooked cereal grains, at this point my thinking is that we will avoid them. I don’t think they are necessarily bad (for children, at least); but we’d definitely rather he doesn’t get attached to grain products.

  5. Most baby/toddler nutrition books give me a headache. I’ve read most of the popular ones (and I can guess which one you’d like to not receive more google hits!) and cringe at a lot of the advice at which foods should be introduced when and how. Seeing babies and young toddlers with bowls of dry cereal in spill proof cups makes me a little crazy. Kids don’t need empty fillers! The catch that makes me most insane is the idea that “organic” equals “healthy.” Well, Organic Os are still highly processed carbohydrates that adults and children do not need. “Organic, gluten free” equals “very healthy” so eating Envirokids cereals (insert any organic kid marketed cereal here) is seen as a better option, when in fact cereal is still not an ideal food for anyone!

    My 4-year-old does not tolerate eggs, gluten, garlic and likely corn. She is also becoming quite philosophic about the world at large and is a self-declared vegetarian (without having the word for it.). She’ll ask at dinner, “Mommy, is that *dead* chicken?” She absolutely will not eat it after coming to that conclusion, despite my circle of life stories and friendly chit-chat about the whole process. We even get our chickens from local farms, which I am not sure is helpful. Better, perhaps, to not know your chicken? Often kids come with their own food agendas :-). Enjoy the phase of having lots of control over what Oliver eats now and hope that it sets the stage for future good eating habits! I guess that is our overall goal as we work through the literature. Let me know if you come across any good resources.

    • Yes, the organic = healthy myth kills me. Whole Foods is particularly bad for perpetuating this. They stock so much processed junk food, but because it contains “organic dehydrated cane juice” instead of sugar, or is made from “organic white flour,” parents are led to believe that it is somehow healthier than mainstream garbage.

      I had to laugh about your four-year-old’s aversion to “dead” meat, although I’m sure it is frustrating for you at times 🙂

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  7. As the parent of an older kid (3) with whom we did BLW and thought, wow, it’s great all the things she eats, aren’t we the awesomest parents, our kid is so super, I’d just like to remind you that the personality of the kid has a lot to do with things. My daughter ate, for example, salmon and broccoli happily from late babyhood until she was 14 months old and then flat-out refused it. I think it was a control thing for her, she suddenly realized she had the ability to choose what she wanted, and started exercising that authority. So we have responded by not making a big deal out of it. Now that she is eating with us for supper (this has to do with work and sleep schedules – we always eat breakfast together but only lately has supper been logistically possible) and sees how much we like our food (I would call it Primal rather than Paleo), she is getting back into trying new things, but again, we just serve it along with something that we know she will eat, so that it’s available for her to try. And she’s trying things more and more, and liking them, so we think we’ve found the right approach for her. We learned with her that we can’t force her to eat anything, on the other hand, at home we only make available the foods we approve of. The compromise is that at daycare, the food that is provided isn’t what we would feed her at home. However, she has no expectations of having, e.g., bread at home; it’s completely normal for her to eat supper of grapes and cheese, or a “milkshake” (berry smoothie). On the daycare front, we had to admit that for our own sanity we couldn’t martyr ourselves for the food issue. You can’t actually do everything perfectly for your kid, and it’s impossible to be supermom, much as we are still sold that concept.

    Also, for the BLW, it progressed in distinct stages: much gumming and then quite suddenly, one day she “got” how to chew and swallow and actually started getting some food into her. Took a couple of months from when she started. And there was another big Aha moment some months later, and again her food intake skyrocketed. It wasn’t gradual at all, it was quite sudden steps. So that may be what will happen with Oliver once he has his Eureka moment.

    • I have no delusions that Oliver will be as open-minded about food when he hits toddlerhood as he is right now 🙂 But as you point out, we will simply serve a variety of healthy, “approved” foods at every meal, and it will be up to him to choose which of those foods he would like to eat. We are not going to engage in battles of wills over food.

      We are incredibly fortunate that our daycare allows parents to choose whether their children eat only daycare food, some daycare food, or only food from home. So while he is in daycare, we can actually keep him on a Paleo diet. Eventually, there will be situations where we do not control the food Oliver is offered, but we would certainly like to delay the introduction of non-Paleo foods for as long as possible.

      You’re right about the BLW progress being very sudden. Oliver went from gagging on everything to figuring out how to chew and swallow almost overnight. One day I just noticed that he was chewing his food, and that was that. He’s still not getting a ton of food in him, but he’s definitely getting some, which is encouraging.

      • I’m sure if we wanted to push the daycare issue, we could, as our provider is very understanding and flexible. But we were not eating Primally when we first weaned our daughter so she’s been in a food limbo for most of her life – and partly because of other pressures (time, money, and did I mention time? that is the biggie) we have settled on a compromise for her for now, Primal at home and conventional diet at daycare. She seems to be quite used to the idea that there are some foods that we just don’t offer at home – bread being the big one – and survives just fine all weekend on Primal-type foods. Also, we are currently in the midst of a possible celiac diagnosis for her, so we need to keep her on wheat until some conclusion is reached. If it turns out that she has celiac, of course that will change everything, and we’ll have to start sending Primal-type food for her to daycare. And deal with the inevitable fallout of her not being able to eat all the stuff the other kids are eating. Choosing to eat differently (or rather, us choosing for her) most of the time, and being forced to eat differently 100% of the time, are two very distinct things, especially for kids.

        • You make a good point: my parents were fairly strict about not giving us junk food when we were kids, and we were never confused by the fact that we were able to have “forbidden” foods in other contexts, but had to eat healthily at home. We just knew that stuff wasn’t available to us at home, I guess.

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  9. Clearly you don’t have an ultra fussy child who would rather go hungry than eat veggie, most fruits and most meats. He’s been this way since he was a toddler and his father was no different. You do what you have to do to get some good nutrients into them. Doesn’t mean I feed him rubbish but if I can find healthy recipes that will appeal to him then I will sometimes do it as a treat. I don’t think anyone can truly understand until their faced with this extremely frustrating and ongoing battle. Can’t exactly let him starve or not get some good nutrients into him can I?!

  10. I understand where you are coming from and my children eat quite a lot of fruit and veg, however i have no problem hiding veg in their treat food. I just made some choc chip muffins that were full of zucchini (which they normally won’t eat) as a treat. They were surprised when I told them what I had put in there, but they also know that this is not the case for most muffins. I also tell them the ‘surprise ingredient’ when they have told me how much they like it.

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