My mother called me the other day to tell me about a book she had seen promoted on a popular talk show. The book was about how to puree vegetables and put them into things like brownies so that your kids end up eating their vegetables without even suspecting it. The poor woman had no idea that she had just reached me in the middle of an insanely hectic day where I was attempting to squish three days’ worth of “to-do’s” into one afternoon. To say the least, the very thought of trying to puree vegetables so that I could “sneak” them into my child’s diet was overwhelming.
Since then, I’ve received questions from likewise overwhelmed parents on the subject, usually laced with anxiety. Typically they sound like this: “I have a hard time getting my child to eat anything green – do I have to try to sneak it in?”
Here’s my answer to these parents. If you like cooking, and the thought of tinkering with a recipe that calls for pureed squash cleverly hidden in macaroni and cheese, by all means go for it. But, don’t lose sight of what we are really trying to do when we feed children – we are trying to raise them to be capable eaters, who have been exposed to a variety of foods over and over, and who do not freak out at the sight of an asparagus spear on their plate. Hide the broccoli inside of the brownie if you must, but please keep on serving plain old broccoli on the side. It’s the only way a child will learn to co-exist with broccoli, at the least, and also the only way the child may learn to like broccoli.
I like to refer parents to the research of Ellyn Satter, which shows that children do best when adults pay attention to the Divisions of Responsibility: the adult decides what, when, and where food is served, and children decide how much to eat of what is served. In other words, it is our job as parents to get the vegetable to the table. It is the kiddo’s job to eat the vegetable, and that may take time. Kids sometimes need to be exposed to a food item many, many times before they actually eat it. Luckily, Ms. Satter’s research also shows that kids grow just fine, in fact optimally, when fed this way. When we get too pushy, it can tend to backfire and cause power struggles at the dinner table. This in turn can lead to even more food refusal or sometimes overeating in the child.
So, go ahead and try that intriguing recipe that mixes prunes into the meatloaf; but, if you feel like you are suddenly a slave to the kitchen, trying to sneak in your kid’s nutrition, remember that what really benefits kids is to sit down to a family meal with real, basic food and happy caregivers.