Sneaking Vegetables: is it ok?

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If you’re a parent of a child over the age of one, then I’m willing to bet you’ve hidden a bit of green or other goodness in your unsuspecting child’s meal at least once … if not several hundred times! Given how common fussy eating is amongst toddlers – affecting at least half of this age group according to some estimates – it’s no surprise that so many parents turn to clandestine tactics from time to time, sneaking broccoli into the bolognaise or cauliflower into the macaroni cheese. Although my son is generally a great eater, goodness knows I’ve done it myself plenty of times, with banana pancakes and zucchini meatballs being two household favourites.

The Upside
As a strategy, sneaking healthy foods that your child wouldn’t otherwise eat into his meals has a lot to recommend it. Firstly, it improves the nutritional content of the meal and, depending on what you’ve added, can provide an important boost of fibre and nutrients that your child might otherwise lack. Even a treat food, like cupcakes, can be quite nutritious when there’s grated carrot stirred through the mix and some crushed berries and almond meal stirred through the icing.
Secondly, it’s a perfect way of getting your child accustomed to a flavour he might otherwise turn his nose up at. Research reveals that children sometimes need to taste a particular ingredient at least a dozen times before they develop an acceptance of it. But many children reach the toddler years without having much exposure to certain ingredients and sneaking them into an otherwise loved meal can help you notch up those dozen tastes. For instance, my son is not keen on the quite peppery flavour of high-quality extra virgin olive oil (butter is his clear favourite!). So, I’ve been stirring it through his beloved pasta and rice, slowing increasing the amount I use, to give his palate a little lesson in olive oil appreciation.

The Downside
But – and it’s a big but – there is a downside to hiding foods in your child’s meal. One important way to minimise fussy eating is to build your child’s familiarity with as many ingredients as possible. A child who has never seen broccoli in its whole form and who’s only ever tasted it stirred through pasta sauce is not going to develop that familiarity. As a result, he’s going to be far less likely to pick up a floret and start munching on it. So, while you should feel free to puree and hide to your heart’s content, just include a side of broccoli too. Your child needs to learn what vegetables look like and how they taste in their whole form. He also needs to learn that veggies are a crucial part of most meals. By hiding and serving visible vegetables, you’re covering every base and ensuring the best health outcomes for your little one.

Nutrition + Taste Boosters … ideas to get you started

  • Breakfast bonus: if your child is keen on a commercial breakfast cereal try stirring through chia seeds, wheatgerm, puffed quinoa, ground LSA (linseeds, sunflower seeds and almonds) and a gentle spice like cinnamon. If he doesn’t like large pieces of fruit, try stirring through grated apple or pear. An egg-rich serve of French toast or crepes is great for those who aren’t keen egg eaters.
  • Liquid goodness: if your child will happily sip on a home-squeezed juice, slowly add some flavours he might not usually accept, such as beetroot in his orange juice, or a dash of ginger or mint in his apple juice. If your child isn’t keen on meat, try adding some silken tofu to his fruit smoothie – even a raw egg for an older child – for a protein boost.
  • Spaghetti sauce: for children who like a basic bolognaise, your options for adding extra goodness are virtually limitless. Zucchini, mushrooms, cauliflower, pumpkin, carrot … they can all be pureed and stirred through a pasta sauce. If your child eats mash or soup, both of those also make great vegetable-hiding options.
  • Baking boosters: most baked treats make the perfect vehicle for sneaking lots of healthiness including zucchini, beetroot, quinoa, pumpkin puree and mashed banana. Ground seed and nut mixes can also be stirred through most mixes, including pikelets.
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'What guides me is home cooking, listening to my appetite, using whole food ingredients, prioritising plant foods and keeping highly processed foods out of my kitchen.'