Wednesday, January 16th, 2008 12:51:43

Straightforward and Honest rather than Deceptive and Sneaky

With two young children in the house, our family has had our share of mealtime battles. My husband and I have learned that, if we are firm about enforcing the rules, they eventually sink in; the battles become less frequent and end more rapidly. The children’s arguments have not gone away, but I consider that a sign that they still need their parents to set boundaries and enforce them. The rules at our house require they eat a few bites of each food, that they eat healthy foods before sweets, and that they eat until they are full, but no more. The guiding message: everything in moderation.

When I was a child, I was taught always to clean my plate. Unfortunately, I learned this lesson too well and it continues to have ramifications. Many nights, I look down and realize that my plate is empty before I know it, and I have eaten too fast — again. To combat this learned reflex, I use one of the small-sized salad plates that my children use. Since the plates are six inches across rather than 12 inches, my potential intake of food is reduced. The lesson to eat everything on your plate is a “rule” that I have not passed down to my children. Eating everything on one’s plate can be dangerous, especially when combined with the larger and larger portion sizes at restaurants with the increasing frequency that we eat out in our society.

Last year, two recipe books intended for families with children were published, “The Sneaky ChefTM,” by Missy Chase Lapine (Running Press), and “Deceptively Delicious” by Jessica Seinfeld (Collins). Both books take the approach of hiding “good” food items (such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains) in children’s favorite foods, such as macaroni and cheese, scrambled eggs and chicken nuggets.

Lapine writes that her book will “teach you the same guerrilla tactics that I have picked up with the same results. You will learn how to camouflage the world’s healthiest food inside your kids’ favorites.”

Seinfeld writes, “I had begun to dread mealtime. Mealtimes were reduced to a constant pushing and pulling, with me forever begging my kids to eat their vegetables, and them protesting unhappily.” According to the book’s introduction, after Jessica mixed cauliflower puree into macaroni and cheese, “The kids, entirely innocent of my deceit, plowed happily through their dinners.”

While both writers’ concern for children’s nutrition is to be commended, I don’t agree with their deceptive approach.

According to the Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, “sneaky” means “marked by stealth, furtiveness, or shiftiness” while “to deceive” “implies imposing a false idea or belief that causes ignorance, bewilderment, or helplessness.” While I would like to be able to say that I have never been deceptive or sneaky; that I, like George Washington, cannot tell a lie, that would not be true. After all, I am human.

However, having admitted my humanness, I do not agree that being deceptive or sneaky is the correct philosophical approach to persuade children to eat nutritiously.

Suppose our children, after years of eating macaroni and cheese with cauliflower, and eggs with spinach juice, come to believe that they can eat whatever they want without health consequences. They would be surprised and confused when they left home, continued to eat the same foods (but without the hidden vegetables) and began to gain weight and feel lethargic.

My children share with most children, the natural aversion to vegetables. Broccoli, corn and green beans are among the few vegetables that my children eat and enjoy. Broccoli is served so often at our home that we rarely go to the store without buying it and my mother, a frequent visitor at our home, has begun requesting anything other than broccoli for dinner.

The vegetable has been a staple for years. My husband Jimmy, who began us on this trend, eats his broccoli first. I had assumed that this was because he loves it. I was stunned to find out only recently that he dislikes broccoli, but eats it because it is good for him. He eats it first to get it over with. Lets just say his mother taught him the value of a eating a vegetable, whether he likes it or not.

Dinnertime at our house is family time: time spent talking about what we learned that day, or the most interesting event. This time together also provides a chance to talk to our children about what foods are good for them and what foods are not as healthy. The message is: everything in moderation. Among other things, they know milk is good for their bones, and bananas are good for muscles and preventing leg cramps.

Both books cited above are in my kitchen bookshelf. I have tried recipes from both books for my family. Afterward, I have shared the “hidden” ingredients with my children, who are interested in how the vegetables can be included in food they like. It surprised me, that once they had been told about the vegetables incorporated, they were interested in trying the vegetables by themselves. So while I disagree with the sneaky and deceptive approach, I will continue to add vegetables and discuss the addition with my children.

Last week (before trying any deceptive or sneaky food recipes), while we were at a church dinner, my 6- year-old passed by me with his plate in his hand and told me, “I don’t like the peas, but I got them anyway.” That made me happy. I felt that the information we provide, regarding the value of food and nutrition was beginning to pay off. To top it off instead of flicking the peas at a friend, as he did last month, he actually ate them now that’s progress, the straightforward and honest way.