Like most parents I have witnessed the dark side.
An otherwise tender toddler morphs into a screaming banshee who refuses to eat her broccoli and tries to chuck her spinach across the room. It is not a pretty sight for child, parent or diamond plaster walls.
Sometimes, when I offer my son steamy edamame or a delicate bud of asparagus, even the Jaws of Life can’t pry his lips apart to accept these vegetal wonders. As an adult, I am appalled that I birthed offspring that can’t appreciate the lusciousness of roasted fennel and caramelized onions and, as a parent who cooks for said offspring, I am just plain bummed.
The slew of cookbooks that promote “hiding” good nutrition in your children’s everyday foods is intriguing. Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld and Missy Chase Lapine’s The Sneaky Chef series are just two examples of this relatively new genre. In addition to Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals, Lapine also has one about sneaking nutrition into adult men. Yes, apparently even adults need a cloud of buffalo wing smoke to get them to eat right.
While I appreciate the good intentions that motivate a hyper-concerned parent to these ends, I don’t believe it is the best alternative to learning to like carrots for carrots. So what does it mean for your child’s future “nutritional psyche” if you start slipping a rainbow of pureed vegetables into his/her macaroni and cheese?
I perused numerous recipes and remain unconvinced that the 4-8 tablespoons of cauliflower/zucchini and sweet potato/carrot puree, cooked “thoroughly,” ie, until any nutritional value has been greatly depleted, is enough to substantially boost mac and cheese into the realm of health food.
Human development specialists Leann L Birch and Karen Grimm-Thomas state in an article on the website, “For better or worse, parental food acceptance and intake patterns become deeply ingrained in the nutritional psyche of their children. Parents who model a healthy attitude toward eating…can shape their children’s food acceptance patterns early in life and help them develop healthy eating patterns.”
According to the article, eating patterns are learned. “While innate taste preferences and aversions clearly exist and children usually prefer familiar foods to novel ones, their food acceptance patterns can be altered.” Food acceptance patterns boil down to three main factors: “1) opportunities for repeated exposure to new foods, 2) the social context of meals, and 3) associative learning (either conditioned food preferences or conditioned aversions).”
Similarly, local nutritional consultant Dr. Harold Steinberg stresses that a balanced diet is essential for proper mental and physical development in children. He believes in teaching children to like healthful foods by consistently offering and eating them yourself.
In the case of older kids, it is never too late to adopt new eating patterns. Tanya Story, who pioneered a program about nutrition at Monte del Sol Charter School, now led by Chef Andre Kempton and sous chef Danny Cohen, tells SFR, “I have noticed that the kids are pretty open.” In an attempt to get students to appreciate fresh, whole foods, the program began serving Caprese sandwiches at the start of the year.
“I was getting the tomatoes from the farmers market; the kids could not believe how good the tomatoes tasted and how colorful they were!” Story says. “Andre was making flavored mayos with fresh herbs from the Monte Del Sol garden and that was making them more unique. So if you feed kids high quality foods, the foods we should all be eating, they will appreciate it.”
Kempton agrees with Story and emphasizes, when I speak to him, that food quality is paramount. By having a cooking approach that is diverse and aims to enhance natural flavors, not hide them, he says he expands the students’ minds and palates.
And perhaps that is the lesson for all of us, parent or child. Wholesome food is delicious naturally and should be celebrated as such. Hiding that blueberry puree in a “Brainy Brownie” seems to be an unnecessary injustice to the fruit, the confection and the child. Consistent exposure, patience and positive modeling may just be the magical elixir that makes spinach go down without a fight.