Not that we've conducted any formal studies or anything, but survey ten moms and we'd guess nine of them have at least one picky eater at home. (And Mom Number 10's probably not thinking clearly as she wonders if she remembered to cut the crusts off Timmy's PB&J...)
Even Jessica Seinfeld, wife to comedian Jerry Seinfeld and mom of three — Sascha, 6; Julian, 4; and Shepherd, 2 — contended with dinnertime frowns and little noses wrinkled in disgust when she served anything leafy and/or green. The busy mom, who also founded Baby Buggy, a non-profit organization that works to provide needy New York families with clothing and essentials for their infants and kids, arrived at a picky-eater fix that she shares in her new book, "Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets for Getting Your Kids to Eat Good Food" ($24.95 from Collins, a Harper Collins Imprint). In an e-mail interview, Family.com asked her to share some of her kitchen wisdom and even scored a recipe excerpted from the book, for gooey brownies hiding a spinach purée.
Q: You explain in the book that you thought to use purees in your older kids' meals while mixing a puree for your baby. Before that, had you ever tried sneaking in vegetables in other ways? What kind of results did you get?
A: I started pureeing because nothing else worked. I tried cutting veggies into tiny pieces, which my daughter would pick out immediately. I tried other means of enticement such as happy faces on sandwiches, which also failed miserably. I was down to two choices: give up and accept that my children would eat vegetables only rarely, or come up with something more creative.
Q: What kind of thought process does it take to know or guess that certain pairings would work, especially things like chocolate cupcakes or pudding with avocado or brownies with carrots and spinach?
A: Well, anything involving chocolate is actually pretty easy: It's dark and sweet, and it hides the color of almost any vegetable, even spinach! For other foods, success really comes down to matching colors and textures. For example, the cheese sauce on macaroni and cheese is usually orange-yellow and so is butternut squash. Beets are another good addition because they are actually quite sweet, but even so, it doesn't taste right in every sweet food. It's all a matter of trial and error — and not being afraid to fail. And there were many failures. Just ask my family.
Q: I'm curious to know what recipes were absolute failures? In other words, what didn't make it into the book or, for that matter, your kids' bellies?
A: The baked goods are much more challenging to create. Baking is really a science, so when you try to throw in new textures and colors, the results can be disastrous. But no one in my house was complaining about having lots of different cookies and cakes around to sample.
Q: Have you ever revealed any of your secret ingredients to the kids? How did they react?
A: I cook with my purées right out on my kitchen counter all the time so at this point my kids think brownies are always made with spinach and carrot purée, and meatballs are always stuffed with broccoli purée. I doubt they can remember me cooking any other way. My daughter is now reading and loves to go through the book — so she knows what is going on. And, importantly, she now eats whole vegetables, usually in addition to the puréed veggies in her food. I believe this book has taught her a great lesson at a young age, which is to not judge anything immediately. You might think you don't like something when it isn't so bad after all.
Q: You use such a wide variety of fruits and veggies in your recipes, it seems like you must have already been fond of a lot of healthy fare before you started experimenting. What foods did you or your husband resist as kids? How do you think — on a subconscious level — this will affect your kids' palates as they grow older? Do you already see them becoming more daring in what they'll try?
A: I grew up eating in a very healthful way. I had a busy, working mom who somehow managed to put a nutritious meal on the table for us every night, so I have always loved vegetables and they have always been the cornerstones of my diet. I did not eat a lot of junk food growing up, which could be why I don't have much of a taste for it now. Hopefully my habits and preferences will influence my children positively.
Q: In addition to sneaking in fruits and veggies, what are you doing to encourage your kids to eat whole fruits and veggies? For example, how will you make sure your oldest, Sascha, will continue to make good choices as she gets older and isn't always eating at home?
A: I always include whole veggies and fruit with every meal to reinforce how important they are to eat. I also snack on cut vegetables throughout the day, so I hope my choices will influence my kids. As with anything else, the best I can do is give them a strong foundation and the tools they need to make good choices for themselves.
Q: Aside from deceptively delicious recipes, what other parenting tricks have you discovered that you'd like to share with other parents?
A: I think as parents we expend too much energy resisting our kids. It's exhausting and unproductive. That doesn't mean we should cave in to their demands, but there are often ways to productively channel them. Many parents, and I include myself, misinterpret our battles with our kids as being about US, when it's usually just them trying to conquer their environments the only way they know how — by saying no or just being difficult. Choose your battles; develop a consistent strategy that works for you and your child; and try to find creative ways to give them a stake in a happy outcome.
Q: What is your favorite meal that's just for you, from a restaurant, home-cooked, whatever?
A: Jerry and I always talk about what our last meal would be. Sometimes we change our minds, but today I would say before I "go" I would like to eat spaghetti and meatballs, a side of steamed string beans, bread with lots of butter, a big piece of Devil's Food Cake and a glass of milk.
Q: Since it seems like you set a daily example for healthy living and eating, can you share the things in which you do indulge?
A: Indulging is important! If I did not feel free to eat sweets from time to time, I would go out of my mind. Since I love to bake, especially when testing new recipes, little indulgences are part of my daily existence. However, I make sure I choose the right kinds of foods, for example those baked with wholesome ingredients and no additives or ingredients that are hard to pronounce. I also stay away from things like hydrogenated oils, trans fats and high fructose corn syrup.