All We Are Saying Is Give Peas a Chance

ColumnTricking your children into eating their veggies presents an ethical and culinary dilemma.

Several years ago, Jessica Seinfeld (or as she is more commonly known, “that woman who married Jerry Seinfeld”) was involved in a messy court battle over a book she had written. Another author, Missy Chase Lapine, had just written a cookbook that advocated “hiding” nutritious vegetables in kid-friendly foods (pureed yams in yellow cake, for instance), thereby tricking children into ingesting small amounts of fiber-rich tubers, as well as other veggies. Seinfeld came out with a similar book around the same time and Lapine accused her of ripping off the concept.

The case against Seinfeld was found to be baseless and her book went on to become a huge success, far outselling the book already published by Lapine – a writer who had the bad luck not to be married to America’s favorite funnyman.

But while these ladies were duking it out in court, I couldn’t help feeling that there was something unseemly about two accomplished and well-heeled women fighting over a concept that boils down to lying to six-year-olds about what’s in their food. No matter who thought of it first, the whole idea behind Seinfeld’s book, Deceptively Delicious, seemed flawed, not to mention slightly immoral.

Besides the inherent ethical issues of deceiving one’s offspring, the problem with tricking children into eating vegetables is that they will grow up completely unaware that they have ever eaten or enjoyed a vegetable. If you steam, strain and puree spinach only to hide it in brownies, your kid will have no idea that he likes spinach – he will only know that he likes brownies. With childhood obesity at epidemic levels, do we really want to push more desserts on impressionable young people?

And how much nutritional value is ultimately is being gained by all this deception? Seinfeld’s Trojan Horse brownie recipe calls for half a cup of spinach in a recipe that will yield 12 brownies. Do the math and you’ll  find that each brownie contains one third of an ounce of spinach. Is it really worth all that steaming, pureeing and trickery – not to mention mucking up a perfectly nice pan of baked goods – to yield such a negligible serving of greens? Wouldn’t you be better off just trying to get your kid to actually eat some spinach? Or else openly and honestly giving him a Flintstone’s multivitamin and calling it a day?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I was not even a little bit successful at getting my own kids to eat produce when they were young – a maternal shortcoming that caused me a great deal of guilt and shame. My son, when he was three years old, made my failings in this department all too public when he pointed to a fruit basket in a store window and yelled, “What’s that stuff?” (This from a child who, even as a toddler, could distinguish a Lorna Dune from a Nilla Wafer at 40 paces.) So maybe it wouldn’t have killed me to be a little more aggressive in getting my kids to eat healthier.

I must also admit that I have, at times, been intentionally and flagrantly dishonest with my children. My husband and I, on several occasions, taught our baby daughter the wrong words for certain things, just to see how long it would take her to figure out the deception. My only defense is that we were young and sleep-deprived, and we thought it would be an interesting social experiment. Also, we found it amusing as hell.

Ironically, one of the words we messed around with at the time was “broccoli,” which we taught my daughter to call “dumplings,” (inspired no doubt by the fact that both of those foods could be found in our usual Chinese takeout order). Looking back on this parental deception, my daughter has let me know that she thinks her father and I were massive tools – she also thinks she might be owed some kind of monetary reparation. To this day she will spear herself a forkful of broccoli, glare at me and hiss, “dumplings indeed.” On the bright side, however, she is 18 years old and eats her vegetables without needing to have them boiled and mashed and hidden in chocolate pudding. Jessica Seinfeld’s children may not be so lucky.

Susan Goldberg is a slightly lapsed treehugger. Although known to overuse paper products, she has the best of intentions – and a really small SUV. Catch her column, The Goldberg Variations, each week here at EcoSalon.

Image: Nick Harris1