Medical News

The Child-Nutrition Myth That Just Won’t Die

When my 2-year-old began favoring string cheese and croutons over peas and cauliflower, I tried to get creative. First, I mimicked the artsy approach to vegetables I remembered from childhood, starting with the classic ants on a log and then advancing to cucumber caterpillars and hummus monsters with carrot teeth. My toddler was only mildly amused. Next I turned to persuasion, repeating just how delicious bok choy is and how strong spinach would make her. On most days, I was lucky to get a single bite of something green within an inch of her mouth.

So I turned to Instagram and TikTok, where I quickly noticed that one veggie trick triumphed above all others: Hide the vegetables your child dislikes in the dishes they love. Does your kid like pancakes? Mix a little powdered spinach into those. Mac and cheese? That distinct orange color could come from carrots. You can even disguise cauliflower and broccoli in pizza sauce.

The sneak-it-in strategy predates social media. Authors of parenting cookbooks, such as Deceptively Delicious and The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals, made the rounds on TV programs like The Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today show back in the late aughts. The fact that stealth cooking has remained so popular is amazing when you consider how much work it is. You might spend an extra hour cooking, say, chicken nuggets from scratch with pureed beets tucked inside—versus buying a bag of regular chicken nuggets from the supermarket. But if it helps your toddler get their recommended cup or cup and a half of vegetables each day, it’s worth it, right?

The nutrition experts I spoke with say it’s not. “Children by and large don’t need us to go to those lengths to get vegetables into them,” Laura Thomas, a nutritionist who directs the London Centre for Intuitive Eating, told me.

[Read: The ominous rise of toddler milk]

Vegetables, of course, have many health benefits. Some studies have linked eating vegetables to a decreased risk of several chronic diseases, including heart disease. But these studies look at veggie consumption across many years, not strictly what you eat as a toddler. And even though many children in the U.S. aren’t meeting dietary guidelines on vegetables, Thomas said that doesn’t necessarily mean they are undernourished. A large national study published in 2018 found that toddlers, despite their reputation for veggie-hatred, on average consume enough calcium, vitamin A, and iron. They tend to be low on potassium and fiber, but children (and adults, for that matter) can absorb such crucial nutrients from meat, nuts, beans, whole grains, and other nongreen foods. “There is almost nothing inherent to a vegetable that you can’t get in other foods,” Thomas said.

Disregarding vegetables isn’t an ideal long-term solution, because many of the foods that we tend to eat in their place are high in calories and low in fiber. But in the short term, accepting alternatives can help your toddler survive their pickiest stages without getting scurvy. And crucially, hiding veggies in bread- or meat- or sugar-heavy foods still means your kid is eating a lot of bread or meat or sugar. No amount of vegetables can counteract the detrimental effects of excess sugar.

Prominent nutritionists and child-development specialists alike have been telling parents for years to stop pressuring and tricking kids into eating vegetables. Yet health-conscious parents just can’t seem to put down the blender—which might say less about picky kids and more about the years of health messaging and fad diets their elders have endured. “All of these Millennials who grew up with ‘clean eating’ haven’t really thrown off that baggage,” Thomas said. Ellyn Satter, who for decades has been an expert on feeding and raising healthy kids, puts it more bluntly: “The belief is that if you hide vegetables in your child’s food, they won’t get fat and they’re going to live forever.”

[Read: The latest diet trend is not dieting]

Covertly shredding beets into meatballs and sneaking pureed veggies into our children’s mouths with whipped-cream chasers isn’t just pointless, Satter and other nutritionists say. The approach can even be counterproductive. “The goal of child nutrition is not to get children to eat everything they’re supposed to today. It is to help them to learn to enjoy a variety of healthy food for a lifetime,” Satter told me. And everything scientists know about how to do that stands in contrast to grinding vegetables into an indistinguishable pulp and masking them with other flavors.

Experts told me that if you consistently prepare and eat meals with your kids that contain a variety of foods—including disliked vegetables—without pressuring them to taste or swallow anything, they’ll eventually learn to eat most of what’s offered. Satter originally outlined this approach back in the 1980s, and told me that it works primarily because it creates trust between parent and child. “The child needs to trust their parents to let them determine what to eat or not eat from what the parents offer,” she said. If your child discovers that you’ve been hiding cauliflower in their tater tots or telling them tiny pieces of broccoli are actually green sprinkles, Satter said, you could rupture that trust, and your child may become more wary of the foods you serve or develop negative associations with vegetables.

Nearly 40 years after Satter outlined her feeding method, pediatric nutritionists continue to be wary of the trust-destroying potential of veggie-sneaking. Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, a public-health professor at Yale, told me that even if your child is going through a mac-and-cheese phase (as his son did for many years in the ’90s), he would never advise hiding vegetables in other foods. “Surround your child with healthy foods, but let the kid decide. Let the kid touch the food, smell the food; let the kid learn to eat when he or she is hungry and stop eating when he or she knows he is full,” he said. “It’s easier said than done, but it works.”

[Read: Putting kids on diets won’t solve anything]

The hands-off approach certainly takes less physical work, but Pérez-Escamilla is right that it can be a real emotional struggle. As a parent, I’m still tempted to soothe my anxiety by sneaking kale into a smoothie, and reluctant to cook creamed spinach for my toddler over and over only to be rejected each time. But I have learned to find some comfort in acting as a role model instead of a micromanager.

Over the past few months, I’ve quit slipping broccoli into pasta sauce and started offering it as part of dinner. Sometimes my toddler takes a nibble; sometimes she doesn’t. I’ve noticed that the less I show I care, the more she experiments on her own.