Should I hide vegetables to get my child to eat them?

Most advice about feeding kids urges parents to sneak those veggies in as often as you can. Just slip some beetroot into your kids’ brownies, disguise some pumpkin in their macaroni & cheese and hide the cauliflower in their mashed potato. “More nutrients, and they’ll never know!”

So, to hide or not to hide?

Some of you might think you know where this article is going. I’ve been openly on “team don’t hide veggies” since the dawn of time. But lately I’ve been realising that there’s not just one right way to do things. There never is! So, this blog is my starting point to help you understand the bigger issue and then you can make your own mind up. Today I’m talking about my concerns with veggie sneaking, but I’m keen for your input in parts 2 and 3!

Please note: These concerns are written with my current clients in mind- these are kiddies who find mealtimes very difficult, are terrified of trying new foods, and look for predictability in their ‘safe’ foods. I’ll get to the less worried eaters in part 2.

So what worries me about hiding veggies?

Very sensitive kiddies: some of my clients are incredibly aware of the different sensory components of food. They’re what I call SUPER TASTERS. In fact, I have some kids who can tell the difference between minced beef from Coles and Woolworths. Seriously. If you try to hide food for these kids, you’re going to get found out. Every. Single. Time.

Loss of trust: This is a biggie. If your child finds a rogue piece of zucchini in their hamburger patty- and they weren’t expecting it- what do you think might happen? More often than not, I see children lose their trust in their parents to provide them with safe food, which leads to worry about food. Trust at mealtimes is a building block for success and not something we want to throw away lightly for the sake of a sliver of grated carrot in the bolognaise.

Stress at mealtimes: When children come to the table not knowing if their food is ‘safe’ or not, they’re already stressed. In general, if you’re stressed, you’re not hungry. Your body is too busy directing energy to your limbs and brain to protect yourself, and there’s no energy left for hunger or digestion. This is not what we want at dinner time.

Suspicion of foods: When children are stressed about food, they learn to become suspicious about all foods, including their favourite foods. As soon as something looks a bit different, they’re ready to reject it. This is when we see kids restricting their intake down to only one brand of chicken nuggets, or cutting out all foods with bits in it. Suspicious kids also inspect their food more closely- which makes your hiding job even harder.

Exclusion of kids from the kitchen: I’m all about including kids in meal preparation. It teaches them about the look, smell, feel and sometimes the taste of new foods, without the pressure of having to eat them. This helps kids to learn about and trust new foods. If you’re sneaking forbidden ingredients into their meal, then you’re going to need them to stay away from the kitchen and they’re missing out on opportunities for positive associations with veggies.

Expectation that they will eat it: Just because a child might be ok with spinach mixed into a fruit smoothie, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to eat spinach in other ways. Spinach looks, tastes, smells and feels VERY different when it’s blended with pineapple or when it’s chopped in a muffin or when it’s just a regular spinach leaf. These three spinach examples are completely different foods to a child. So, just because they’ve managed the taste or texture in a hidden food doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do it in other ways.

I told you so: If your child does happily eat some blitzed mushrooms in their bolognaise sauce, then you might be tempted to let them know that they ATE MUSHROOM AND DIDN’T DROP DEAD. If your child feels tricked, they will often become more suspicious and stressed about food. A child needs to feel in charge of choosing to try a new food, before it has any chance of becoming a liked food.

It makes me so happy: This is the biggest one of them all. Most of the parents I work with describe an overwhelming sense of happiness when their child eats a vegetable (hidden or not). I understand, I really do- you’ve been trying so hard. The problem is that when you become so emotionally invested in your child’s eating (either overall, or specifically about vegetables), you inadvertently start to add pressure to mealtimes. Foods are no longer equal, and it’s almost impossible to maintain the division of responsibility. Children are clever and they totally pick up on your feelings around food.

So, that’s enough for part 1. You can see why I’m very cautious about hiding vegetables (or any other ingredients) in food. But, as I said earlier, some parents do include hidden veggies and are able to use this to help their children gradually accept veggies happily. I want to hear more from you, and attempt to explain why it might work sometimes. So, stay tuned for parts 2 and 3- and let me know your thoughts on my Facebook or Instagram page!

About the author of this blog post:

Dr Kyla Smith is a paediatric dietitian specialising in fussy eating, feeding difficulties and childhood nutrition. She has a private practice called Mealtime Building Blocks in Perth, Western Australia. You can connect with Kyla on her website and her Facebook page or on her Instagram page.

You can also email her.

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