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Teaching Kids About Produce
Is Better Than Sneaking Around

Our piece, Books About Getting Kids To Eat Veggies Sell Like Hotcakes While Authors Quarrel, discussed the dispute between Jerry Seinfeld’s wife, Jessica Seinfeld, author of “Deceptively Delicious,” and Missy Chase Levine, author of “The Sneaky Chef.

Both books and others, such as “Sneaky Veggies: How to Get Vegetables Under the Radar & Into Your Family,” promote the practice of increasing children’s consumption of healthy foods — especially fruits and vegetables — by hiding healthy foods in foods children enjoy. Slipping a bit of pureed spinach in brownies, for example, or adding some pureed cauliflower in mashed potatoes.

We mentioned that some might see such subterfuge in a negative light but also saw an opportunity for the industry — taking the best seller status of Seinfeld’s book as an indication that a lot of parents are worried about getting fruits and vegetables into their kids:

The industry could do more to piggyback on this trend. We have seen zero in-store merchandising on this hot area of consumer interest.

Maybe some in the industry are uncomfortable with the suggestion that to get children to eat some of our products, a little stealth is required. But parents do what they must — so some industry tools to help them will probably be winners.

Now, however, Raymond Sokolov, an esteemed journalist famous for being the first to note nouvelle cuisine in France and to publicize the arrival of restaurants serving cuisines from Szechuan and Hunan in the United States, has weighed in on the matter. He was the Food Editor and a restaurant critic for the New York Times, has written many books and cookbooks, and he was the founding editor of The Wall Street Journal’s “Leisure and Arts” page. He even wrote a column for decades in Natural History magazine that helped revive interest in American regional cuisines. He has written about virtually every type of food; he even wrote a piece on cannibalism.

He is a friend of the produce trade having recently written A Canon of Vegetables: 101 Classic Recipes, which the publisher describes this way:

Raymond Sokolov applies to vegetables the original concept of his book The Cook’s Canon: 101 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know, fusing imaginative recipes with a wealth of food lore. His more than forty years’ experience as a cookbook author and food historian provides a wealth of background for vegetable recipes from around the world, from traditional American (succotash) to Chinese (Sichuan dry-fried green beans) as well as French (spinach gratin with Mornay sauce) and Italian (pasta e fagioli alla pordenonese).

All the recipes are high points of the culinary imagination, great dishes in which vegetables are the featured ingredient. This is not a vegetarian cookbook. Many of the recipes include meat, but keep the vegetables at center stage.

For each vegetable discussed and each recipe, Sokolov provides historical and cultural background, with wit and insight, based on his wide reading in food history and his training as a classicist.

You can catch his recipes for Asparagus Risotto and Tapioca Cream with Peaches here.

So Raymond Sokolov is big stuff. He now writes the “Eating Out” column for The Wall Street Journal and has written a piece entitled, Playing With Their Food, in which he both actually taste tests some of the recipes Jessica Seinfeld and Missy Chase Lapine put in their books and questions the whole concept:

Neither book offers more than anecdotal evidence that picky eating is a major social problem even in homes like theirs — affluent, nutritionally aware, and with a guilt-ridden parent as meal maker. But the books’ popularity is a kind of proof that picky eating at family meals does trouble book buyers.

So we’re not going to try to cast doubt on the basic premise of these rival evangelists for fraud in feeding… We just want to tell you what their food tastes like and why the authors’ reliance on packaged convenience foods and sweets is a poor way to educate youthful palates and lure them away from cookies and muffins.

First, how do their veggie-larded dishes taste?

The short answer is: “Eew, gross.”

Or maybe “Yuck” would say it better.

Or, to put it in a more adult way, our well-meaning authors do not seem to care about the quality of what they put on the table so long as it contains a covert dose of vegetable.

Mr. Sokolov is less worried about children suffering from some kind of nutritional deficiency as a result of a shortage of fruits and vegetables in their diets than he is about developing adults who will appreciate good food:

It may well be that industrially packaged macaroni and cheese inoculated with white-bean purée (Lapine) or home-boiled macaroni with reduced fat cheddar and some cauliflower purée (Seinfeld) will give your grade-schoolers a healthful, adequate meal, but such low-end distortions of a classic dish do not help the girl or boy at the receiving end evolve into a grown-up eater.

I tried Ms. Lapine’s mac and cheese with a supermarket house brand that used precut lengths of tubular pasta and powdered cheese. Ms. Lapine accepts any such boxed product. The one I picked at random ended up dead and muffled in flavor. The very processed cheese bore little resemblance to normal cheddar’s pleasant sharpness.

Ms. Seinfeld’s low-fat, pregrated cheese was at least as insipid. Neither author’s recipe calls for baking, so a child raised on this stuff would never know the joy of crusty, traditional mac and cheese. But such kids have been put through a kind of sinister culinary special ed.

In fact, these books promote gastronomic regression. With their occult purees, they re-introduce their targets’ tastebuds to baby food. Indeed, Ms. Lapine actually recommends commercial baby food as a choice for parents too pressed to boil and mash a sweet potato. And even if you don’t recoil at this infantilizing stratagem, you may wonder how the wee Lapines and Seinfelds are going to acquire their moms’ passion for the life-sustaining value of vegetables, if all bright-colored plant food in their homes is spirited secretly into meals and never discussed in a positive and straightforward way.

These women treat vegetables the way Victorian mothers treated sex, with silence. They also avoid another important lesson through tricky indirection. One of their tactics for infiltrating food with veggies is to mix vegetables into desserts and other sweetened foods. But does concealing zucchini puree in oatmeal raisin cookies (Seinfeld) or “purple purée,” spinach and blueberries, in chocolate cookies do anything to wean sweet-toothed little ones from sugar? Even if allegedly less harmful brown sugar is substituted for white?

Of Ms. Seinfeld’s 12 breakfast recipes, 10 contain some kind of sweetener. Twenty-five, or one-third, of her recipes are desserts.

In general, Sokolov sees the whole trend as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist and suggests that being straightforward with children is more likely to produce healthy eaters than all this hiding of healthy foods:

So what do I recommend? Culinary transparency. No sneaking around. Serve as much real food as your schedule permits, and use each dish as a gentle advertisement for adult taste. With many children, this approach will work right away. Pork and beans is an honest and unfrightening alternative to nursery food that’s been anonymously vaccinated with white-bean purée. Mashed potatoes mixed with cauliflower or celery-root purée is grown-up food but it is also childproof white. Children old enough to help out in the kitchen can be taught how it is made and why the different tastes and consistencies make for a pleasingly diverse food life.

For the recalcitrant, hysterically neophobic child, the wise course is probably just plain nursery food. Spaghetti with ketchup, peanut butter and jelly on Kleenex bread. Even this diet won’t, by itself, make most kids clinically obese.

The same child may well love to snack on raw carrot sticks and Russian dressing. Mine did. Eventually, almost all tyrannically negative table-monsters grow up and eat salad. Some even turn into vegans. Now that’s a real problem.

This genre of books has gotten so hot not because children are now suddenly nutritionally deficient but because parents have changed. An administrator at the private school attended by one of the Jr. Pundits, where admission is quite competitive, told us that she fielded a call from a woman who said this: “I am thinking of having a child and would like to know what month of birth would be ideal to secure entrance to the school?” There is a kind of hypersensitivity today that makes upscale parents feel obligated to give their children every advantage — including, we suppose, cauliflower.

We also suspect that modern parents are just less inclined to issue an order. If the Pundit’s kids want macaroni and cheese, they have been trained that they must also have a vegetable. We often, very overtly, mix peas in the macaroni and cheese. Yet we doubt we would have the fortitude to simply say eat what is on your plate or go to bed hungry.

There is something unsettling about parents who, after all, are supposed to be in charge, feeling the need to hide what they are doing. We don’t mind putting spinach puree in brownies, but we don’t think it should be a secret. And we suspect that overtly exposing children to produce — time and again — is a better strategy. One day, they will probably want “grown-up food.”

Still, any parent who has ever had to deal with children who, say, love pizza, yet refuse an entire freshly baked pizza on the grounds that they can see a tiny spot of oregano, understands the frustration that could lead a parent to use the Seinfeld strategy.

In the end, though, Sokolov is really reminding us that the responsibility of parenting is teaching. It is one thing to sneak a potentially life-saving antibiotic or other medicine in apple sauce — there the parent’s responsibility is to just get the medicine in the child. But to sneak the proper foods into a child avoids the hard work of education. In this busy world with so many parents both working and so many single parents, it is an obvious temptation, but frank discussion and getting the children involved in shopping and food preparation is probably a more helpful course if we hope to raise wise children who do the right thing.

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