“He won’t touch anything green.”

“She only eats the 3 Ps: pizza, pasta and pop tarts.”

“The only vegetables she’ll touch are French fries and ketchup.”

Get a group of parents together and sentiments similar to the above statements are what you’re likely to hear when the subject turns to their children’s diets.

Yes, as parents, we know our children should be eating better. We’re acutely aware of the rising number of diet and weight-related problems our children now face. But, how do we get little Johnny to eat his peas? We’ve tried bribing, cajoling, pleading, educating and threatening our little ones. None of these strategies work. Actually, recent studies show that the billions of dollars our schools spend on educating children about good nutrition is a nearly complete waste of money. However, there is one way that’s been proven to get our kids to eat better: sneaking in the good stuff.

I stumbled onto the sneaky method while trying to get my daughter Emily to take some liquid penicillin. Like Mary Poppins, I found that just a spoonful of chocolate pudding and the medicine went down! The ramifications of my success hit me: If the sneaky approach worked in getting healthy medicine down, why couldn’t it work in getting healthy food into my daughters?

I put my idea and my culinary expertise to work in my kitchen, hiding the foods kids should eat in the foods they would eat. I compiled List A, a list of children’s favorite foods— the ones they would eat without resistance— such as spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders and pizza. I then created List B, composed of “super foods,” the world’s healthiest ingredients, including spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, yams and whole grains. And finally, I found ways to invisibly hide the items on List B in List A. I reasoned, as long as my kids couldn’t see, smell or taste anything too different, they would eat what was placed in front of them without a fight.

The magic lies in pureeing cooked vegetables and then mixing them into foods— I call these Sneaky Chef “Make-Ahead” Purees. Following are recipes for a simple White Puree of cauliflower and zucchini and an Orange Puree of sweet potatoes and carrots that slip undetectably into mac and cheese as well as tomato sauce for pizza and pasta. And, if you want a really quick version of these nutritious purees, just use baby food carrots and sweet potatoes in the same way!

Of course sneaking healthy foods into kid-favored meals is not a substitute for teaching good nutrition. And, you should continue to offer straight-up vegetables. But, with the sneaky method, you’ll be able to gently guide kids into healthful eating rather than force new and nutritious foods on them.

Leading by example is another great way to get children emulating healthy habits. Along with eating a variety of healthy foods yourself, exercise and praise the great taste and benefits of eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Here are some other easy tips to get kids to eat their veggies.

  1. Don’t plead, beg, threaten or bribe your kids to eat anything. This will only result in a power struggle. The less you show your children that you care about what they are eating, the more likely they are to try the healthy foods you secretly want them to eat.
  2. Shh! Don’t tell them it’s healthy! For reasons I cannot begin to understand, when children know something is good for them, they think it can’t possibly taste good— even if it truly does.
  3. Hide healthy foods in children’s favorite meals. Your sneaky additions should be fairly bland tasting, preventing kids from detecting an off flavor. You can also mask the healthy addition with strong yet kid-favored “taste decoys” like cheese, ketchup and chocolate. Just ensure the sneaky cuisine is similar in color to the food in which it’s hidden. For example, puree cauliflower and zucchini and mix into a cheese sauce for mac and cheese, or puree yams and carrots and mix into tomato sauce over pasta.
  4. Borrow smart packaging concepts from the food manufacturers. There’s a reason children’s favorite crackers are shaped like little fishes and breakfast cereals come in colorful letters of the alphabet. You, too, can “package” a food for maximum kid appeal. Let kids make up a funny new name for a vegetable. Serve veggies on a skewer, in an ice cream cone or on toothpicks with fun dips. Make eating a new vegetable an adventure by serving a whole artichoke, and allowing kids to peel the leaves and scrape the flesh against their teeth. Serve fresh green peas in the shell and let kids pick the sweet peas out of the pods. Or, cut open a fresh pomegranate and let kids pick out each juicy seed. Hint: Always serve the new vegetable alone, with no competition from a cherished and less healthy food, and serve the new veggie to kids when they are hungriest.
  5. Use visual decoys to distract kids from the healthy foods underneath. For instance, make three-veggie mini corn muffins and dust them with a few harmless calories of powdered sugar. Make veggie-laden mini meatballs and smother them in kid-approved tomato sauce. Add cocoa powder to zucchini bread to make it look like chocolate.

Easy Recipes – Sneaky Chef Quick Fixes for Store-Bought Tomato Sauce

The healthful boosters below enhance the nutritional profile of your children’s favorite bottled pasta sauce, as well as help cut the acidity of tomatoes, which may alleviate upset stomachs.

Each booster has proven to be undetectable in taste, and any slight change in color can quickly be reversed by adding a little canned tomato paste. Both of the following quick fixes is for one cup of bottled sauce. For starters, combine two to four tablespoons of White Puree or two to four tablespoons of Orange Puree with store-bought sauce, mixing until well blended.

White Puree

•2 cups cauliflower, cut into florets •2 small to medium zucchinis, peeled and rough chopped •1 tsp. fresh lemon juice •1-2 Tbs. water, if necessary

Using a tightly covered pot, steam cauliflower in a vegetable steamer over two inches of water, for about 10 to 12 minutes until very tender. Alternatively, place cauliflower in a microwave-safe bowl, cover with water, and microwave on high for about 10 minutes until very tender.

While waiting for the cauliflower to finish steaming, pulse the raw peeled zucchini with the lemon juice only (no water at this point). Drain the cooked cauliflower. Working in batches if necessary, add it to the pulsed zucchini in the bowl of the food processor with one tablespoon of water. Puree on high until smooth. Stop occasionally and push contents from the top to the bottom. If needed, use the second tablespoon of water to make a smooth, but not wet, puree.

This makes about two cups of puree. Double recipe if you want to store White Puree in the refrigerator for up to three days, or freeze portions in sealed plastic bags or containers.

Orange Puree

•1 medium sweet potato or yam, peeled and rough chopped •3 medium to large carrots, peeled and sliced into thick chunks •2-3 Tbs. water

In a medium pot, cover carrots and potatoes with cold water and boil for about 20 minutes until yams, and especially carrots, are very tender. If the carrots aren’t thoroughly cooked, they’ll leave telltale little nuggets of vegetables that reveal their presence— a gigantic no-no for the Sneaky Chef.

Drain the potatoes and carrots and put them in the food processor with two tablespoons of water. Puree on high until smooth; no pieces of carrots or potatoes should remain. Stop occasionally to push the contents from the top to the bottom. If necessary, use the third tablespoon of water to make a smooth puree, but the less water the better.

This makes about two cups of puree. Double the recipe if you want to store even more. Store in refrigerator up to three days, or freeze portions in sealed plastic bags or containers.

Picky Palette

Appeasing demanding eaters.