Lie to Your Children—It’s Good for Them

The terribly wrong message sent by Jessica Seinfeld and Missy Chase Lapine.

While most literary sleuths are busy trying to discern whether and how Jessica (Mrs. Jerry) Seinfeld plagiarized recipes from a similar cookbook by Missy Chase Lapine, I say: a plague on both their houses. Both propose a culinary scheme that is, basically, totally stupid, to say nothing of dishonest. Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious and Lapine’s The Sneaky Chef advocate tricking kids into eating their fruits and, mostly, their veggies by pureeing them and oozing them into acknowledged goodies. Think mushes of cauliflower, squash, spinach, and avocado leaked into brownies, chocolate pudding, lasagna, macaroni and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Even hot cocoa, to which Seinfeld wants you to add mashed sweet potatoes; Lapine advises cherry juice.

The twin major flaws in this faulty reasoning, are that, first, children get the wrong message that sweets and starches are good for them. After all, if you tell your offspring to stop eating brownies, he might not get enough iron via spinach. With the dangerous rise of childhood obesity and diabetes, do we really want to encourage the eating of sugars and starches? And, ultimately, and more seriously perhaps, lying to children via trickery—even “for their own good”—can feed a lifetime of distrust, as it should. I wonder how these undercover mothers keep their secrets. Are children locked out of the kitchens at cooking time, lest they see Mommy slipping pureed zucchini into their beloved mac ‘n’ cheese?

A second problem raised by this hide-the-veggies duo is the invisibility of vegetables in their own recognizable forms. As a result, children are not afforded the opportunity to get used to the idea of trying and learning about them. Nor will they consider them necessary for good health. I’ll admit that getting a kid to down peas, string beans, or broccoli that he or she hates can be a discouraging chore. In this I speak from experience as the mother of a son who, until about the age of 14, hated all vegetables, except potatoes, corn, and raw carrot sticks and who once declared that the only edible green food was green noodles. Deciding not to turn every meal into a contest, I began only offering him small portions of those he liked, along with peeled, sliced pears, apples, peaches, and other seasonal fruits that he substituted for veggies.

Another great favorite with him—as with most children I know—was authentic (no funny business) olive-oil-based Italian tomato sauce, either with or without meat. Simmered with onion, finely diced carrot, and garlic that disappeared into an amalgam in the cooking, combined with a generous tossing of minced Italian parsley added in the last few seconds, that sauce gave him considerable vegetable credits. And I did not always serve this over starchy pasta, but ladled it over meatballs, chicken, fish, or finally, as it is often served in southern Italy, over broccoli, the first green vegetable I remember him eating—and liking—until one magical day he suddenly seemed to like almost all.

Therein lies a solution no more demanding than what is required in either of these stealth cookbooks—namely, coming up with recipes that don’t force vegetables to masquerade as treats, presenting them in forms that appeal to young palates. Instead of compromising lasagna, or tuna fish, or mashed potatoes with strongly flavored cauliflower, why not Japanese tempura or Italian fritto misto versions of cauliflower florets and other cut-up vegetables? Kids seem to love anything fried and crisp; fortunately, careful, quick frying at the right temperature in light vegetable oil minimizes the health dangers of that cooking method. (A thought: Given the overpowering flavor and aroma of cauliflower, any kid who can’t tell it lurks in macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes may have a sensory development problem worth looking into.)

Both of these books also suggest what seems to be unnecessary trickery, most notably with sweet potatoes. Never have I fed a child who didn’t love them, whether baked and dabbed with butter and salt, or lightly candied with an orange juice-honey glaze, or, since we are talking sweet, under a mantle of melting marshmallows as an annual Thanksgiving treat. Why have them muck up grilled cheese sandwiches, as both authors recommend, or, even worse, add a yuck factor to hot cocoa?

In the end, I suppose one has to ask an even more basic question: Do vegetables treated as prescribed and in the amounts indicated by Seinfeld-the-Deceptive and Lapine-the-Sneak really add enough nutrients to a child’s diet to make the plotting and pureeing worthwhile? How valuable can one half-cup of spinach puree and one half-cup of carrot puree be when they are first cooked, then are again subjected to the heat of baking, finally to be divided among 12 brownies? And can there be any meaningful nutrition from a quarter-cup each of carrot and sweet potato puree divided amongst 10 portions of soup?

To answer this, I sought the advice of Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and the author of What To Eat. “Philosophically and practically, this is not really an effective approach,” she said. “It will not develop an appreciation of the flavors, textures, and interests of various vegetables, which is what you should try to do by introducing them over and over again until they catch on.”                           

As to the nutritional worth of such cooked and recooked vegetables, in miniscule amounts, Dr. Nestle first chuckled wildly and then answered, “All you can do is laugh.”