One of the hottest books on children's nutrition to come along in recent years has been Jessica Seinfeld's "Deceptively Delicious."
Written by the wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the book explains how to grind up and hide vegetables in food — without children knowing about it.
It includes recipes for chicken nuggets doused in a broccoli puree before being breaded and fried, mac and cheese spiked with cauliflower puree, brownies with pureed spinach and other supposedly kid-friendly foods with vegetables smuggled inside.
The book soared to the top of best-seller lists, but it's been embroiled in controversy virtually from the start.
Most of the debate has been over the originality of the recipes, because a strikingly similar cookbook by Missy Chase Lapine titled "The Sneaky Chef," was published six months earlier (and was proposed to Seinfeld's publisher the previous year).
As the authors argue over potential "vegetable plagiarism," nutritionists have focused on the bigger picture. Is the advice being dispensed really good for kids?
Diet Experts Battle Over Tricking Kids
Some nutrition experts applaud the concept, encouraging parents to do whatever it takes. Others are grateful that the buzz over the book has at least drawn attention to children's nutrition.
But many nutritionists think the stealth approach sends several wrong messages.
Mary Abbott Hess, a registered dietitian and culinary consultant in Chicago, is worried that the covert strategies reinforce the notion that vegetables are so bad they have to be hidden. She thinks the approach also validates "deception."
Ellyn Satter, a childhood feeding expert and author of "Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming," believes this type of trickery erodes trust.
"Sooner or later, children catch on that they're being tricked," she said. "When this happens, they feel hurt and angry and are set back in their ability to learn and grow."
Satter said the goal of parents should not be to get certain foods into children, but to trust them to push themselves along in learning to enjoy those foods for a lifetime.
Must Veggies Really Hide Their Taste?
Early childhood is a critical time of palate development. When vegetables are hidden, children miss out on the opportunity to acquire a taste for these important foods, said Sharon Salomon, a dietitian and food writer in Phoenix.
"Kids should know what the naked vegetable looks and tastes like or they'll never learn to eat it," she said.
"What's the point of hiding a carrot? If the child likes it, he won't know he likes carrots," said Napa-based dietitian and children's nutrition expert Sanna Delmonico, founder of Tiny Tummies.
"I want him to know, so he'll be more likely to try carrots prepared a different way the next time."
Delmonico said her objection to Seinfeld's approach goes beyond the deceit. She thinks the time-consuming and complicated recipes make extra work for already busy parents.
"Getting children to eat vegetables just isn't that difficult," she said. "Vegetables are delicious and beautiful. We should be highlighting them, not hiding them."
Boston dietitians Liz Weiss and Janice Bissex, co-authors of "The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers," agree. They're worried the book will encourage parents to throw in the towel and give up on offering "real" vegetables to kids.
"These recipes require a huge amount of time and effort," said Weiss. "I'd rather parents channel their energy into making vegetables more appealing to kids than to give up too quickly."
Weiss and Bissex tested some of the recipes in "Deceptively Delicious" to see whether they worked and, more importantly, to see how nutritious they really were. Nutritional analysis of the recipes was not included in the book, which they thought was a "red flag." Several of the recipes they analyzed provided a measly amount of vegetables — some only about one tablespoon per serving. They also didn't think they tasted very good.
"The great irony is that these foods that are attempting to mask the taste of vegetables didn't taste good," said Weiss, who thought many didn't look good either.
"Green chicken nuggets are not exactly kid friendly," she said.
"The recipes seemed to focus mainly on sneaking in small amounts of vegetables and, in many cases, missed the boat on overall good nutrition," said Bissex.
For example, a recipe for chocolate pudding included pureed avocado but surprisingly no milk, so it provided no bone-building calcium. It was also high in sugar (10 teaspoons per half-cup serving) and contained, oddly, uncooked cornstarch that gave it a gritty texture, she said.
Weiss and Bissex agree with the concept of boosting the nutrient density of the foods kids eat — such as adding grated carrots to meat balls or finely diced bell peppers to pasta sauce — but disagree with the "deceptive" approach. They're also concerned that the recipes help fuel the concept of "kid food."
Exposure, Not Entreaties, Make Kids Eat Healthier
Seinfeld readily admits that she resorted to these stealth tactics with her children because she grew tired of "bribing them, begging them, whining at them" to eat their vegetables.
But studies show that pressure like this doesn't work. When you bribe or force children to eat certain foods, they like those foods less.
Nutrition experts recommend giving your kids time and multiple opportunities to enjoy vegetables.
"We should be making vegetables taste good with seasonings and sauces and dips, and not apologizing for them," said Delmonico. "If we do that, children will learn to eat vegetables the same way they learn to eat other foods: by seeing parents eat it, looking, smelling, slowly tasting and learning to enjoy."
Nutritionists say engaging kids in selecting and preparing vegetables are good ways to make veggies more appealing. Trips to farmers markets and even growing your own vegetables help too.
Salomon believes the stealth approach is simply not sustainable.
"Let's face it: Moms may buy the book and cook and puree for a few weeks, but I don't think this is going to change the way America eats," she said. "It's a gimmick and gimmicks don't usually stick around for long."
Janet Helm is a Chicago-based registered dietitian and nutrition/culinary consultant.