Parents should use caution ‘fooling’ kids to eat right

Parents rarely need to coax their kids to have ice cream. But they frequently cajole, plead, bargain, bribe and even threaten to get them to eat more vegetables, fruit and other nutritious fare.

Now there’s another approach: Sneak it in.

And while it’s certainly appealing to anxious parents, many experts don’t think it is such a great idea.

“Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food,” by Jessica Seinfeld (Collins, $24.95), is the latest tome to advocate stealth nutrition for kids. As the mother of three young children — two of them picky eaters — Seinfeld, the wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, writes that frequent family fights over food led her to resort to “loving deception.”

Her culinary epiphany occurred when she realized that the orange hue of the macaroni and cheese she was cooking for her older children matched the color of the butternut squash she was pureeing for her baby.

“I had the crazy idea of stirring in a little of the puree into the macaroni,” Seinfeld writes. “The texture was perfect, so I stirred in a little more, testing to make sure that the flavor didn’t overpower the macaroni. Feeling only a little guilty that I was tricking my children, I stirred in enough of the squash to feel satisfied that I was giving them a respectable portion of vegetables.”

Her kids were “totally innocent of my deceit,” notes Seinfeld, who says the dish marked the end to all the harping.

From there, she learned how to slip other nutritional “mickeys” into her children’s favorite dishes. Among her commando nutritional tactics: cauliflower hidden in mozzarella sticks, butternut squash in quesadillas, zucchini and banana in oatmeal raisin cookies, carrots in deviled eggs, and beets as a secret ingredient in chocolate cake. “The whole family is happier,” Seinfeld writes, “and we can finally enjoy mealtimes again.”

This stealth approach also works for Missy Chase Lapine, author of “The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals” (Running Press, 2007). Lapine’s first child, Emily, began life as an adventurous and willing eater who, as a toddler, gobbled caviar. Not so for Lapine’s second daughter, Samantha, a picky eater who also had a strong gag reflex.

Soon, Emily balked at the same foods that her sister refused. To keep the peace at family dinners, Lapine resorted to preparing one meal for herself and her husband; another for her daughters.

When this strategy became too tiring, Lapine figured out how to sneak healthier ingredients into her daughters’ meals. Her guerrilla chef tactics also work for adults, as Lapine notes in her forthcoming “The Sneaky Chef: How to Cheat on Your Man (In the Kitchen!) — Hiding Healthy Foods in Hearty Meals Any Guy Will Love.” The whole family can now be fooled into consuming better fare.

Should you resort to tricking your loved ones to eat more nutritiously?

Adding a little sugar to make foul-tasting medicine easier to swallow is a well-known practice that even Mary Poppins used. But when it comes to food, this tactic can send the wrong message.

“Betrayed” is how registered dietitian and therapist Ellyn Satter puts it. “Kids are smart,” says Satter, author of “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense” (Bull, 2000). “They’ll figure it out. And when they do, they not only feel betrayed but patronized.”

Besides, your kids may think if Mom pulls a fast one at the dinner table, what else might she do?

Slipping bean paste into the pizza sauce can boost nutritional value a little, says David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life program at Children’s Hospital in Boston. But it also conveys “that vegetables have to be hidden and mixed with large amounts of fat and sugar to be edible.”

The sneaky approach also risks hindering the natural development of a child’s taste buds. Acceptance of new foods is literally an acquired taste. Babies prefer sweet, salty and fatty flavors because they represent the prime ingredients in breast milk. Infants also have an innate protective reflex against other tastes that may help guard them against toxic substances when they are most vulnerable.

Taste buds mature — if kids are exposed to a variety of foods. Serve just the kid-friendly, basic flavors and you risk keeping kids’ “taste preferences in their most primitive state,” Ludwig says. Studies show that it takes an average of 10 tries for a child to willingly accept a new food.

That’s why you can find dinner-table detente by offering your kids a wide variety of foods. And even better, sit down and eat along with them.

Join Sally Squires online from 10 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays at, where you also can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club weekly e-mail newsletter.

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