There’s a lot of online chat in parenting forums about how to sneak vegetables past the tastebuds of kids who think green stuff is the devil’s business. This means that many parents are spending an awful lot of time on vegetable camouflage duty – disguising them in sauces, whizzing them into purées, hiding them in cakes and constructing herbaceous plated artworks. I can see why. Most parents these days are trying to make healthier food choices. And nothing focuses the mind more sharply on vegetables than a Horsegate-style meat scandal.
Inevitably, children’s food manufacturers have cottoned on to the fact that parents will happily opt for subterfuge when it comes to getting the good stuff onto children’s plates and into their mouths without a tussle. Food Product Design, an online magazine for the food and beverage industry, has just dedicated a special edition to the issues and trends currently high on the agendas of children’s food manufacturers. A fascinating report called Avoiding a Food Fight found that while most parents now place an increased importance on healthier food, they won’t buy a healthy product if they think it will cause a dinner time skirmish with the kids.
Thus, with official health guidelines recommending five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, food manufacturers are adopting a “five a day the stealthy way” approach, according to the report. Favourite “stealth” ingredients include sweet potato juice concentrate and purées, beetroot juice concentrate, cucumber juice and other mild-flavoured concentrates. These can be used to replace high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener widely used in processed food and heavily implicated in the child obesity debate. “We have been doing more of those stealth-health types of products to hide the vegetables and keep vegetable flavor to a minimum,” says Lynne Foster, corporate R&D chef of American-based food company Vegetable Juices.
Obviously, any reduction in the amount of dodgy sweeteners children consume is A Good Thing. But for me, the worry is the reference to keeping “vegetable flavour to a minimum”. The fibre content and nutritional value of vegetable concentrates and purées is significantly less than in veg that’s travelled straight from field to fork. So shouldn’t we try to help our kids learn to love vegetables, rather than hide them like a dirty secret?
I know. Your munchkin just won’t eat vegetable matter whatever you do. I hear you.
So I turn to the doyenne of Mothers of Children with Perfect Eating Habits, Karen Le Billon. In her book French Kids Eat Everything, Le Billon sets out a 10-step plan to encourage children to be open to eating anything, just like le francais. Her book is aggravating and helpful in equal measure. Just follow these steps, she implies, and your kids will soon be shunning Haribos in favour of radishes dipped in aioli. Yeah, right.
She does, however, makes some valid points and suggestions. Since reading her book I’ve started serving my children aged 8 and 11 a little plate of vegetables as a first course before the main meal; it makes veggies seem special rather than an optional meal add-on, and nips in the bud kiddie arguments they’re too full to eat them once they’ve wolfed down the protein and carbs. I’m also inclined to agree with Le Billon’s philisophy that firmness is a good thing. I’m as guilty as anyone of letting the lunatics take over the asylum occasionally when my ebb is low, but veg really shouldn’t be optional: the rule in our house is that they have to be tasted at the very least.
Letting kids choose the vegetables they eat also seems to open a magic taste bud door, as does getting them to help in the prep. It really does. Until recently, my son detested zucchini. Sliced into rounds or shaved into ribbons and cooked, zucchini was slimy and odious. Then he struck upon the idea to grate it and pop it into a foil parcel of fish. Lo and behold, he’s now happy to eat it this way.
It’s not difficult to prepare meals that allow kids to add their vegetables of choice: fajitos, tacos, burritos and or even burgers. Just put bowls of different brightly coloured chopped vegetables on the table (veg seems to be much more palatable in small bits) like corn, grated carrot, shredded lettuce, diced red pepper, diced tomato and sticks of cucumber, and let them help themselves. We often do this with pizza when we have extra kids over to feed.
The problem is that sometimes adults hanker after something a bit more sophisticated than pizza. I know I do. The recipe below is my solution: enough like a pizza to satisfy everyone, but actually tastes a lot nicer. I used grated zucchini in this because of my son’s recent Damascene moment, although when I presented this to him on Sunday he initially turned up his nose because he could “see the green bits”. When I pointed out that it was grated zucchini, which he had recently decided he liked, he said “Oh yeah” and proceeded to gobble it up. Go figure.
The buttery flaky pastry here is based on a Delia version, to which I have added herbs and a little more water. My goodness it’s tasty.
For the pastry
- 175g plain flour
- 90g butter that’s been kept in the freezer for 30 minutes
- 1 heaped tablespoon finely chopped parsley
- pinch of salt
For the vegetables
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- a small knob of butter
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1 large handful cauliflower florets, cut small
- 1 large zucchini, grated
- salt and pepper
- a grating or two of lemon zest
- grated Cheddar
1. Sieve the flour into a large bowl and add the salt and parsley. Mix. Grate in the butter, holding it in foil to avoid touching it with your hands.
2. Use a palette knife to mix the flour and fat together so that all the butter is coated. Sprinkle over 2 tablespoons of cold water. Mix with the palette knife until the mixture comes together into a scraggy dough, adding a bit more water if necessary. Bring it together into a disc with your hands, wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat the oil and butter in a frying pan over a medium heat and add the onion. Turn the heat down and very gently sweat for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cauliflower and cook gently for 5 minutes more. Finally, add the zucchini, lemon zest and seasoning, stir well and stew for a couple of minutes more. Turn of the heat and set aside.
4. Set the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6. Lightly grease a large baking sheet. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough until it is very thin (about 3mm is right) and cut it into 4 circles about 6cm in diameter, using a bowl or saucer as a guide. Give the circles another roll to make them nice and thin.
5. Place the discs on the baking sheet and spoon the cooked vegetables into the centre of each disc, leaving a 2.5cm rim around the edge. Sprinkle over the Cheddar.
6. Fold the edges of the discs over, crimping them as you go. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is pale gold and crisp underneath, and the cheese bubbling and brown. Serve immediately with a lovely crisp green salad.