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Subterfuge To Fight Obesity
Wrong In Many Ways

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 13, 2008

We started our discussion of the concept of using deception to get children to eat vegetables with a piece entitled, Books About Getting Kids To Eat Veggies Sell Like Hotcakes While Authors Quarrel, which discussed the dispute between Jerry Seinfeld’s wife, Jessica Seinfeld, who is the author of “Deceptively Delicious,” and Missy Chase Levine, who wrote “The Sneaky Chef.

These books and many others, such as Chris Fisk’s “Sneaky Veggies: How to Get Vegetables Under the Radar & Into Your Family,” promote the practice of hiding healthy foods — especially vegetables — in foods children enjoy.

In the context of this discussion, we also ran Teaching Kids About Produce Is Better Than Sneaking Around, which highlighted a critique of the Seinfeld, Levine, Fisk genre by Raymond Sokolov author of A Canon of Vegetables: 101 Classic Recipes, among much else. Sokolov put the matter this way:

…you may wonder how the wee Lapines and Seinfelds are going to acquire their moms’ passion for the life-sustaining value of vegetables, if all bright-colored plant food in their homes is spirited secretly into meals and never discussed in a positive and straightforward way.

These women treat vegetables the way Victorian mothers treated sex, with silence. They also avoid another important lesson through tricky indirection. One of their tactics for infiltrating food with veggies is to mix vegetables into desserts and other sweetened foods. But does concealing zucchini puree in oatmeal raisin cookies (Seinfeld) or “purple purée,” spinach and blueberries, in chocolate cookies do anything to wean sweet-toothed little ones from sugar? Even if allegedly less harmful brown sugar is substituted for white?

In the end, Sokolov rejects the idea of deception and urges transparency:

So what do I recommend? Culinary transparency. No sneaking around. Serve as much real food as your schedule permits, and use each dish as a gentle advertisement for adult taste. With many children, this approach will work right away. Pork and beans is an honest and unfrightening alternative to nursery food that’s been anonymously vaccinated with white-bean purée.

Mashed potatoes mixed with cauliflower or celery-root purée is grown-up food, but it is also childproof white. Children old enough to help out in the kitchen can be taught how it is made and why the different tastes and consistencies make for a pleasingly diverse food life.

Vegetable styling and photograph by Brent Hale.
Photo courtesy of Wondertime.

Now in a piece in Wondertime magazine, Catherine Newman (no relation to the actor Paul Newman), an author well known for chronicling her life raising her two children, Ben and Abigail aka Birdy, in magazine articles, online and in a book: Waiting for Birdy — A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family, sides with Sokolov in the debate:

…you want to Houdini some chickpeas into your child’s birthday cake? You want to fold a Hubbard squash discreetly into her baked Alaska? Be my guest. I’m just saying — don’t come crying to me when she’s all grown up, sending her asparagus back to the chef to please be turned into a whoopie pie.

…As a person who has offered my children such cheerfully bogus choices as, “The fancy toothpaste or the yummy toothpaste?” I don’t have an ethical problem with guerrilla nutrition. I have a practical one: Sneaking wholesome purées into your children’s food may acquaint their bodies with valuable vitamins, fiber, and phytonutrients, but it does not acquaint their palates with vegetables’, well, vegetableness. How will they ever learn to like vegetables if the vegetables are always — to quote The Godfather — disappeared?

Ms. Newman also questions how much such techniques actually enhance nutrition:

This is to say nothing of the fact that the method often calls for vegetable portions best suited to the nutritional requirements of Thumbelina. A quarter cup of mashed cauliflower lurking in a dish that serves eight — isn’t that, like, a teaspoon per serving? If I’m feeding my kids a mere teaspoon of cauliflower, I’m just going to make them choke it down off the actual spoon like medicine. I don’t really have time to be whisking it into a lemon meringue tartlet.

In the end, she proposes a solution out of step with our “instant gratification” society:

But my real solution? Honestly? You’re going to hate me because this is not a quick fix in a freezer bag or the key buried in a sloppy joe. It’s patience. I put kale on his plate and put kale on his plate and put kale on his plate, and my son tried it and grimaced and we praised him for trying it and pages flew off the calendar and his beard grew down to the floor, and then one day he ate it without comment. And then one day he ate it and said, “This is actually not as bad as I thought!” After which a pair of bluebirds draped around my shoulders the very banner of joy.

The idea is to be more Pollyanna than Baby Jane. We always thank the children graciously for trying, even if their eyes are rolling wildly around like a frightened calf’s. We teach them to say, “This might be a little strong for me,” rather than “Ugh.” We make a big, cheerful fuss about their dislikes (“Wow, you really hate mushrooms!”) with the idea of containing them — like, “Hey, it’s fine, everyone has one kind of vegetable they won’t eat!” We remind them that people change (“Remember how you didn’t like poached eggs and then did?”). And finally, we hoot and clap and release the doves when they venture that they might actually like it after all.

Tedious, right? I mean, here’s your child who’s put everything in her mouth from a dust bunny to a ceramic cat, and now you’re stuck cajoling her over a carrot stick. Fret not! There are lots of ways to make vegetables more appealing. I believe that vegetables can be lavished and adorned — by butter and cheese, by garlic and olive oil, by bacon (what better way to get your kids to eat vegetables than meat?). And maybe you’re thinking cholesterol and you’re worrying fat — but honestly, it will be easier in the end to wean the butter gradually out of the squash than to try to get the squash out of the cupcake, if you know what I mean.

We confess that when this trend hit, we were tempted by the thought that the diets of children could be improved dramatically — and sales of produce boosted — by this idea of sneaking purees of vegetables into every item.

If we drop the subterfuge, it actually seems like a good idea for everyone — not just children. For example, if brownies can be made marginally healthier without any loss of flavor or taste, then why not do so? As long as they are not sold as “health foods,” there is no downside.

But as some sort of strategy to help children, The Seinfeld et al approach strikes us as a double-failure. On the one hand, as a short term nutritional approach the teeny amount of vegetables snuck into the diet through this approach will be insufficient, and if we start encouraging eating three ounces of chocolate and sugar so the child can get a dollop of pureed vegetable in the brownie, the end result is more likely to be obesity than it is a healthy diet.

It is also and more importantly a failure of the parental obligation to teach. That is really what both Sokolov and Newman are saying. We owe it to our children to expose them to many things which they are not fully ready to appreciate.

That is why we discuss the Presidential elections with children; it is why the Jr. Pundits always come with Mom and Dad to see us vote, and it is why we shouldn’t hide the importance of vegetables but insist on making them obvious, making them available and explaining the good they do.

In the course of this discussion, we ran a letter under the title, Pundit’s Mailbag — Tips On Getting Kids To Eat Produce…But Watch Out For The Butter! In this letter, an industry member — and a mom — explained that she had found it was necessary to introduce an item 12 to 15 times before children accepted many new items. She also confessed to sometimes telling the children that what she has cooked is, in fact, all that is available for dinner.

We confess that we are a bit skeptical of the idea that children have changed so much that they must now be fed by subterfuge to avoid obesity. Far more likely is that this whole trend derives from changes in the culture that both makes many parents hysterical at their children “underperforming” in any measure — including diet — while also making parents unwilling — because they lack the intestinal fortitude — or unable — because they are away working — to enforce tough standards.

This seems like a problem far more concerning than a shortage of cauliflower in the diets of children.

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