Hidden Assets: Sneaky Ways to Eat Healthier
Stealthy ingredient swaps and under-the-radar additions make for more nutritious meals and snacks. Picky eaters are no match for these clever tips and recipes!
Chocolate Beet Cake photo by Ashley Strickland Freeman
Google the phrase “picky eaters,” and you’ll get over 8.5 million returns, a tremendous number of which are squarely kid-focused. Parents and public health experts alike may fret over feeding persnickety progeny, but here’s the secret: Plenty of adults have particular palates, too.
And we’re creatures of habit, so even the adventurous eaters among us tend to return to familiar fare we know we like (or at least find convenient to make), and to avoid things we think we don’t. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless we’re leaning heavily on processed foods and forgetting to eat stuff that nourishes us. Unfortunately, that’s often the case.
CDC data, although dated, is revealing: Only about 1 in 10 adults in America eats enough fruit and vegetables. The suggested intakes aren’t especially high, either — per the USDA’s My Plate recommendations, women need at least 1 ½ cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables each day, while men should eat at least 2 cups of fruit and 3 ½ cups of vegetables.
Maybe the trouble is that historically, veggies show up most prominently as side dishes in American cuisine. They’re on the plate because they have to be — and dangled as an enticement or threat as the gateway to dessert. Sure, food pros have been championing the cause of plant-based cuisine for years, and if social media feeds and glossy cookbooks are any indication, we love the idea of vibrant produce-forward fare. But when we’re rushing to put dinner on the table, we fall back on a bowl of steamed broccoli that’ll probably get less love than it deserves.
How do you get everyone to eat their veggies (and fruit!) without a power struggle — especially if you’re dealing with food aversions/suspicious diners/toddlers on a food jag? Get a little sneaky!
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Stealthy healthy cooking FAQs
Read these commonly asked questions if you’re on the fence about being sneaky
Are you suggesting I lie to my family/friends/self to get everyone to eat more broccoli? Sounds shady …
Sometimes a little bit of culinary subterfuge makes it easier to try new foods, or boost the nutritional value of your recipes. Depending on your audience, you can choose what to reveal — and when. Will your meat-and-potatoes-loving significant other touch the burgers if she knows you blended sauteed, chopped mushrooms into the meat? Will your kid concede that they do like spinach if it’s mashed into potatoes, even if they hate seeing a big pile on their plate? The idea isn’t to hide every “healthy” ingredient all the time — it’s just to find ways to work in nutritious foods that might get rejected or otherwise forgotten. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make folks start to crave them.
Fine. If I’m getting sly, what foods should I focus on?
Think produce: veggies, fruits, and beans or legumes. Whole grains are important, too. These are broad categories, so don’t fret (or obsess) over incorporating a particular ingredient — no matter how much it’s touted as a superfood. If you’ve given kale the old college try, but loathe it no matter how it’s prepared, there’s no compelling reason to blend it into a smoothie.
Focus on (natural) colors, too — pigment often indicates that certain nutrients or antioxidants are present in your produce. So, if you don’t care for carrots, but love butternut squash or cantaloupe, incorporate those into your meals for a beta carotene boost.
Is it ever a bad idea to sneak in a secret ingredient?
Absolutely. Don’t assume the adage, “What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” is true here. For folks with food allergies, hidden ingredients can be literally life-threatening. The office potluck or neighborhood picnic isn’t the place for sneaky swaps or clever inclusions. That’s especially true if you’re using major allergens in places they don’t normally appear. No one with a soy allergy, for example, should find out that your creamy artichoke dip is make with silken tofu after they’ve already taken a bite. (Speaking of potlucks, it’s always a good practice to label dishes clearly, and to note the presence of major allergens.)
And consider the trust factor when you’re feeding others: If your kiddo is likely to melt down because they feel like you tricked them into trying something they hate, tread carefully. Don’t force them to try a food, but try to incentivize it. Involve them in prep, or play a guessing game — “Hey, there’s a hidden vegetable that you don’t usually like, but you might in this recipe. Want to taste test and see if you can guess what it is?”
Ultimately, there are lots of ways to sneak healthy foods into meals. It could be as simple as blending a handful of spinach into a smoothie, or stirring peas into your pasta. If you’re ready for some advanced stealthy healthy cooking tactics, read on for lots of ideas and creative recipes.
Keep it under wraps
This pickiness-sidestepping tactic turns the adage that “we eat with our eyes first” on its head. Sure, artfully composed Buddha bowls may glean endless likes from produce hounds on Instagram, but if you’re iffy about broccoli, you probably don’t want to see it piled on your plate — or even dotting your pizza. Wrap it up in a tortilla (or phyllo, or pizza dough) though, and suddenly the idea of eating what you can’t see is a lot more appealing.
Sauteed greens, fresh dill, and cheese comprise the deliciously nutritious filling in these homemade crepes. Better yet, the crepe batter blends all-purpose flour with whole wheat or buckwheat flour; the latter addition is très authentique.
Who’s going to say “no” to black beans, sweet potatoes, corn, peppers, and lusciously melty cheese when the combo is rolled up in a crispy corn tortilla?
When saucy and shredded, veggies and tofu can feel more approachable than when they’re in larger, more obviously identifiable pieces. That’s especially true when you can wrap them in hoisin-slathered Mandarin pancakes or flour tortillas.
This ingenious recipe transforms store-bought (or homemade) pizza dough into a single, sheet pan-sized calzone perfect for slicing and sharing.
Be a smooth operator
Sometimes texture or appearance is an impediment, but flavor isn’t. Plenty of people hate the idea of biting into a squirty, seedy tomato, for instance, but will totally get down with a smooth, slow-simmered tomato sauce.
Peas boost the fiber and protein in this otherwise classic basil pesto. Try it on pasta, in wraps, or with crudites and crackers.
Tomato-based spaghetti sauces are assertively flavored, so it’s easy to slide in extra veggies. This version is pureed, so additions literally blend right in, enhancing flavor without standing out texturally.
There’s cucumber hiding under the fruity flavors of this refreshing smoothie. If you’ve been curious about kefir — a probiotic-rich cultured dairy beverage — this is a nice way to try it.
Hide in plain sight
Feeding folks with trust issues? Don’t hide recipe tweaks. Sometimes seeing that yes, there are flecks of veggies, and no, they aren’t that big, is enough to entice a skeptic to taste — and even embrace — an enhanced dish.
There’s no denying the presence of carrots in this recipe — the bright orange hue is a major tell — but the flavor is nuanced and savory rather than specifically carroty. The recipe is easy and adaptable, too — fresh herbs and grated zucchini make excellent additions. My carrot-hating kiddo thinks it’s hilarious that this is his favorite rice in the world.
Flecked with broccoli, kale, carrots, and herbs, these turkey meatballs are colorful, versatile, and adaptable.
These dairy-free, egg-free muffins are lightly sweetened and loaded with zucchini. Try them with brunch or alongside a bowl of soup.
Dress it up (or take a dip)
There’s nothing like a bowl of dip or a carafe of dressing to make naked celery sticks or a plate of unadorned leafy greens seem enticing. These veggie-based embellishments are a delicious, nutritious double-dip.
Zippy, smoky Romesco is a Spanish cuisine classic that features roasted red bell peppers, tomatoes, and often almonds, though you can skip the nuts if you’re allergic. It’s fabulous for dipping vegetables or crusty bread, as a condiment for roasted fish or grilled meats, on sandwiches, or even as a pasta sauce.
Classic Green Goddess is an herby dressing rich with anchovies, mayonnaise, and sour cream. This vegan version gets its signature color from avocado and herbs, and creaminess from sesame tahini.
If this recipe doesn’t inspire you to find new ways to jazz up a can of beans, I don’t know what will.
Baked goods and side dishes are ideal places to trade refined grains for nutrient- and fiber-rich whole grains
Soft, fluffy, and lightly honey-sweetened, these rolls are a great introduction to whole wheat, and they’re easy to make if you’re a bread-baking newbie.
Risotto that doesn’t require constant stirring? Yes, please! Short grain brown rice (instead of the typical arborio or carnaroli) stars in this oven-baked dish. A generous hit of Parmesan and asparagus make it hard to resist.
Barley’s toothsome texture is so satisfying, and it’s an outstanding foil for easy-sell veggies like corn and grape tomatoes.
Sometimes an already well-loved dish makes the perfect vehicle for ingredients that muster less enthusiasm. Play this one carefully — the idea is to go for novelty, not to make someone feel like your recipe tweaks yucked their favorite yum.
If veggies on top of pizza meet with rejection, put them in the sauce. Sure, it’s a little devious to blanket them under delectable melted cheese, but it works.
Want your kids to eat their vegetables? Make them dippable and turn them into finger foods. Sure, it’s easier to steam a head of cauliflower, but making (and then devouring) these tots is a lot more fun.
Homey, comforting mashed potatoes are a great vehicle for other root vegetables like celery root, carrots, parsnips, and more. This recipe is a basic guide to getting creative with flavorful, nutritious additions to a crowd favorite.
Blending smooth butternut squash into mac and cheese is a brilliant hack — the color matches the cheddary sauce for an under-the-radar, kid-friendly addition that’s easy to love.
Soups are straight up comfort food, so they convey a “try it, you’ll like it” vibe
One of my kids acts like fruit is actual kryptonite — but she’ll eat this soup, even knowing there are roasted apples lurking in the puree.
The cool thing about gazpacho (other than its temperature) is the way it seamlessly blends the flavors of lots of vegetables. Serve it simply, drizzled with olive oil, or offer chopped veggies and croutons so diners can customize their bowls.
If there’s anything mysterious about vegetable soup it’s not in the ingredients, but in the way it somehow entices folks to eat veggies they wouldn’t ordinarily touch.
Bean there? Done that!
Beans, lentils, and legumes are often-overlooked nutrition boosters that deserve menu staple status. And whether they’re an accent or take center stage in a meal, they’re typically kid pleasers.
This recipe is simpler to make than traditional Persian dill rice with tadhig, but it’s delicious nevertheless. An abundance of herbs lends the dish big flavor, and the lima beans blend in, so they’re more likely to get devoured.
Sweet potato makes these softer and a little more mellow than traditional falafel. Whether it’s root veggies or chickpeas you’re trying to sell, this recipe is worth a go.
These meatball doppelgangers are vegan, nut-free, and easy to prepare. Try them with spaghetti, on a sub roll, or straight up with dipping sauce.
Don’t knock dessertification
To paraphrase Mary Poppins, just a spoonful of sugar turns produce supercalifragilisticextrasuperdelicious! Or something like that.
Beets are sometimes a hard sell, but roasting mellows their earthy intensity and heightens their sweetness. They’ve got a surprising affinity for chocolate, too, as this lovely cake proves.
Blitzed in a food processor, chickpeas display an uncanny resemblance to cookie dough that’s only heightened when they’re blended with actual cookie ingredients like brown sugar and vanilla. Rainbow sprinkles and white chocolate chips make these protein- and fiber-rich treats fun; they’re gluten-, egg-, and nut-free to boot.
Fans of fudgy brownies will appreciate these rich, chocolatey morsels. Silky avocados replace butter (and provide heart-healthy fat), and the (mostly) maple-sweetened squares feature whole wheat flour.
More healthy eating tips
Read on to find more ways to include healthy eats in your weekly diet, and in your kids' lunch boxes!