What if hidden veggie recipes caused more harm than good for kids eating? Find out what you can do instead to help teach your kid to enjoy vegetables throughout their whole life without making picky eating any worse than it already is.
Long before I had children of my own, I was a young occupational therapist desperately looking to help my swelling caseload of picky eaters. I was an Oprah junkie back then and leaned forward when she announced how her next guest got her kids to eat tons of veggies by hiding them in their food.
I admit, I was a little skeptical, it sounded too good to be true, but I didn’t have much “picky eating” experience at that point and I wanted to hear more.
The guest came on and described how she spent a few hours each week – AFTER THE KIDS WENT TO BED – cooking and pureeing vegetables and organizing them into Ziploc bags for use throughout the week. She shared that this was top secret and her kids literally had no idea. I appreciated her ingenuity, but I didn’t love the idea of hours of secretive prep work.
Something in my gut was telling me that this wasn’t the way, but I still shared the idea with a few families I was working with as an option to experiment with.
And, mostly, the result was that it didn’t work. As the years passed and I got a lot more experience and education helping picky eaters, I learned that hidden veggie recipes can actually make a picky eater’s eating worse, but there’s a way to take the original idea and use it to help your kids eat those fruits and veggies they’re avoiding.
Why Hidden Veggie Recipes for Your Kid is a Mistake
I’m going to sum up why using hidden veggies in your kids food is a mistake in one word: Distrust.
While many kids, toddlers through the age of 5, go through a typical phase of picky eating, some of them are really struggling with food. They may eat less than 20 foods total, only eat specific brands, or gag when a new food is on their plate. This is beyond the realm of typical eating and is referred to as extreme picky eating.
And, if you’ve got a kid that’s an extreme picky eater, you will have to be Houdini if you think you’re going to slide a cup of pureed cauliflower into their favorite mac and cheese that they eat every single day.
These kids and many average picky eaters are already on guard. They’re nervous about their food and what it’s going to taste like because they don’t want to have an unpleasant experience.
If you put down a plate with a hidden veggie recipe and convince them it’s the same as always and they try it and notice the difference, then they’re likely going to refuse to eat it and will not trust you when it comes to a new food again. As a parent, this is a hard place to be in and it takes time to earn that trust back. Not to mention, they may NEVER touch that former favorite food again and now the list of what they’ll eat is even smaller.
But, here’s the other thing, and this I believe with all my heart, no matter how hard it is to get my kids eating and enjoying vegetables, I’d rather teach them a way to appreciate veggies on their own free will.
Does this take more time?
Yes, of course it does, but it’s worth it. Because, when we’re honest with our kids, they trust us more and are more willing to try new foods as a result. And, because they didn’t learn how to enjoy vegetables as a child, they may not learn to as an adult either.
Are Veggies Really that Important?
Having three growing kids of my own, who aren’t huge veggie eaters, I get it. We worry about their nutrition and well being. Are they getting enough vitamins and nutrients???
Are you supposed to just stand by and let them eat the pounds of bread or chicken nuggets they prefer?
For most kids, it is okay to go without a lot of veggies if they’re eating fruits and other fortified foods. Some doctors and parents like multi-vitamins for some peace of mind. Check out what this nutritionist said about picky eaters and vitamins.
But, I think there is something that works about the hidden veggie recipes, and it’s a strategy I’ve used many times with my own kids. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Why Hidden Veggie Recipes Work for Some Kids and Not for Others…
Hidden veggie recipes can be very effective for some families. And the reason why is usually because the child isn’t that picky of an eater, so they don’t notice the difference. And, the same could be true for you child.
Kids are meant to be nervous about the strong bitter flavors in veggies, in fact, they taste much stronger to them than they do to us. But, the texture of vegetables is often another roadblock. Cooked veggies can be slimy and mushy. Pureeing the vegetables eliminates any texture issues and mixing it with another flavor like cheese can hide or at least significantly decrease the bitterness.
And, that’s great! But, we still have the problem of teaching our kids about how to eat vegetables so they eat them throughout their life, not just today hidden under the cheese of their pizza.
Using Hidden Veggie Recipes WITHOUT Making Them a Secret (What to Do Instead)
Are you getting where I’m going with this? I think adding veggies to the foods our kids love is wonderful, I think we should use it as a tool whenever we can. But, to do that, we can’t keep it a secret, or go through huge hoops to do so or we risk creating distrust, making eating worse, and our kids are not learning to enjoy veggies.
It’s actually a pretty subtle shift.
One popular hidden veggie recipe is spinach in the pizza sauce on homemade pizza night. It’s fantastic, you can’t even see it, and the taste difference is almost zilch. Instead of hiding the spinach, you do it openly. Many kids won’t notice what you’re doing, but if they ask you can say, “I’m making the pizza sauce”.
If your kid says, “Ewww, why are you putting spinach in it???” You can reply with something like, “Well, for starters, that’s not how we talk about food. But, just a little bit of spinach goes in to give vitamins our bodies need. I actually need some help. Could you grab the can of tomatoes out of the pantry, you can help stir.”
You Know Your Child Best…
You know your child best, so what you do next depends on how sensitive they are to new foods. Extreme picky eaters may have a total meltdown that you’ve changed their food, so you’ll want to serve another food they typically eat alongside the “new veggie recipe”. Or, let them know they won’t be forced to eat it. (If you’re new to NOT pressuring kids to eat, this picky eating tip is a must-read).
Most kids, and milder picky eaters, will often try it if we don’t make a big deal out of it. AND, they’re much more likely to eat it, if we get them to help cook.
You’ve blended up the pureed sauce and you can tell by the look on your kid’s face they aren’t too sure about it. But, then you ask them to get a spoon and help spread it on the pizza crust. As they do this, they’re taking in how the sauce smells and looks. They’ll likely come to the conclusion that the sauce looks and smells pretty normal.
Then, as they spread the cheese, they see the pizza they expect. It gives them a sense of security that they know everything that’s in their food.
When they eat it at dinner, a realization happens that you don’t even need to point out that they ate spinach and didn’t mind it. The next time they may tolerate a couple fresh leaves on their grilled cheese. And, even if they don’t, it’s a start.
4 Ways to Get Your Kid On Board with “Low – Profile” Veggie Recipes
If you have a hidden veggie recipe that your kids love, that’s great. I wouldn’t stop making it, but to sum up everything we’ve talked about, these are 4 different ways you can help your child begin to accept, and dare, I say enjoy veggies:
1. Just make the food when you have the time. Don’t make it a secret or jump through hoops to keep it hidden from your child.
2. Go out of your way to tell extreme picky eaters that you used a few different “seasonings and ingredients” that may have changed the taste of their “macaroni and cheese” just a tiny bit. Remember to serve another food alongside it that they typically eat.
3. Get them involved with preparing the food. Act like the vegetable additions are no big deal and be sure to tell them, “this is just a different recipe.” Calm any fears that they may never have a regular hamburger again by saying that this was just something special you were trying for today.
4. For kids that aren’t too picky about food, you don’t have to go out of your way to tell them there’s veggies in the recipe because you don’t break down every ingredient for them every time you cook, but if they ask be honest. Just remember when you are, to act like it’s no big deal, then share with them in a few words how it might be a little different.
For example, “Oh, yes there’s some cauliflower in the mac and cheese tonight. It’s a little thicker with it in there and it tastes just a tiny bit different. You can try a small bite on the back of your teeth for your first taste if you want.”
Bonus feeding therapy tip: Food tastes much stronger at the front of our mouth because our tongue has all the taste buds on it. But, when kids put food right on their molars, the flavors and textures aren’t as intense.
So, instead of “hidden” veggies, we’re going to think of them as “low-profile”. And, I’m not going to promise that your child is just going to gobble them up, being honest may take some more time and energy, but I believe what we’re teaching them in the long run is worth it.
Now it’s time to get motivated with some veggie recipes you can get behind. Head over to this awesome collection of veggie recipes for kids. There’s actually a lot of feeding therapy tricks you can use to help your child eat veggies. I teach you what those are in How to Get Your Kid to Eat Vegetables.
Now, I’d love to hear what YOU think about not hiding veggies in your kid’s food! What are you going to try with your kiddo? It’s a controversial topic, so please share your opinions respectfully.
Need Help for Your Picky Eater?
You’re not alone, kids are struggling with picky eating all over the globe. As parents, we worry ourselves sick and sometimes even start to believe it’s our fault, which it is not. I have a free online workshop, that you can get a spot in, if you’re looking to help your child learn to like different foods and are sick of the mealtime stress.
More Hidden Veggie Recipes (that don’t have to be a secret)
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.