Last week, I whisked cauliflower and zucchini puree into macaroni and cheese. The next day, I hid sweet potatoes, carrots and wheat germ in chicken-finger breading.
The recipes were from "The Sneaky Chef" cookbook, one of several bestsellers based on the premise of "sneaking" vegetables and other nutrients onto the plates of picky eaters like my 6-year-old daughter. Judging from the message boards on the cookbook author's website, moms everywhere are embracing deception in order to get their kids to eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
Meanwhile, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is attempting to transform the eating habits of the people in Huntington, W.Va., deemed "America's unhealthiest city," in a six-part reality TV show that started Friday.
And I'm wondering: What has our culture come to, that we must rely on stealth vegetables and reality TV to break our national addiction to junk food?
We need food reform as much as health care reform "" not just because the obesity epidemic is driving up the cost of health care, but because our children's lives depend on it. According to Oliver, if Americans don't change their eating habits soon, today's kids may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
The reasoning behind the "Sneaky Chef" philosophy is simple: By hiding nutrient-rich ingredients in foods kids like, parents can lower the stakes in fights over food. Purees slipped into milkshakes or meatballs are not billed as a replacement for whole fruits and vegetables in plain view, but rather, as a coping tactic to give concerned moms the patience to persevere when their kids clamp their mouths shut and refuse to eat their broccoli. Nutrition experts say kids need to be exposed to a new food several times before they will accept it, and making the dinner table a battleground not only slows the process but sets the stage for eating disorders later in life.
I have no problem with the sneaking "" as long as it's not a substitute for teaching kids to make healthy choices. At my house, we talk about moderation, food as fuel and where food comes from. I serve two vegetables every night at dinner, and gradually, my stubborn 6-year-old has expanded her taste beyond cucumbers and celery.
"Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" seeks to reform not just the choices we make at the family dinner table, but the food being dished out in school cafeterias. This is important!
How can we teach our children to make healthy choices at home, when they are offered a tray full of poor choices every day at school?
At my daughter's school, a typical breakfast is full of refined flour, sugar and chemicals: Lucky Charms, buttered white bread toast and pineapple juice; a banana muffin and bright-red or blue Trix yogurt.
Lunch menus are repetitive and made up mostly of processed foods "" chicken nuggets, pizza, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, soft pretzels, coleslaw, canned fruits and vegetables, and something called "potato puffs."
The problem with school meals is similar to the problem with the American diet in general.
Our food system is geared toward agribusiness, with government subsidies for corn and soy "" cheap commodities that form the building blocks of junk food, and get dumped into our school meal programs.
Over the past 50 years, the sneaky chefs working for the food conglomerates have gotten us hooked on foods full of high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated soybean oil, and artificial colors and flavors.
These are the foods that are advertised on TV and purchased in ready-to-serve packages by parents who don't have the time or inclination to cook from scratch.
It's no coincidence that these are also the foods that cash-strapped school districts can afford to buy and prepare.
I'm encouraged by local efforts to address this issue.
At least three schools (Cooperstown, Walton and Oneonta's Greater Plains Elementary) have initiated projects to plant gardens and incorporate the food produced into cafeteria menus.
Last month, Delaware Academy high school students enjoyed a nontraditional lunch: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, vegetable casserole, beet yogurt dip, apple crisp and maple yogurt, all made with ingredients produced within 50 miles of Delhi.
The lunch was presented by Farm Catskills, a not-for-profit group that supports local agriculture.
These could be the first steps in our own revolution. Let the food fight begin!
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.