Irvington Mom Cooks Up a Scheme


   Irvington mom Missy Chase Lapine hasn’t earned the name, “The Sneaky Chef” for nuthin’.  In many households, parents would add the moniker: genius.

   Here’s Lapine’s concept: Vegetables taste bland, but as such, can be mixed — incognito — into the less healthy dishes children love.  The idea is simple and so good. Lapine has a new book out on the very subject: The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids Favorite Meals (Running Press, $17.95).

   Her recipes encourage parent cooks to blend white beans into chocolate chip cookies, spinach into hamburgers, and sweet potatoes and carrots into pasta sauce.  Try it, she says; it just might work!  And the beauty of it?  Your children will never know the difference.

The sneaky tricks
   Lapine’s secret is to puree the vegetables.  The benefit is twofold:  (1) their texture is masked by the rest of the dish; and (2) you get more bang for your buck.  As she explains it, if you try to get a child to eat two cups of spinach at a sitting, you will be sitting at the dinner table for a week.  Pureed, two cups of spinach will reduce to less than half a cup of food, but with the same amount of nutrients.  You can then take that half-cup of spinach and mix it into, say, hamburger meat, and no one is the wiser.  Lapine came up with the idea when one of her children refused to drink a liquid antibiotic for an infection.  Lapine mixed the medicine into pudding, which her daughter happily ate.

Accomplished in the kitchen
    A mom with two picky eaters of her own, Lapine boasts an impressive resume:  culinary school and editor of Gourmet and Eating Well magazines.  She says her background taught her the techniques necessary to successfully experiment with unusual food combinations . . . spinach and blueberries, anyone?  Lapine also spent two years perfecting the recipes in her test kitchen and discussing the ingredients with nutritionists. 

   Her methods have garnered national attention.  She is partnering with the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation to bring The Sneaky Chef recipes to schools nationwide.

   And in response to the critique that The Sneaky Chef method does not teach healthier eating habits since the book encourages parents to simply hide boosters in otherwise nutritionally devoid foods, Lapine counters that her book is not about forcing children to eat more healthfully.  Rather, it is about combating the obesity problem in America where it begins: at home.  Lapine quotes studies showing children who eat their recommended doses of fruits, grains and vegetables are better able to maintain a healthy weight throughout life.  As an added bonus, you can serve your child that burger he loves with absolute peace of mind because you know that it now packs the calcium, folic acid, vitamins A and C and beta carotene of spinach; the zinc, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, fiber and lutein found in blueberries; the vitamins B6 and B12 of eggs; the lycopene from the ketchup; the whole grains from the whole wheat bread crumbs; and the protein from the lean beef.  And, Lapine maintains, although your child may not know it, he is subconsciously acquiring a taste for the hidden ingredients, helping him make better food choices later in life.
   As Lapine sees it, being sneaky is not a new concept; the fast food giants are the ultimate sneaky chefs, she points out.  After all, fast food companies and junk food manufacturers have been stuffing our foods with MSG, sodium, preservatives, saturated fats and other unhealthy products for years.  She is, she says, “fighting fire with fire.”

Testing it out

   My own picky 3-year-old happily ate the meatballs and hamburgers laced with spinach, blueberries and whole grain.  He also gobbled down the chocolate chip cookies and the “ice cream”.  But the recipes are not without flaws.  For example, while tasty, the chocolate chip cookies, made with wheat germ, whole wheat, white beans and half the fat and sugar of regular chocolate chip cookies, had a peculiar texture. Similarly, the “ice cream” — a blend of fruit, yogurt or milk, and one tablespoon of honey or sugar — was not as creamy as its unhealthy counterpart.  It does, however, pack a wallop of vitamins C and K, potassium, folate, calcium, fiber and protein.  Lapine’s suggested remedy for any noticeable change in taste or texture is to add a “taste decoy”.  The chocolate chips in the cookies, for instance, mask the flakiness of the dough.  Lapine adds a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkles when she serves her kids her “ice cream”.
   “Kids eat with their eyes,” she says, “so the first line of defense is to get them to like what they see.”  Once they take that first bite, the Sneaky Chef must make sure they keep eating.  One way to do it is to make sure the sweet hits the tongue first, tricking the mind into believing that the whole dish is sweeter than it actually is, thus making it more palatable to young children.  Lapine’s other favorite taste decoys include ketchup and cheese.

   One problem with The Sneaky Chef’s method is that it takes time and money.  The make-ahead recipes are somewhat time-consuming.  There is boiling and stewing and pureeing.  And the ingredients for the make-ahead recipes call for organic produce and/or ingredients found typically in health food stores at higher prices.  In response to both concerns, Lapine suggests using Beech Nut baby food as an “instant substitute” for the make-ahead recipes.  Her research indicates that Beech Nut products have the least additives and use mostly organic ingredients.  So, for example, instead of buying, washing, stewing and pureeing spinach and blueberries for the “Purple Puree”, one could use a jar of Beech Nut Spinach and a jar of blueberries and apples as a stand-in.

   Once you have the make-aheads in place, the recipes are easy to prepare.  Sample kid-friendly dishes include pancakes, French toast, cookies, macaroni and cheese, chicken noodle soup, pizza bagels, chicken tenders, meatballs, pizza, brownies, hamburgers and hot chocolate.
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