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Is "Deceptive" The Way to Go?

hiding vegetablesJessica Seinfeld just released her second cookbook Double Delicious, the sure-to-be bestselling follow up to her runaway hit Deceptively Delicious.

While I understand that Jessica, a mother of three, is simply sharing what worked for her, I’ve got to say that, with all due respect, I think promoting a “deceptive” approach is, well, irresponsible.

Here’s the grim reality:

  • America has the biggest obesity problem in the world.
  • This generation of children is the first expected to live fewer years than their parents.
  • More children than you can imagine cannot identify fresh vegetables because they are not (knowingly) exposed to, fed or taught to like vegetables.

That’s right. We have to teach our children to like vegetables. It’s that simple. To develop eating habits that can sustain a healthy life, we must teach them about vegetables and other healthy foods, and how to prepare them deliciously—not deceptively.

It’s a slow process that’s much harder for some children than others. And it can lead some parents to despair, the same way that some parents of reluctant readers feel despair. But nobody is telling parents of reluctant readers to hide the books. Nobody is telling them to keep from pointing out when their reluctant reader gets lost in the moment and is reading with joy. To the contrary. You celebrate it! Not in pedantic way, but rather in a subtle, encouraging way that eases the reluctant reader down a reading path.

We need to do the same with food.

What’s the Problem?
Hiding vegetables is not evil, nor are parents who choose to do it. But, as a philosophy, it relies on a willingness to be dishonest with your children about good food, which is endemic to the problem. How can a relationship build on lies be healthy?

(And, by the way, adopting a deceptive approach is different than making something like vegetable quiche or scrambled eggs with spinach, that happens to have vegetables mixed in that your child may not notice. No ingredient is always obvious. It’s also different than telling your child that eating a candy bar at 8 pm will cause her to grow whiskers overnight; that, I stand behind!)

It’s one thing for Jessica to choose to hide vegetables in her home, especially given that her children are likely to be fine. They have tremendous resources and are surely exposed to cooking and healthy, whole foods. It’s another thing for her to use her far-reaching megaphone to promote a philosophy of food deception. She, and other sneaky cooks, suggest that they are providing parents with practical tools to get them through what is often the difficulty of feeding children. But it’s like shoddy construction. Good for now, bad for later. Really bad.

How About a Lasting Solution?
As a child development expert, I’d love to see parents apply the tenets of learning theory and child development to mealtime the way they have with their children’s other activities. I’d love for them to understand how hiding vegetables misses the point. And I’m not the only one: read what Marion Nestle has to say about stealth feeding.

We don’t need tricks up our sleeves; we need education, passion and dedication. Teaching kids to like vegetable can be hard work, especially if your child is naturally picky or has already developed a distaste for them. But, just like reading, knowing how to eat healthy is a necessary life skill that can bring pride and joy when done well. So, instead of hiding, let’s:

  • Consistently model good eating habits
  • Increase (not decrease) exposure to healthy foods like vegetables
  • Engage children in ways that are relevant and interesting to them
  • Set some rules and dispassionately enforce them (making mealtime a war of the wills is not worth it!)
  • Make it clear that vegetables will be served at every lunch and dinner
  • Find ways to get your child excited about vegetables (They an artist? Have them draw a recipe while you’re cooking it. They like getting messy? Have them stir and mix. They love the outdoors? Have them plant herbs.)

It’s not just about forcing them to eat foods they don’t like. Engage them around healthy foods the way you engage them around the other things that you want them to get excited about learning.

And, people, let’s get creative! Deception kills creative problem solving. It’s basically giving up. Instead, let’s use what we know about learning, children and what engages and inspires them to encourage healthier eating habits. This Lunch Line Redesign op-ed is a brilliant example of the difference between deception and cleverly working with what you’ve got.

To be fair, Jessica uses her influence, which includes access to Oprah, the most powerful force in media, for a lot of incredibly honorable work. She’s a good woman and clearly a loving mother in the trenches with the rest of us. But she’s missing the mark on this one. Completely. And given her reach, I wish she’d take a more responsible stand.

(Phew. Now who wants to give me a book deal? Oprah, I’d make a kick ass guest!!)

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