Healthy Food Advice Welcomed

June 24, 2008

This is a little off the beaten path, but it is most definitely health-related.

My 5-year-old niece visited for a sleepover this weekend, and despite being told that getting her to eat vegetables was pretty much impossible, I decided we’d make a build-your-own veggie burger.

She selected a black bean patty for the head; I chose a portobella cap. We both added carrot sticks for the arms and the legs, kale for the skirt or shorts, chopped garlic scapes for the eyes and nose, and a yellow tomato slice for the mouth.

Alexandra replaced the tomato with a ketchup smile, but then offered that the tomato would make an excellent hula-hoop. I smiled smugly. This meal thing was easy; all it took was a little creativity.

We took pictures (proof!). Then we started to eat. Or, rather, I ate.

Many parents and caregivers are probably familiar with what came next. Alexandra broke up pieces of the bun and dunked it in ketchup (“But it’s a vegetable, tia Christine!”). The body parts swirled around on the plate until they resembled a cubist painting.

Clearly I had no idea what I was up against.

After Alexandra left the next morning (following whole grain pancakes with blueberries, bananas, carob chips and a real chocolate chip or two — I was a pushover by 8 a.m.), I came across this L.A. Times story on the various methods used to get kids to eat vegetables, including pureeing veggies and hiding them in sweetened foods. Melinda Fulmer writes:

Everyone hopes that their kids will eat their fruits and vegetables so they’ll grow into big, strong adults who will eat the nine daily servings recommended by the U.S. government. But everyone also knows kids rarely put “broccoli” at the top of a list of favorite foods.

So an increasing number of parents are loading the foods their kids will eat with produce they think they should be getting. And food makers are lending a hand, offering a growing array of processed foods that sneak vegetables and fruits into chips, juice and nuggets.

But some nutritionists and public health experts wonder if parents these days are relying too much on the sneak attack. They doubt if kids will ever develop a taste for vegetables in all their leafy glory if they are hidden in smoothies and macaroni and cheese. Some say this well-intentioned sneaking could produce kids less likely — not more — to eat greens.

“Children should learn to make healthy choices,” says Pat Crawford, co-director of the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley. “It really comes down to whether we are feeding our children for nutrients, or for the potential development of healthy patterns that are lifelong.”

Many mothers say they were turned on to hiding vegetables in their kids’ foods by bestselling cookbooks such as Jessica Seinfeld’s “Deceptively Delicious” and Missy Chase Lapine’s “The Sneaky Chef.” Both offer kid-friendly recipes with hidden vegetable and fruit purées in such items as pizza and pasta.

Some of the big food companies that have entered the fray by including helpings of fruits and vegetables in everything from chips to pancake mix are also continuing to include sodium, fat and sugar in amounts that would seem to negate the health benefits. Consider, for instance, that “a 1-ounce, 130-calorie serving of Frito-Lay’s Tangy Tomato Ranch chips offers 210 milligrams of sodium, 3 grams of sugar and 5 grams of fat along with its half-serving of vegetables.”

I also visited a cool blog mentioned in the Times — Fresh Mouth, where a family of five had one mission: to eat only fresh food or processed food with 5 ingredients or less for 30 days. It takes some serious commitment, but Fresh Mouth also makes it seem fun.

So, dear readers, are any of you hiding vegetables in your kids’ meals? What other methods have worked for you?

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