Ever since Jessica Seinfeld’s book “Deceptively Delicious” was a hit last year, I’ve been contemplating why people feel the need to hide vegetables in their children's meals. I need to say up front that the idea of hiding vegetables in food has always made me cringe. Although I would like to think my dislike for being "deceptive" is due to my belief that parents should always be honest with their children, I must admit my sensibility as a true vegetable lover is offended as well.
I am also confused as to why this book was such a big hit. I realize that the author is Jerry Seinfeld's wife, and that the exposure she received from her publisher is pretty impressive, but is there more to the story (other than another cookbook author suing both Seinfelds for plagiarism)? My question is: why has the vegetable become persona non grata at the family dinner table?
I can think of many reasons why parents should avoid hiding vegetables in their kids' food. For one thing, if the veggies are hidden, kids have no idea they’re actually eating them. Although this may seem to be the point of masquerading them in the first place, it sets up a scenario where children grow up thinking they can live vegetable-free lives. Okay, maybe not vegetable free entirely, but if vegetables aren't a part of a child's regular daily food consumption, she (or he) won't acquire a taste for them and so won't necessarily want to eat them as an adult. Stealth recipes, as Ms. Seinfeld calls them, can eventually backfire. The trick of pureeing and chopping up vegetables so children don't notice them will only work for so long. At some point, those little smarties will figure it out and when they do, they'll get the message that vegetables are "gross" and inedible, worthy only of being smashed to bits and hidden in meat, pasta or cheese. I realize that many parents themselves aren't vegetables lovers, but instead of throwing in the towel and passing on an aversion to an essential food group, I suggest exploring new and different ways of eating and preparing vegetables with the kids.
With this in mind, here are some suggestions for serving vegetables in an open and honest way with your family. They may not all work for you, but the chances that one or two of these suggestions could make even a small impact is worth a try.
1. Take your children with you to the store or farmer’s market to pick out the vegetables themselves. Show them the variety of vegetables available, as well as the vibrant colors and different textures. When you get home, your kids will be more excited about the vegetables they've chosen for the family dinner table and more likely to eat them.
2. Take your child to the farmer’s market and speak with the farmer or sales person about the vegetables that are currently in season. This will help your children to build a curiosity about where their food comes from.
3. Grow your own vegetables if you have a yard. And, even if you don't, try growing some small container plants like cherry tomatoes or peppers. After growing a vegetable for weeks to months, your child will be excited to get to pick it her or himself and, more importantly, eat it.
Note: Gardening doesn't have to be labor intensive. If you want to spend a lot of time in your yard, you can have a beautiful garden, but this isn't necessary. Just pick a few plants to grow and be sure to water them every couple of days.
4. Ask your child to help you cook. They can help you wash the vegetables, peel them, chop with supervision, and actually do some of the cooking. If your child feels a sense of pride about the meal your family is eating, he or she is more likely to want to eat it.
Idea: One way to do this, now that it's almost Spring, is to buy fresh English peas in the pod and spend time with your kids shelling them. This is a fun hands-on experience that my daughters love. Oh, and be sure to let them taste them raw.
5. Make vegetables fun by purchasing them in a new way.
Idea: Try buying purple potatoes or different colored carrots to spark your child's interest. In the Fall, you can also buy Brussels sprouts on the stalk. When my daughters were about four, they weren't thrilled with sprouts until we bought them this way; but, after an afternoon of plucking them off the stem and then pretending the stem was a scepter, they loved them. I now try to buy the sprouts on the stalk as often as I can. Buying Brussels sprouts has become an event instead of a hated side dish (I don't have a picture of Brussels sprouts on the stem here as they’re not in season, but check out those purple carrots!).
6. Respect that your child will not love every vegetable and allow them to name one or two that they prefer not to eat. Then ask them which vegetables they love and make a point to eat one of them that evening.
7. Try serving some vegetables raw with dip as part of your meal or as a snack. Great vegetables to use are carrots, peppers, cucumbers, snap peas, green beans, broccoli, and fennel.
8. Try cooking vegetables in a different way. Sometimes a child's aversion may be to the texture or preparation of a dish, rather than the vegetable itself.
Idea: Instead of steaming cauliflower, try chopping it up into small florets and roasting it with olive oil and butter topped with some fresh bread crumbs.
9. Serve vegetables every day so they become a natural part of the meal.
10. Be sure to eat your own plate of vegetables in front of your child so they see you enjoying them yourself. In this case, actions really do speak far louder than words.