Do you have a picky eater in your family? One day, my youngest daughter had strep throat, and in the time-honored tradition of mothers everywhere, I hid her foul-tasting medicine in some chocolate pudding. As I watched her swallow it without protest, I couldn’t help thinking about all the wars I had fought to get my kids to eat a fabulous grilled salmon or delicious carrot soup for dinner. Like other American children, mine had learned to run in horror from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and legumes. It dawned on me that if I wanted them to grow up healthy and fit, I would have to take this “hiding” idea a step further. If it worked for healthy medicine, I reasoned, why couldn’t it work for healthy food? And as I looked at the bigger picture, I knew there had to be a way to rescue dinner hour from being a battlefield, but without giving up on getting my kids to eat nutritiously. As a mother, this was a battle I couldn’t afford to lose.
Thus was born The Sneaky Chef. I compiled a list of kids’ favorite foods, the ones they would eat without resistance. I then came up with List B — “superfoods,” the world’s healthiest ingredients. And finally: How could I hide the items on List B inside List A? How could I conceal the foods they should eat inside the foods they would eat? After trying out hundreds of ideas in my own test kitchen, I came up with the secret: As long as they couldn’t see, smell or taste anything too different, they would eat what was placed in front of them without a fight.
Through careful testing, I eventually perfected the art of 13 hiding methods such as pureeing, using foods that hide well, and using visual and taste “decoys” to give food irresistible kid-appeal. In the “make-aheads” — the recipe within a recipe that I worked into almost every dish — I made sure I used superfoods, which are ingredients that pack the most nutritious punch. Among them are spinach, which contains iron, calcium, folic acid and vitamins A and C; blueberries, which contain antioxidants, potassium, iron, calcium and magnesium; cauliflower, which is packed with vitamin C, folate and fiber, and which fights disease and enhances immunity; and sweet potatoes, which stabilize blood sugar levels and contain vitamin B and folates. The basic principle was that if I wanted to eat smart, I had to buy smart, so I kept as many of the superfoods in my kitchen as possible all the time.
The way I looked at this endeavor was that I was a warrior going toe to toe with the food giants, companies that threw millions of dollars into seducing my kids into eating refined sugars and trans fats and empty carbs. If they could “package” their products in a way that enticed little ones into craving soda instead of milk, salty snacks, deep-fried vegetables and ultra-sweet junk foods of every conceivable variety, why shouldn’t I entice them right back? Except that I would fool my kids, not with the goal of making a profit, but with the intention that they grow up strong and healthy.
Now I had my mission. All the sneaky methods I used in my signature “make-aheads” were designed to present the healthiest ingredients in great tasting, good looking “packaging.” I realized that the success of any recipe depends on the kids’ willingness to eat it. Any time doubt reared its head, I simply did more homework. Thousands of scientific articles pointed to the benefits of eating better, aside from the obvious point that it makes your body feel better. Add to that, fewer illnesses, increased brain power, enhanced qualities of attention, strengthened immunity, better mood, and more energy.
The following make-ahead is an Orange Puree that blends excellently in pizza (and pasta) sauce, to bring a big nutritional boost to meals that usually aren’t thought of as health foods.
1 medium sweet potato or yam, peeled and rough chopped
3 med-to-large carrots, peeled and sliced into thick chunks
2-3 tablespoons water
In medium pot, cover carrots and potatoes with cold water. Boil 20 minutes until tender. (Thoroughly cook carrots or they’ll leave telltale nuggets — a gigantic no-no for the Sneaky Chef). Drain vegetables. Puree on high in food processor with two tablespoons water, until completely smooth. Use rest of water to make a smooth puree.
Makes about 2 cups of puree. Store in refrigerator up to 3 days, or freeze ¼ cup portions in plastic containers.
My kids have never noticed that I’m sneaking carrots and yams into their sauce! I mix the healthy puree right into the bottled tomato sauce, then I let the kids add the toppings. You can even prepare this pizza ahead of time without cooking it and then refrigerate for a day or two. Simply bake when you’re ready to eat.
Makes 1 large pizza or 4 smaller pizzas:
1 store-bought pizza dough or 4 “Greek style” pocketless pitas (whole wheat preferred)
¾ cup store-bought tomato sauce
¼ cup Orange Puree (see recipe above)
1 to 2 cups low-fat shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and preheat a pizza stone or spray a baking sheet with oil.
Stretch pizza dough, or roll out with floured rolling pin on floured surface, to form a pie. Transfer to stone or baking sheet. If using pocketless pitas, place them on the prepared baking sheet. Combine tomato sauce with Orange Puree. Mix well. Spread ½ to 1 cup of the sauce mixture across the large pizza dough (¼ cup for each pita), then top with 1 cup of mozzarella (½ cup per pita). Cover and refrigerate at this point, or bake for 15 to 20 minutes until bubbly and lightly browned. Allow to cool a few minutes, then cut into triangles and serve.
© Missy Chase Lapine, all rights reserved.
Missy Chase Lapine is the author of The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals (Running Press, March 2007). She is the former publisher of Eating Well magazine and the founder of a natural baby product line Baby Spa®. Missy is currently on the Culinary Arts faculty of The New School, in New York City, and operates The Sneaky Chef workshops, which is a program of cooking classes and demonstrations that teach families how to eat healthier. She is a contributor to Parenting Magazine, ediets.com, and education.com, and available to individuals, groups and businesses for private cooking instruction, workshops and personal coaching in The Sneaky Chef methods and recipes. Missy lives with her family in Westchester, New York. For more information visit www.TheSneakyChef.com.