Hiding Vegetables in Food: A Good or Bad Idea?

In a New York Times article, Stealth Vegetables, Michael Moss points out two seemingly opposite strategies by the food industry to get everyone to follow moms' advice to eat more vegetables: making them more attractive and easier to integrate into meals, and hiding them in other foods via precooked purees.

When I shop at the grocery store, I often buy lots of whole produce. But I also love to take shortcuts by buying some of the vegetables my family loves already prepped in some way—it definitely helps me save time when feeding my family. Some of our favorites in the produce aisle include shredded cabbage, carrots and lettuce and shaved Brussels sprouts, and frozen or canned low- or no-sodium vegetables. Although many of the fresh, ready-to-use options are more expensive than vegetables sold in their whole forms, they can be a viable option—even once-in-a-while—to get dinner on the table and vegetables into your kids' mouths.

Purees are another option. In his article, Moss mentions Green Giant's 100% Veggie Blend-Ins. To promote the new product, the company has partnered with with Jessica Seinfeld, author of Deceptively Delicious. The book features traditional recipes kids enjoy that are "stealthily packed with veggies hidden in them so kids don't even know!" according to the book's description.

Another bestselling book by Missy Chase Lapine, The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids' Favorite Meals, includes recipes that disguise so-called superfoods (including vegetables) inside kids' favorite meals to get them to eat more healthfully. Chase Lapine also created Sneaky Chef Purees that are available in Whole Foods Market and other retail outlets.

Purees can certainly provide a wonderful, nutritious boost to everything from smoothies to baked goods to lasagna to chili and other foods. There's also evidence that using them to enhance meals can increase vegetable intake in young children. A small 2011 study by Penn State researcher Barbara Rolls, PhD found that adding puréed vegetables to favorite foods led 3- to 6-year-olds to consume almost twice as many vegetables (and 11 percent fewer calories) over the course of a day. The preschoolers also accepted the dishes enhanced with vegetables as much as the dishes served in their regular form. Also, feeding the children entrees enhanced with vegetables didn't reduce their intake of vegetable side dishes. The researchers concluded that "Although covertly incorporating vegetables into foods can have a beneficial effect on children's vegetable intake, it should not be the only way that vegetables are served to children."

While I think adding purees to foods children already like or to new recipes kids can grow to love is wise, I'm not a fan of tricking kids to eat certain things. I think it's really important for children to know what vegetables and other ingredients are in their food; that helps them learn about the many forms in which vegetables can be eaten and how vegetables served in different forms can taste different. For example, they may find that they like sweet potatoes when they're baked into French fries instead of when mashed, or prefer cooked onions, broccoli and carrots over raw versions. The bottom line, as always, is to help our kids meet their daily quota for vegetables—1 to 2.5 cups daily for most, depending on their daily calorie needs—in any way we can, and to choose our battles in the process.

I asked a few moms who are also registered dietitians to share their thoughts on hiding vegetables. Here are their colorful answers:

"I'm not a fan of sneaking veggies into kids' food because it doesn't teach them how to eat and enjoy the actual food. It also can confuse children; for example, if they get a cookie made with squash at home and are told it's healthy, they may think all cookies are healthy. I'm all for adding vegetables to dishes, like spinach to mac-n-cheese or mushrooms to a bolognese sauce (both of which I do), but in this case children see the vegetables and are given the opportunity to actually taste them and also sense their texture."

~Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN of Nutritioulicious and mother of 2-year-old twin girls

"Sneaking veggies into foods has a short-term benefit—your kids will get more nutrition into their bodies at that meal. But long term, it's not very helpful and doesn't teach them any valuable habits (you can bet your child won't be pureeing his own cauliflower into mac-n-cheese when he's away at college!). What's more, once your child catches on to what you're doing, he may feel angry and mistrustful about it. Kids need to learn about the taste and texture of vegetables. I'd rather serve the real deal and have my kids only take one or two bites than hide purees in food. That being said, if you want to go the sneaky route, go ahead—but just be sure you serve actual whole veggies on the side. Or if you want to make black bean brownies or zucchini muffins, let your child in on the secret too!"

~Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, and mother of two boys, ages 9 and 5.

"I say "nay" on hiding veggies in kids' food. Hiding is deceptive and does little to foster a child's love for vegetables. That said, I'm all for "weaving" a variety of vegetables into recipes just as you would any other nutrient-rich ingredient. I love adding pureed pumpkin to muffins and pancakes, mashed black beans to brownies, and shredded carrot or finely diced red bell pepper to taco filling. Adding veggies boosts the nutritional GPA of your family's diet, and serving veggies—in all their glory—with meals boosts it even further. "

~Liz Weiss, MS, RD, mother of two boys, ages 19 and 15.

"I have never hidden veggies in food, but I am not opposed to it. I have always offered my kids veggies in a variety of ways: pureed, as part of soups; in smoothies; as part of dips; roasted with olive oil and salt; and just plain raw. In my opinion, good nutrition matters most and takes precedence over form."

~ Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, author of MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better and mother of three kids, ages 19, 18 and 15.

"It actually can work to hide veggies in kids' food. I believe that fitting those veggies into every meal as much as possible is an important goal. If you hide veggies like pureed, grated, or finely diced carrots, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, and greens in smoothies, muffins, casseroles, soups, and more, you can amplify the nutritional power of these dishes. However, it's important that kids learn to like the taste of veggies on their own, too. Even if you're kids are picky, introduce fruits and vegetables at each meal. Just place a small portion on their plate at each meal to make them more familiar."

~Sharon Palmer, RD, author of Plant-Powered for Life and mother of two boys, aged 17 and 15.

"I am a fan of boosting the nutritional potential of all meals; blending and pureeing vegetables in sauces, dips and smoothies is a great way to do that.  However, I caution parents from doing only that in order to get plant-based foods in their child's diet.  We want to raise our children to consciously make better decisions on their own when we are not around, so it is critical that they experience those individual foods in obvious ways starting when they're very young. Show the color on the plate!  We know that if you do that, they are more likely to balance their plates in a similar way when they are away from home given the choice. Hiding the foods does not teach them to choose power foods.  This works very well for my daughter and my son. They have very different flavor palates. Although one is more initially accepting than the other, repeated exposure presented in a variety of ways continues to expand their food preferences."

~Angela Lemond, Pediatric and Family Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and mother of two kids, ages 10 and 7.

"I do not like to "hide" vegetables in the food I cook for my children. However, I do use vegetables to naturally boost the flavor of many dishes my kids enjoy like soups, chili and Mexican fare (hello salsa!). If my child asks if vegetables were used, I answer honestly. But I also explain why and how they are used. I try to get my kids involved in the cooking process and allow them to choose healthy recipes from cookbooks so they gain a full understanding of how a dish is created."

~ Toby Amidor, MS, RD, author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen and mother of 3 kids, ages 11, 9 and 7.

"Yes, I think hiding veggies in baked goods is great...zucchini bread anyone? My kids are all grown now, but I never had any qualms about hiding healthy food so it gets into their bodies!"

~Janet Brill, PhD, RD, author of Blood Pressure Down and mother of three kids, ages 26, 24 and 18.

What do you think? Should you sneak in veggies or is it a bad idea?

Image of chocolate cake and carrots via shutterstock.

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