I just did a tomato tasting for two of my kids’ classes at school. Although many of their classmates were trying and enjoying the different types of tomatoes — a range of fresh ones along with sauce salsa and roasted tomatoes — my picky-eating progeny refused to partake. I guess I don’t have to worry about them succumbing to peer pressure. But if “mom pressure” doesn’t work either how can I establish healthy eating habits in my kids while they’re young? When the direct approach doesn’t work is it okay to change tactics and hide vegetables in foods kids will actually eat?

To Hide or Not to Hide?

We all know the power of vegetables the crucial roles they play in healthy body functioning reducing inflammation and fighting disease. That’s why cookbooks filled with recipes that incorporate healthier foods surreptitiously — like pasta sauce made with sweet potatoes and coconut milk (no tomatoes) and brownies with hidden spinach and blueberries — seem like a gift from heaven for parents of picky eaters. The nutrients get into the kids without them noticing and everybody’s happy. Right?

Does It Work?

Opponents of this method say kids are too smart; they’re sure to notice if we sneak salad ingredients into their dessert. But one research study says otherwise.

It was conducted at Penn State under the auspices of Dr. Barbara Rolls. She’s a well-known nutrition researcher and author of several books on her “Volumetrics” diet. Forty kids at a day care center were fed a baked ziti-like dish made with pureed spinach and cauliflower as well as a snack cake with pureed zucchini. Not only didn’t they notice the vegetables some of the kids thought the modified versions tasted better than the originals. They ate about the same amount of them as they normally did too — not more or less.

Sneaking Around

I know what you’re thinking — my kid will never fall for it. But what if he does and then finds out later that you snuck vegetables into well-loved foods? Will it undermine the delicate parent-child trust not to mention reinforce the idea that vegetables are so awful Mommy has to hide them?

Dr. Rolls thinks not. It’s not really any different than subbing applesauce for some of the oil in a recipe or fortifying orange juice with calcium she told Parents magazine. You’re looking out for your kid’s best interest.

Also this shouldn’t be the only way you give your kids vegetables she urges. Think about it — if their entire veggie intake is a secret they won’t develop the healthy habits they need for life. Use this strategy sometimes when you really need it. The rest of the time continue to present vegetables at meals and snacks — raw cooked with a sauce dip or dressing cut into fun shapes topped on pizza — whatever it takes. As feeding expert and dietitian Ellyn Satter is wont to remind us your job is to provide the food while it’s your child’s job to decide what to eat and how much.

You also don’t need to go out of your way to make lots of vegetable-based desserts. These often include extra sugar the kids don’t need. However if you’re making dessert anyway perhaps you can incorporate a healthy add-in.

For Adults Too

Dr. Rolls and her team did a similar study on adults finding that they tended to eat a similar amount of food regardless of the content. When some of the volume of the dish was replaced with pureed vegetables for example they didn’t eat any more of it even though it was now lower in calories. The “veggified” food didn’t taste any worse participants said and they weren’t any hungrier despite taking in fewer calories.

This is the premise of Rolls’s diet plan Volumetrics which works to preserve the same volume of food at lower calorie intake. The way to do that is by choosing more foods that have a low energy density — such as crunchy carrots instead of chips — so you get a lot of food “bang” for your calorie “buck.” A number of studies show that eating this way can help people lose weight. (Originally featured in Family First Issue 548)