As my oldest daughter is now firmly out of toddlerhood and into preschool land, I've been thinking about the phenomenon of sneaking fruits and vegetables into so much of what we serve our kids. Because 1 and 2 year olds turn into 3 and 4 year olds who can reason, investigate, and converse. They are veritable detectives at the dinner table.
From a nutritional standpoint I completely get the urge—we want our toddlers to get the nutrients they need. But from a practical point of view, it's flawed. Because once kids are old enough to be able to talk, experience food in contexts outside of our own homes, and start to understand more nuances about food, this sneaky business is much (much) harder to pull off.
I am totally over it! Here's why.
- It's really a lot of work. It takes so much energy to think through the logistics of blending all sorts of colors of produce into other foods. Who has that kind of time and creativity?!
- Even if you hide veggies like a ninja, they will find them. It's almost inevitable that a stray piece of something will stand out and put your toddler on high alert. Once that alarm goes off that something is amiss with their food, it's nearly impossible to convince them that the food is safe to eat (And they will remember the experience if you try to make it again.)
- If we sneak foods in that we want them to eat, we need to keep doing it. Over and over, year after year. (Related: There will not always be someone around to do this crafty sort of cooking.)
- Toddlers like power! So if they realize that we're trying really very hard to get them to eat something, the harder they will try not to eat it.
- They need to eat out in the world. If a child doesn't learn to recognize and enjoy fruits and vegetables by sight, flavor, and taste, they will never have the incentive to eat them when they are outside of your house. And as much as we want to maintain control of our kids diets, we do need to factor the reality of the bigger world into things as they get older and head off to school.
- Kale does not belong in a chocolate chip cookie. It just doesn't. And there is nothing wrong with incorporating occasional treats into a healthy diet because we also owe it to our kids to teach them that they don't have to be scared of sugar. In our house, we talk about how sweets are foods we eat less often since they doesn't help us grow.
- They are onto us! Just wait until your kid asks you for "real" spaghetti when you try to serve them spaghetti squash as a new-fangled pasta. Or "normal" rice when you try to pass off cauliflower rice as a carbohydrate.
- It makes us parents miss the big picture. It can be more helpful to focus on what they're eating in the course of a week rather than being hyper-focused on every bite. That narrow view can make a parent crazy because toddlers are not always rational eaters and their appetites can be all over the place from meal to meal.
- Exposure is the key to accepting foods. And hiding fruits and veggies in other foods means that the child misses out on a chance to be exposed to foods. Nutritionists agree that exposure—not cramming produce into every bite—is the key to raising healthy eaters in the long run.
- Kids are smart. They deserve to be told the truth about what they are eating.
I am a big fan of adding produce to recipes when it adds flavor or enhances the texture. (I mean clearly, just look at my Recipe Index!) And adding fruits and veggies to easy to eat foods like muffins, meatballs, pasta, and popsicles makes it easy for everyone to eat well, including mom and dad. I'm just advocating that we disclose the truth about what we're feeding to our kids.
Because the only way that your toddler is going to voluntarily to eat the produce that you want him to when he's a bigger kid is if he knows what he's eating.
And who knows. You might even wind up with a 4 year old who's starting to try (and like!) foods she loved when she was 1, but refused at 2 and 3. It's happened in my house with beets, which means that anything is possible!
P.S. Your kids might actually be getting the recommended servings of produce each day.