THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Is sneaking carrot puree into pizza the right way to get kids to eat their veggies?

By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / January 30, 2008

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It might go by the buzz words stealthy-healthy: slipping pureed spinach into brownies, mashed cauliflower into mac-and-cheese, avocado into chocolate pudding.

In two best-selling children's cookbooks - "Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food," by Jessica Seinfeld and "The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids' Favorite Meals," by Missy Chase Lapine - the idea is that picky kids can tuck into their nightly meatballs and never suspect they contain a mash of wheat germ, broccoli, and green peas.

The books are gaining notice for a number of reasons. One is that Lapine recently announced plans to sue Jessica Seinfeld for plagiarism (see related story). Another is the technique of pureeing vegetables to slip into chicken nuggets and other standards, and using oat and whole wheat flour in sweets. Lapine vehemently defends the approach as realistic and practical.

A group of local moms isn't crazy about the system. Deception is a word that doesn't belong at the dinner table, says Liz Weiss, a Lexington dietitian and co-author with Janice Newell Bissex, a Melrose resident, of "The Mom's Guide to Meal Makeovers." The sneaky quality is what really annoys Weiss. "If you are hiding good food from kids, what are you really teaching them about good habits?" Weiss claims to have won over the pickiest friend of her 12-year-old son with almond-battered fish sandwiches. She also likes to saute snow peas in oil and dress them with light teriyaki, or make chicken wraps with peppers and corn.

That approach also works for Julie Sebell, who cooks for her daughters, Brooke, 8, and Anna, 5.

In her Sudbury kitchen, making a "fairly typical" meal of whole wheat rigatoni with tomato sauce, her girls sit nearby, covertly sneaking slices of red bell pepper from the salad. "You have to make it fun for everyone, and keep the mood up," says the mom, who works in a local Whole Foods Market as a coffee buyer.

Her children's menu occasionally boasts a slice of greasy pizza or a McDonald's Happy Meal. That usually means dad's on duty. "I like having that freedom," says Julie's husband, Bill, "because I know they're eating healthy so much of the rest of the time."

Jen Lawrence of Lexington is also upfront. Various food allergies - sensitivities to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, sesame, and dairy - converted her into an advocate for healthful eating for her children, ages 3, 7, and 9. "Their issues forced me to read labels for the first time."

Making healthy food taste good meant introducing some foods dozens of times. The breakthrough is worth it, says the mom.

She might put out a plate of freshly cut fruit or veggies and let the kids eat what they want. "It's incredible how much healthy stuff they'll go through if you just leave it there," Lawrence says.

In a telephone interview from her Westchester, N.Y, test kitchen, Lapine says, "It would be great to get every kid to sit down to a macrobiotic plate, but that is simply not working for many parents, and we have to protect and nurture our kids by getting good nutrition into them today." Lapine, a former editor of Eating Well magazine, is the mother of two.

"Sneaking isn't a good substitute for teaching good nutrition - it facilitates it," she says. "Kids can look at a gorgeous plate of spaghetti and meatballs which have eight hidden vegetables in it and get excited to eat it."

Parents who are tired of seeing every meal turn into a battle need a special approach, she says. Her book offers recipes for "breakfast" ice cream with yogurt and fruit, and pizza made with undetectable pureed carrots and yams.

Lapine even advocates that adults fool themselves whenever possible. Her next "Sneaky Chef" book, due out in March, focuses on feeding husbands, with recipes such as molten chocolate cake and chili.

A better system than fooling people might be to teach them more. Cambridge-based Georgia Orcutt, author of "How to Feed a Teenage Boy," thinks few parents are doing enough to empower kids to cook for themselves and resist junk food marketing messages.

Orcutt says boys can gain 50 percent of their adult body mass and accumulate 90 percent of their lifetime calcium between the ages of 13 and 18, yet society treats their insatiable hunger as a demeaning joke. "These kids are going to be adults and away from home, making their own food choices in a few years," she says. "We shouldn't trick them or try to hide things from them."

Teenage boys she interviewed for her book admitted they knew next to nothing about food preparation. They couldn't even cook pasta. "There are a lot of moms out there still pandering to their kids," she says. "It's something we all need to do a lot more about, if we want to see a change."

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com