Is There Spinach In Your Brownies?

There are two sides to every story, especially when parenting strategies enter the picture.  And most of the time, each side is fueled by passion and the sense that they are right. And the other is wrong.

Several years ago, there was a huge buzz about two books that were published almost simultaneously: Deceptively Delicious and The Sneaky Chef.  Both talked about how parents can amplify the nutrition in the foods they feed to their children by including purees of veggies or beans.

Let’s talk about both sides of this story.

Why Parents Hide Veggies in Their Kids’ Food

Clearly, the main reason that parents are sneaky in the kitchen is because they are fueled by concern for their child’s nutrition.  Pure and simple. But when all is said and done, that’s not the whole picture.

Girl eating pasta with vegetables

Eating Pasta Primavera that she made herself

Consequences of Hiding Ingredients from Our Children

The whole purpose of my business is to teach children how to enjoy good food.  That is achieved by complete transparency.  My students are involved in every step of recipe preparation, from organizing the ingredients to reading the recipe and assembling the finished product.  What does that mean? It means that I can’t pull a fast one.  They know what is in the food, and most of the time, they learn why.  Maybe it’s to add color, texture, or leavening.

When parents sneak ingredients into their kids’ food…

  • It suggests that you think that veggies aren’t likable and need to be hidden.  If something were delicious, why would you need to hide it?  I don’t see anyone sneaking cookies into the pasta sauce, do you?
  • It sets up your family for a lack of trust.  When they ask you what the green or orange flecks are, what will you say?
  • How will they learn if they actually like the flavor of the (green or orange) foods if they aren’t given the opportunity to eat then separately, prepared in a delicious way?
  • Parents have to put in more effort in the kitchen.  Not only do they have to make meals for the family, they have to take the time to puree or chop all of the veggies as well.  Who has time for that?
  • The purees don’t go a long way.  There may only be a teaspoon (or less!) of the vegetable puree in each serving.  So, what’s the point?
  • It can become confusing to children when suddenly their parents are encouraging them to eat the brownies (because they contain spinach). What about the brownies at the cafe or at little Samantha’s house?  The same is true for chicken nuggets dipped in cauliflower puree – why is it okay if I eat them at home but not at the drive-thru?
  • My friend Christina writes about this issue on her blog, and it is probably the best article I have seen on the topic. Check it out: Spoonfed – Raising Kids to Think About the Food They Eat

When Adding Ingredients Isn’t Sneaky At All…It’s Just Cooking.

Sometimes, recipes call for a variety of ingredients, and the process isn’t deceptive at all.  Take my grandmother’s spaghetti gravy, for example. It is filled with carrots, onions and celery, but nobody raises an eyebrow when I prepare it.  Why? Because the kids see the ingredients as the meal is being prepared, and know that each item is part of the recipe to contribute flavor and nutrition.  One of our favorite recipes is a home-made macaroni and cheese that contains pureed winter squash.  My daughter loved the flavor combination so much, she renamed it Squash-A-Roni and Cheese.

My friend Jamie Smith is the food service director in Santa Cruz, California.  He uses a strategy that he calls “stealth health” in the meals that he prepares for the students.  Here is what he has to say on the subject,

I make “alfredo” sauce by thickening low fat milk with cooked oatmeal and pureeing it until smooth. What is a fruit smoothie, if not whole fruit in a convenient disguise? Chopped veggies in meatloaf is traditional, not hiding.

Girl with veggies from the garden

My daughter with produce from our garden

Regardless of your stance on this issue, I think we can all agree that it is best to model good eating behavior for our children.  By including our kids in the kitchen and in the meal selection for our families, we can teach them to enjoy veggies, out in the open, without apologizing for their presence or worse, hiding them altogether.

Sneaking aside, what’s your favorite approach for encouraging your children to try new foods?

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14 Responses to Is There Spinach In Your Brownies?

  1. Mindy says:

    I’ve never hidden anything in the food I make. Maybe it’s because my parents did it to me once, and I never trusted them again, or maybe it’s because I respect my kids’ opinions on food. I admit that I’m very, very lucky to have two kids who will eat almost anything, but I hope that part of that comes from how my husband and I have approached food. There are things that my daughter doesn’t like to eat, but I don’t change our family’s eating habits just because of that. She knows that she has to eat a little bit of everything, even if she doesn’t like it. And every once in a while, her taste buds have changed, and she ends up loving something she hated last time.

    I also involve my daughter in helping pick meals and vegetables. She will go with me to the Farmer’s Market and taste what we’re considering buying. The farmers love it, and I get buy in from her. I let her taste everything she asks to taste–including spices and herbs and things I wouldn’t want to taste on their own. I never say, “You won’t like it.” And it helps that my husband and I get excited about what we’re going to eat. This doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle at some meals, but it does mean that we’re raising our kids to try new things without discouragement or artifice on our parts.

  2. Gina says:

    I don’t hide anything from my kids either, for all the reasons you outlined above, as well as the practical matter. My kids are with me 90% of the times when I cook – they would certainly notice what I was doing.

    My favorite techniques for getting my older one (age 4.5) to try new foods (my younger one is 2 and is still in that blissful try and eat nearly everything stage) are:

    1) Put Parmesan cheese on it. He will eat try almost anything with Parmesan on it.
    2) Let him choose something new. He has been getting rather limited in the vegetables he will eat so last week I read off a long list of vegetables to him and asked him if he had ever had them. He couldn’t remember ever having beets, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, or kale so we made a plan to go the farmer’s market and let him pick some out to try.
    3) Let him help in the growing/preparation/cooking. We have the knives you referenced in an earlier post and he is getting quite good at using them. He is much more likely to at least try something that has had a hand in producing.

  3. Kelly says:

    I didn’t realize that deceptively sneaking veggies into food without ever giving the kids a chance to try them was a big issue. I wouldn’t ever necessarily “hide” veggies from my kids, but if they didn’t like them straight up I wouldn’t have a problem finding other ways to get them onto their plates. I don’t look at it as hiding vegetables as much as finding a more palatable way of serving it to kids. I guess I’ve been lucky that my kids like most vegetables, and my younger guy (11 now) will eat almost anything raw – he doesn’t even want dip!

  4. I do puree vegetables and fruit to put them into muffins. Of course, since my kids are working the food processor at the time, I’m pretty sure it’s no secret. Especially since I refer to the muffins as “chocolate-spinach muffins.”

  5. Tickled Red says:

    :D I’m always sneaking veggies into the monkeys food. Sometimes even some seafood. It’s the only way I can bypass those set in stone preconceived notions of theirs.

  6. I agree with being against hiding vegetable from your kids. I want my daughter to know what vegetables look like, where they some from and that they can taste great! The only place I “Hide” vegetables is in our morning smoothie, but she knows they are in there too! She helps me add carrots and kate along with strawberries and pineapple. I love that I am helping her to form life long healthy eating habbits!

  7. Fed up with double standards says:

    “It sets up your family for a lack of trust. When they ask you what the green or orange flecks are, what will you say?”

    What do you tell them when they ask about Santa Claus?

    It’s ok to lie about some things but not others I guess

    • Michelle Stern says:

      We are Jewish, so Santa isn’t a big issue for our family. I am honest if my kids ask me questions. Period. Maybe you can redirect your frustration on someone who is more inconsistent with their messaging than I am.

  8. Bridie says:

    When your child is nutritionally suffering due to fussiness I think it’s ok to do whatever you need to in order to get them to eat. If that means hiding food and “being deceptive” who cares?

  9. NIck says:

    you’ve been linked on tvtropes.

    I have a better solution to giggling about your deception to kids when they don’t like your vegetables: teach them how to cook. And I don’t mean “letting them have input” or “helping in the kitchen”, I mean “Mommy’s tired because she worked all day, sweetie. Can you help pick up the slack?”

    I’ve been that picky eater. Vegetables suck. I mostly soak them in lime or lemon to cover up the fact that they taste horrible. Other times I make bean soup or chicken vegetable soup, which have pretty much all the food groups. I also hate fruit, which has the distressing habit of making me hungrier after I eat it than before.

    Of course, this learning to cook process involved letting an eight-year-old operate the stove by themselves, but that’s turned into an eighteen-year-old who is now well-known for baking and cooking skill. idk, teach a kid to read the recipe, and you’ve got a kitchen minion. Why not just take an entire break and give the kid the recipe box?

  10. Olivia says:

    Honestly, my parents had to go the opposite way since my tastes were so sensitive. The peas/broccoli were always separate from the rest of the food (I don’t like most of my foods mixed even today, it causes taste overload). However, from age 3 to the present, my gag reflex will instantly force if it doesn’t like how something tastes. Pineapple, carrots, and tomatoes were all off the table early on thanks to that, so instead I have to work on less options in higher quantities (and broccoli was out for four years due to braces). I know which foods are better for me and try to eat those. It helps that I only drink milk, apple juice, and water (soda=ick!). Though right now I have to take vitamins since a jaw injury means none of the fruits I eat since the acid irritates the injury (I’m praying it’ll be gone soon–I miss bananas!)

  11. Glenn says:

    Speaking from a daughter’s perspective…
    My family actually had a lot of discussions on diet, food, and how to approach dinner, in large part because my sister decided to become a vegetarian and Mom was adamant that she would eat like a healthy vegetarian, but also because Mom liked trying new recipes, and we had an exploratory approach to food. Our parents told us funny stories about food and dining, (at a Chinese restaurant: ‘dufee? What’s dufee? Let’s order it,’ ‘Oh, dufee means duck feet’), perennial summer favorites included dishes such as Tabouli and Summer Salad, and my sister and I negotiated over which restaurant we went out to eat in; and by that I mean genuine, sit down and look over your menu restaurant, not fast food. As I grew older, Mom became an even more exploratory cook, trying recipes such as Peanut Soup, complicated Asian-inspired salads, kale, avocado sandwiches, and a bewildering variety of other dishes. The one and only iron-clad rule in the house was, ‘you have to try it before you decide you don’t like it,’ because Mom knew we wouldn’t like everything. If we didn’t like it, we would just say so, and we could get a nice, healthy omelet with cheese, onions, tomatoes, and olives.
    All of this was further enhanced by French classes, where celebrations included quiche, croissants, orangina, a wide variety of pastries, and my personal piéce de résistance, home-made French Onion Soup, made from scratch starting from the beef broth (which turned into my own hilarious story about food). In French culture, cuisine is considered an art form, and I learned to think of it as such.
    At this point, as a grown adult, I have no problem trying any dish or cuisine, and often agonize at restaurants over which new dish I should try (Ooh, noodle soup. Ooh, calamari and squid. Ooh, tamarind. Ooh, I have no idea how to pronounce this!). I cook my own meals, usually using at least four or more vegetables per meal – and usually using more. I have no qualms about learning new recipes or cuisines – I love Indian food, for the way you can play around with spices, and have been known to make my own garam masala from scratch, and Japanese food has a beautiful simplicity to it as well.
    And then I compare myself to my boyfriend, who likes to use pre-prepared food as a starting point and thinks fast food is okay for regular meals, or some of my room-mates, who don’t have the slightest idea how to cook for themselves, and I think, how lucky I was being raised in a family that thought food should be fun, light hearted, and explored. In short, speaking as a daughter, I am so, so glad that my mother thought to make so many different foods, and got me to try so many different things, because now, as an adult, I do know how to fend for myself in the kitchen, I know what’s healthy for me to eat, I know my way around the grocery store, and I can please friends and family alike with delicious home-cooked meals.
    As a parent, you can’t just think about now. Not all the time. Sooner or later, you’ll have to think about what you want for your children in the long run, after they’ve left the nest, and a consistent approach that emphasizes the joys of eating healthy instead of the televised fallacy that broccoli equals yuck is probably going to be better in the long run. To be honest, it’s probably a healthy approach to life in general.

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Thank you for sharing your food stories with us :-) It means a lot to hear from readers – especially when their family food histories are so interesting! xo

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