Tasty trickery

What I remember about food, as a kid, is that I preferred the things reserved for treats (cheesecake, white-flour pasta, Hershey’s miniatures)—and given the choice, I’d sit at the table all night rather than finish anything resembling a root vegetable.

Hidden agenda: 18-month-old Beau Bianchi devours beets and apricots presented in cute mini-muffin form (right). Undisguised butternut-squash soup didn’t fare nearly so well (left). Photos By Jonathan Welch

But, with growing concerns about childhood obesity, early-onset diabetes, and allergy-related ailments, many parents are more determined than ever to get veggies and other healthy foods past the tightly sealed lips of their offspring.

“Our heart disease patients are heavier, and also younger, than they have ever been,” writes Dr. Roxana Mehran in the forward to Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food (HarperCollins, 2007) by Jessica Seinfeld (yes, wife of comedian Jerry). “We know that this disease is largely preventable through a healthful diet … as parents, we know how important it is to teach our children good habits early on.”

Seinfeld’s book, beyond the gimmicky cartoons, appetizingly colorful photos and handy ring binding, is a practicum of trickery. She offers up 17 fruit and vegetable purees (beet, broccoli, bell pepper and banana among them) and then instructs parents on how to hide each nutrient-packed pottage into foods kids like. Butternut-squash puree hidden in the spaghetti-and-meatballs. Spinach puree slipped into chocolate brownies. Seriously.

Noteworthy: In the case of the brownies, Seinfeld cautions, “Just don’t serve them warm—it’s not until they’re completely cool that the spinach flavor totally disappears.” Likely, some finicky children will detect the objectionable vegetable, and some customer reviews on Amazon.com complained that ground chickpeas gave Seinfeld’s chocolate-chip recipes a weird texture, while cauliflower puree made the macaroni “gritty.” 

But this isn’t the only controversy surrounding Deceptively. A plagiarism lawsuit has been brought against Seinfeld by fellow author Missy Chase Lapine, who penned last year’s The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals. The verdict is up to the courts, but for parents on the lookout for tasty, healthy meals, this could be a case of “great minds cook alike.”

Indeed, healthy-kid foods—for all their trend-in-the-making appeal—are not a new concept. Cookbook maven Mollie Katzen (who gave us the adult-oriented Moosewood Cookbook back in 1977) has been honing her child-friendly recipes for years. Her most recent in that genre is Salad People And More Real Recipes: A New Cookbook for Preschoolers & Up (Tricycle Press, 2005). The 20 whimsically illustrated recipes are all kid-tested, with comments from the preschoolers who tried them. While the offerings are at times overly simple and of the snack ilk (“Tiny Tacos” made on tortilla chips, lemonade, soup and crackers), the point is that young children can make them with adult supervision, thus jump-starting an appreciation of food.

Katzen’s book is, in many ways, a nod to the early days (circa late 1960s and early 1970s) of health food, before slickly packaged soymilk, organic cheese and gluten-free bread. In those days, natural-foods cooks aimed mainly to eliminate processed flours and sugars. My favorite book from that era is Tilda’s Treat: A New Way to Eat (Keats Publishing, 1975) by Karen Kelly.

That slim, paperback volume (now out of print) starts with a story about a group of siblings left with their health-nut aunt while their parents are on vacation. Aunt Tilda takes the opportunity to introduce the children to trail mix, whole-grain bread and honey-sweetened cookies—ideas that seem rote in this age of agave nectar, acai juice and spelt waffles. But it’s also a reminder that it doesn’t have to be packed with blue-green algae to be healthy. A raisin-granola cookie can go a long way. And pancakes can make a good dinner now and then.

Inspired by these three books, Xpress tested several recipes on toddler Beau Bianchi. Here’s what we found:

Beet-Apricot Muffins:

This was the winning recipe, according to Beau. He ate at least three of them.
• 1 cup whole wheat or unbleached white flour
• 1/2 cup ground flax seeds
• 1/4 cup sucanat or Florida crystals
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Mix all dry ingredients in one bowl and set aside. In a separate bowl combine:
• 1/4 cup agave nectar
• 1/2 cup soymilk
• 2 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce
• 1 medium-sized beet, any color, peeled and grated
• 1/2 cup dried apricots, minced

Pour wet ingredients into dry and stir just enough to combine completely. Prepare a mini-muffin tin with non-stick spray, and divide mixture evenly between muffin molds. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool and eat. Muffins should have a moist texture from the applesauce. Beets, agave nectar and apricots lend natural sweetness. Red beets will turn the mixture bright-red before baking, resulting in dark-pink muffins. These can be made in large batches and frozen.

Veggie Clown

Inspired by Mollie Katzen’s Salad People:

Halve a peeled, cored pear. Turn it flat side down in the center of a plate. Add one 1/4-cup scoop of cottage cheese for hair, and top with a peeled circle of kiwi. Make eyes of halved grapes or raisins. Use raisins, dried cranberries, cherries or olive slices for buttons on the pear body. Make arms and legs from carrot or celery sticks or strips of bell pepper. Add a “skirt” of lettuce. Serve immediately. (Older children can select their own fruits and veggies and construct their own clown. Obviously not ready for this stage, Beau tugged at his clown’s various parts but ended up chucking the pear “body” unceremoniously onto the kitchen counter.)

Veggie noodles and cheesy sauce. Here’s an alternative to mac-and-cheese. The noodles are a fun way to introduce kids to raw vegetables, and the sauce provides lots of B vitamins while reducing fat. It’s cheesy-tasting but doesn’t use cheese.

For the noodles, wash the zucchini. Make noodles by peeling strips with a vegetable peeler. These can be twisted or rolled and arranged on a plate. They don’t need to be cooked.

For the sauce:
• 1 cup flour
• 1 cup nutritional-yeast flakes
• 1 tablespoon canola oil
• salt to taste (start with a teaspoon)
• 3 cups water
• 3/4 cup fat-free plain yogurt

Toast the flour in a sauté pan over medium heat, stirring constantly until it begins to brown. Stir in the yeast flakes, mixing thoroughly. Add oil and combine for a thick paste. Add water, one cup at a time, whisking to prevent lumps. When all the liquid is mixed in (it should be a thick sauce), add the yogurt and combine. Transfer to a food processor or blender and whip for about one minute. Spoon over zucchini noodles.

Beau wasn’t so sure about the noodles: They wound up on the floor. Elbow macaroni can be substituted. As Seinfeld points out, “I leave a box of store-bought macaroni-and-cheese out on the counter and the kids naturally assume …”

Hey, whatever it takes.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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