Now, before you throw your kale and brownie mix-covered whisk at me, hear me out! I understand why hiding veggies seems like a good idea, and I have even recommended it to families in rare circumstances and with specific guidelines. Of course, for a child who is severely nutrient deficient, you are going to get whatever you can into their tummies to keep them healthy and growing. But...we all know it’s a band-aid. It fixes the issue without addressing the underlying problem. Here are my main reasons for avoiding hiding veggies, both with my clients and my own kids:
Reason number 1: Hiding veggies keeps veggies the enemy. You may know that little Leo eats pureed sweet potatoes every afternoon, mixed into his applesauce (exactly one tablespoon to a single serving cup, otherwise the color may change too much and then he’ll surely reject it), but to Leo, he still very much despises anything sweet potato (maybe even anything orange for that matter). When he turns up his nose at a perfectly delicious sweet potato fry, part of you wants to exclaim: “HA!! GOTCHA!! You’ve been eating sweet potatoes on the daily for 2 months now, and you didn’t even know it! See?...SEE?? You love sweet potatoes! Eat the fry---you’ll love it!” But the other part of you (the part that always wins out) bites your tongue, because you know that in a single statement, the jig might be up for your little applesauce-sweet potato concoction. Sigh.
Even though some (maybe a lot of) veggie rejection is to be expected, a big part of getting your kids to eat vegetables is in the delivery. If you treat veggies like a dirty little secret because you’re afraid of rejection, your child is going to view the foods that come out of the dirt as different from, say, the foods that come out of a crinkly foil bag. He will continue to espouse his hatred of greens for days, months, maybe years. It becomes the standard for approaching all new food items. The child expects that the veggie is something that he or she is going to dislike, before they even taste it. And then they don’t even taste it. And then you get frustrated and stop offering veggies at dinner. Which brings me to my second point…
Reason number 2: When you hide veggies, you lose motivation to present them in traditional ways. Suddenly, trying to get Ella to eat the eggplant parmesan you made for the rest of the family doesn’t seem like as big of a deal when you have her separate mac and cheese with carrots blended in. She’s getting better nutrition, and there are no tears or negotiations involved! However, this effectively removes all possibility of exposure to veggies where the child actually has the opportunity to build a positive relationship with the foods. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right? She learns that it is normal for her to have a separate meal, and understands right away that there are no expectations that she will try the veggies.
This differentiation from what the rest of the family does may even become a source of pride and thought of as a personality trait of sorts: “Yep, I’m the picky eater. I ALWAYS have to have something different to eat!” As her last positive experience with a vegetable grows more and more distant, the idea that vegetables are different (and worse) than other foods grows. The likelihood that she will accept a bite of zucchini on the fly grows less and less likely. As she gets older, it may be difficult to hide veggies with meals at school, restaurants, etc. Plus, an older and more observant child may soon start to notice that they prefer the chicken nuggets at school that don’t have….wait, is that a green chunk in my nugget??? GROSS! Get these off of my plate! Never again, Mom, Never. Again.
Bringing me to my last and most important point. I promise you, I see this issue to some degree with almost all of the families I start working with. What's that saying about good intentions?
Reason number 3: Hiding veggies breaks trust with your child. There can be desperate times for a parent struggling with a picky eater who eschews all things veggie. Why not just hide a little spoonful of strained peas under a larger scoop of yogurt? Well, because it works for about two bites, and then little Brady gives you a look as if you've just killed his puppy, and refuses all additional bites. Oops, and now he’s refusing to eat the yogurt minus the peas too. “But look, this is JUST the yogurt!” you say. Might as well add, “...not those yucky disgusting peas that I tried to sneak into your mouth five seconds ago!” (which is what he is thinking). Now, he doesn’t trust you, and another event has occurred which supports the idea of veggies=bad.
Misrepresenting food really does you no favors in the long run. You may think that you can get by with calling a white fish “chicken” or a raspberry yogurt “strawberry” and nobody will be the wiser, but kids figure this stuff out! They learn to approach meals with suspicion, and will be less likely to trust you when you say, “this corn on the cob tastes really sweet and delicious. Just try one bite, and if you don’t like it, maybe you can try again another day.” When kids trust their parents at mealtimes, just that element alone can do absolute wonders for increasing acceptance of vegetables and other food variety. But that means having complete transparency about what is on the plate. When you hide veggies, you may occasionally get some more nutritious meals, but the relationship with veggies remains unchanged. Plus, you miss out on those wonderful opportunities for your child to try the broccoli again, but this time have that a-ha moment that they actually like it!
Again, I will restate that I do understand that there are some situations where adding veggies to a recipe can be an appropriate and non-deceptive way to broaden a child’s variety; that's not really what I'm addressing here. Also, I know that some kids are in such dire need for nutrition that those super sweet fruity pouches (plus spinach though!) really do have an important role in a child’s daily intake. My point here is that for many kids, hiding veggies wins you the battle but loses the war. As the primary or only means for getting in the veggies, it is not ideal and can cause more issues than it’s worth.
My most general advice on this topic (as all kids are different) is to normalize veggies from the earliest point possible. As soon as your child is ready to start finger foods (maybe 8 months or so?) present soft bits of veggie to finger feed or larger strips of raw vegetable to gnaw on (cucumber is a favorite of my littlest one). And never stop presenting veggies, even if you feel like you’re not seeing success most days. Your child is going through a picky phase? Fine. Regardless, veggies stay present at the meals, as it is part of what the family eats. For an older child, take the plunge and show him or her how you make that favorite meal that actually contains hidden veggies. Don’t be afraid; be confident (or fake it)! Allow them to serve their own portions of the foods you prepare, with the rule that they have to put at least a little of everything on their plate. Let veggies play a role in their daily lives, and you will see growth!
Until next time,