Posted: November 12, 2007

One of the more fascinating things I have witnessed in the weeks since Deceptively DeliciousSM was released is a raging debate the book seems to have triggered among parents.

I'm not referring to the silly, made-up issue of who invented pureed vegetables. Seriously, how can anyone claim they invented a technique that's been around for generations? I wasn't the first person to have the idea, nor was any other recent author—check out these books: Confessions of a Sneaky Organic Cook (Or, How to Make Your Family Healthy When They're Not Looking!) (1972); The Art of Hiding Vegetables: Sneaky Ways to Feed Your Children Healthy Foods (2005); Sneaky Veggies: How to Get Vegetables Under the Radar & Into Your Family (2006); The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids' Favorite Meals (2007).
No, I'm talking about the pitched ethical dispute about deception. Does a hidden vegetable in a child's food amount to lying? Is it ever okay to deceive children or do we owe them the whole truth—and whole vegetables?

Whether we admit it or not, parents don't tell children the whole truth about a great many things, and mostly for very good reasons. It's our job to decide when our children are ready to take on responsibilities, weigh choices and accept consequences. And until they are, we take those responsibilities on ourselves. We hold their hands when they cross the street. We protect them from graphic images and language. And we shield them from the enormity of difficult and profound concepts.

When a preschooler asks, "Where do babies come from?" most parents give an answer that contains a simple truth ("Babies come from mommies' tummies."), but one that also ignores or obscures a complex issue (sex). Why not tell them the whole truth? Because until we feel they are prepared to fully understand and incorporate these concepts into their own lives, they can bring anxiety, confusion or even harm to a child's development. In fact, I believe much of my duty to my children amounts to making important decisions for them, and making their lives simpler, healthier and happier.

While it's clear every parent makes daily decisions about how much information to give his or her children, it's also clear that every parent applies his or her own standards to those decisions. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, for instance, are outright fictions—not just lies of omission—with which the vast majority of parents in this country routinely choose to deceive their children. Is that wrong? I don't think so. There is plenty of time left in a child's life to learn and understand the true meanings of the holidays; and if the Tooth Fairy's magical reward system helps a child cope with what can be the frightening loss of a body part, isn't that a worthwhile diversion?
So back to vegetables.

If you are one of the lucky parents whose children welcome vegetables in their true form, CONGRATULATIONS! Perhaps you did all the right things in introducing them to healthy foods, or perhaps it was in the genes. But don't think that parents of picky eaters have tried any less, nor do they have substandard children. In every case I know, mine included, the picky eaters' parents have tried every piece of advice they've been given by well-meaning friends. But nothing has worked.

So to parents like me, serving our children foods that contain dreaded spinach and squash in a form they enjoy not only makes sense, it is a loving choice. If they relish the meal they ate that contained a bit of broccoli—without bargaining, bribing or begging—and we don't tell them, are we harming them? Aren't we making them, and ourselves, happier and healthier? Are we not, in fact, simply taking affirmative responsibility for the well-being of the most important people in our lives?

Even some who embrace hidden vegetables, however, worry that the technique will prevent a child from developing an appreciation and taste for real vegetables later in life. But think about the children that believe that Santa Claus flies through the sky and puts presents under a tree in time for Christmas morning. Don't they eventually give up that fantasy when they are ready? So too, eventually, a child will eat vegetables in their natural state, when she is ready. But until they do, my kids' health is the most important part of my job. And I'm not a quitter.

I can only point to my oldest daughter as proof that this help really works. As she has gotten older, she's wise to my purees, but she cannot say she doesn't like them because they are a part of foods she already knows she likes. The stigma of the vegetables has actually worn off, so now real vegetables don't seem that bad. And the real vegetables that are always on her plate, next to the puree-infused foods, are now being eaten—willingly, and without a fuss.

Finally, let's remember, even adults doctor up their veggies so they taste better. Hello? Salad dressing? Are we deceiving ourselves? No. But we are deliciously deceiving our taste buds by changing the flavor of our veggies. Is that immoral? Of course not. The benign deception we practice in our kitchen is not a crime—it's cuisine!


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