Is Sneaking Food Into Kids’ Diets a Good Idea?

“I tried something new for dinner. I thought I’d sneak in some nutrition,” my husband said one day.

I could see our pasta press on the counter. A bubbling pot of noodles was simmering on the stove.

“I used a package of spinach, semolina flour and a little water to make this pasta,” he explained.

I peeked in the pot. The noodles were a brilliant shade of emerald green.

“That’s pretty sneaky. Do you think our kids will notice the spinach?” I teased.

He looked at me and grinned. Although I don’t think my husband fully appreciated my teasing, he was pleased when our children ate the noodles. I think we will be having emerald green pasta more often.

A couple of authors have had best-selling books about sneaking vegetables into kids’ diets. Usually, the book authors puree the vegetables and place them in foods, such as spaghetti sauce, where they are barely noticeable.

Although the books became best sellers, sneaking vegetables into kids’ diets has been the subject of mixed responses from nutrition experts.

Certainly, vegetables are low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods, so encouraging children and adults to eat more veggies makes sense. Eating more vegetables may help with weight management and help prevent chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.

Researchers at Penn State University and Baylor College of Medicine put the “stealth vegetable” concept to the test. They served 61 preschoolers one of two pasta dishes on several separate occasions. One pasta sauce included added broccoli and cauliflower, which had been chopped in a food processor, while the other sauce had no veggies.

The good news: The children liked each pasta dish and ate about the same amount regardless of whether the pasta sauce had added vegetables. The dish with the added vegetables had fewer calories.

The children cut their calorie intake by 17 percent when they ate the veggie-containing pasta dish compared with the no-veggie pasta dish.

However, should parents always camouflage minced vegetables in a blanket of spaghetti sauce or puree spinach into brownies to help kids meet their veggie recommendations?

Kathleen Leahy, one of the Penn State researchers, recommended that parents eat vegetables with their children and serve plain vegetables regularly so children develop a taste for them.

Sneaking vegetables into a child’s diet has been questioned by some parenting and child feeding experts. Child feeding experts encourage choices for children. If children do not want to eat the food, do not force the issue. Otherwise, food can become a battle of the wills.

They also encourage patience among parents when introducing vegetables into a child’s diet. Getting a child to try a new food, such as a new vegetable, may take 10 to 15 attempts.

Perhaps the best advice is to be a good role model and provide a variety of vegetables for yourself and others around you. After all, children are not the only ones shortchanging themselves on vegetables. Most adults need to eat more vegetables to meet their daily recommendation, which is about 2.5 to 3 cups.

For more information about a healthful diet, visit https://www.ndsu.edu/eatsmart.

Try this not-so-sneaky spinach and pasta recipe courtesy of Iowa State University.

Spinach-stuffed Pasta Shells

10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
12-ounce carton low-fat cottage cheese
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese (save 1/2 cup for topping)
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
26-ounce jar or can of spaghetti sauce
1 cup water
8-ounce package uncooked large pasta shells

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly coat a 13- by 9- by 2-inch baking dish with cooking spray and then set aside. Drain spinach by placing in a sieve set over your sink or in a bowl and pressing with a spoon to remove as much liquid as possible or squeeze out liquid with clean hands. Place spinach in medium bowl. Add the cottage cheese, 1 cup of the mozzarella cheese, oregano, and pepper to the spinach. Stir to mix thoroughly. Pour half of the spaghetti sauce into prepared baking dish. Add water and stir to mix. Spoon about 3 tablespoons cheese mixture into each uncooked pasta shell and arrange in a single layer over sauce. Pour remaining sauce over top. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese evenly over sauce. Cover tightly with foil. Bake for 1 hour or until shells are tender. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Makes eight servings. Each servings has 280 calories, 37 grams (g) of carbohydrate, 7 g of fat, 5 g of fiber and 370 milligrams of sodium.

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