Parents seek ways to make kids eat vegetables

Special to The Times

Susan Phillips’ 4-year-old son Alex eats vegetables every day -- he just doesn’t know it. Phillips purées his servings of green beans, spinach, sweet potatoes and squash and hides them in a peanut butter and brown sugar-sweetened porridge that she makes for him each morning.

Without the deception, she says, Alex would eat no vegetables and very little fruit. His resistance is so strong that she has pretty much stopped putting them on his plate and requiring him to take a taste.

“I didn’t want to get into big battles over food,” says the Los Angeles-based environmental science professor. “Peanut butter hides the flavor of almost everything.”


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. Lapine advocates mixing jars of vegetable baby food into soups and sauces if parents don’t have time to cook and mash produce themselves.

A mother of a picky eater with multiple food allergies, Lapine said hiding foods was a last resort for her, but it “should have been the first and predominant method” all along. She still believes in putting vegetables on the plate, she just wants to take pressure off guilt-ridden parents. “The people who tell me ‘You shouldn’t be doing this’ have never reasoned with a 2-year-old,” she says. “We don’t have the time and luxury to wait until they get on board.”

Parents have reason to be concerned about their kids’ eating habits. The gap between what U.S. children eat and what the government advises is wide, says Tom Baranowski, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine’s Children’s Nutrition Research Center. According to a survey he published in 1997, most kids get only about a half-cup each of fruit and vegetables a day. Potatoes (including French fries) counted as vegetables in that study. The 2005 government food pyramid urges kids to eat 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and 1 1/2 cups of fruit a day.

Food makers have seized on this shortfall, marketing products that promise hidden helpings of fruits and vegetables, or at least the key nutrients they contain. Kidz Superfoods chocolate milk powder proclaims it delivers “the antioxidant equivalent of three servings of fruits and vegetables” from 33 fruit and vegetable powders. Campbell Soup Co.'s V8 V- Fusion delivers one serving of vegetables in 8 ounces of juice.

Green Giant’s Giant Bites look like chicken nuggets but are filled with bits of broccoli and cheese, corn and butter, or broccoli and cauliflower. And Frito-Lay boasts a half-serving of fruits and vegetables in its Flat Earth chips.

One company, Vancouver, B.C.-based Bobobaby, recently launched an entire product line around hidden vegetables, including cookies, pancake mix, even frozen meals laced with carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and a little squash.

But many processed products are a poor substitute for actual vegetables, Crawford says, offering a big dose of salt, sugar and preservatives along with the hidden greens.

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. A 3/4 -cup serving of green beans, by comparison, has 25 calories, no fat or sodium and only 2 grams of sugar.

Some of the homemade recipes in the books are not much better. Rochester, N.Y., mom Nicole Lehner, a fan of Seinfeld’s book, said even she was shocked at one recipe that called for a cup of powdered sugar in a chocolate avocado pudding. “If you are going to give your kid that much sugar to get the avocado in, aren’t you negating the [healthy] effect?”

Children develop tastes largely on the food most available to them, says Dr. Jennifer Orlet Fisher, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. “These foods need to be in the home and not just in the home occasionally, but on a regular basis.”

Sugary and salty tastes are certainly the most immediately appealing to kids and adults, Fisher says. But in a 1990 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, familiarity trumped both. On 15 occasions, a group of 39 preschool-age children were given tofu -- a new food to them -- laced with sugar or salt or served plain. Initially wary, they soon learned to like whichever they were offered most frequently. Eventually, they came to dislike the other versions, simply because the others were different.

“We do know that repeated exposure to . . . foods does lead them -- when they are a bit older -- to accept them and like them, even if they don’t eat them initially,” says study lead author Leann Birch, professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University, who has researched nutrition and behavior in children for more than 30 years.

Indeed, in her landmark 1982 study, “I Don’t Like It, I’ve Never Tried It,” published in the journal Appetite, it took 14 preschool children as many as 10 tastes over a period of weeks before they embraced a new food -- in this case, unfamiliar cheeses or fruits. The foods the kids tasted most often were the ones they most preferred.

Yet, Birch says, most parents give up on introducing a vegetable long before they’ve offered it to a kid 10 times. If they would only persist in getting their tots to taste a few vegetables a couple of times a week, Birch says -- even if their picky eater ends up just licking them or spitting them out -- it would help them develop a greater affinity for the stuff.

But let’s face it: some kids are very picky eaters. Thus, Birch says, it might make sense to combine two approaches: sneak vegetables in while still putting them front-and-center on a child’s plate.

Rochester mom Lehner still puts vegetables in front of her 4-year-old, Julian. But because he is underweight and takes such tiny bites of healthful foods it’s like “splitting the atom,” she still sneaks puréed broccoli in chicken nuggets and spinach in blueberry smoothies. And she doesn’t feel guilty.

“Whenever I see [my kids] eat a grilled cheese that is half squash and half cheese,” she says, “I rub my hands maniacally.”

For tips on encouraging children to eat greens, and to read one mother’s attempt to train her kids’ palates, click here.