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The elephants in the kitchen

July 16, 2008 |  9:39 am

SeinfeldGetting picky kids to eat their vegetables is an age-old parental problem.  Like age-old: Scientists say that kids are wired to prefer sweet, bland things since they weren't generally poisonous.  (Ironically, they are now.)  Three recent cookbooks, "Deceptively Delicious" by Jessica Seinfeld and "The Sneaky Chef" (and its sequel) by Missy Chase Lapine, Lapinecoversuggest that the best way to solve this problem is not by talking to your kids or getting them to gradually expand their immature palates or cutting up carrots like palm trees (worked for us). No, the way to solve this is by sneaking purees of healthful ingredients into popular foods. Your 7-year-old hates broccoli and loves fried chicken nuggets?  Great, just hide the broccoli in the nuggets.   

The books have become bestsellers, maybe because of the legal battle they've generated (charges of "vegetable plagiarism," as Seinfeld's comedian husband termed it), or maybe because they've landed some high-profile play (Oprah!) or maybe because, well, it sounds like the perfect solution for health-conscious parents desperate for a way to get their kids to ingest all that magical spinach without force-feeding. 

But the larger implications (ethical, gastronomic) seem strangely, glaringly missing from the debate.  If you hide the broccoli in the chicken nuggets, or the cauliflower puree in the mac 'n' cheese, or the carrots and avocados in the chocolate fondue, aren't you telling your kids — or your partner, as Lapine's sequel is geared towards picky "husbands" — that it's OK to keep eating junk?  Secrecy is not something I want to teach my kids, nor is the nutritional value of a quarter-cup of avocado puree worth that price.

Sure, the recipes might taste good. Oprah sure seemed to love them, and Seinfeld's chocolate fondue was pretty yummy (albeit the consistency of brownie batter, faint notes of avocado), though how healthy it really is I don't know — there are no calorie or nutrient counts in these books. But I want my kids to learn to appreciate the Hass avocados I buy at the farmers market. Or to crunch into a raw carrot with pleasure instead of cooking it for 12 minutes and hiding it in an avalanche of cocoa powder and sugar. Kids don't appreciate being lied to. And they always find out. "I'd yell at you," said my 7-year-old daughter, Sophie, when I asked her what she'd do if I hid, oh, beet puree in her lasagna. "I'd give you a time-out." 

— Amy Scattergood

Photo credit: Collins ("Deceptively Delicious") and Running Press ("The Sneaky Chef")