Have you seen the ad campaign for Chef Boyardee in which a mother desperately tries to keep her son from finding out that the can of ravioli supposedly contains a full serving of vegetables? The idea being that if the child knew the pasta was actually good for him, he wouldn’t want to eat it.
With commercials like these, it’s no surprise that one of the hottest trends is being a “sneaky chef”—made popular by the Sneaky Chef Missy Chase Lapine—which involves using healthy recipes that let you subtly slip in veggies without anyone knowing.
It makes sense that veggies would go undercover. Many kids and adults view eating vegetables as a necessary evil. You toss some broccoli on your plate because it’s good for you, not necessarily because you like to munch on those green stalks.
But veggies not only improve your health, they also boast beauty benefits. “Eating plenty of colorful produce is one of the best ways to keep your skin looking young, firm and vibrant,” says Joy Bauer, R.D., nutrition and health expert for NBC’s “Today” show. Vegetables contain antioxidants like vitamins C and E and beta carotene, which help protect your skin from damaging free radicals. “A diet rich in these nutrients may help slow skin aging, such as wrinkling,” she says.
For example, vitamin C, found in bell peppers and broccoli, is required for collagen production, which gives skin its elasticity and strength, while beta carotene is a precursor to vitamin A, which is required for cell turnover and growth and the repair of skin tissue, according to Bauer.
So why aren’t veggies seen as a delicious beauty food? “Part of the problem is that we treat vegetables like they’re medicine,” explains Sarah Novak, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the psychology department at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. “We expect children won’t like vegetables so we don’t even bother to try.”
If your spouse or kids have put the kibosh on carrots or a ban on broccoli, sneaking them into their favorite dishes is one way to ensure they actually get those key nutrients.
Want to try your own sly chef experiment? Try these meal-making tips:
Blend veggies into soups. You can disguise vegetables that your partner or kids can’t stand by plopping them in a blender and turning them into a delicious soup. Throw in a variety of vegetables so the flavor of one veggie doesn’t dominate the rest, suggests Novak.
Toss them into meat dishes. Add veggies like chopped carrots, bell peppers, spinach or frozen mixed vegetables to lean ground turkey or beef when making burgers, meatballs or meatloaf, suggests Bauer. The bonus? The cooking process makes the nutrients in vegetables more accessible. “Cooking helps you access the antioxidants,” explains Novak.
Sneak them into sauces. Tomato sauce can mask the taste of a variety of vegetables. Toss zucchini, spinach, carrots or cauliflower into your pasta sauces, suggests Novak, and no one will be the wiser.
Bake it in. Baking with vegetables may sound gross, but some produce pairs surprisingly well with homemade bread (think zucchini bread).
That said, you don’t need to keep up the veggie charade forever, according to Novak. And her research backs that up: In Novak’s study, children were served mac and cheese that contains cauliflower and zucchini. Some kids were shown a head of cauliflower and a zucchini before eating the dish, and others weren’t told that there were veggies in the meal. “We saw no difference overall,” says Novak. “They didn’t prefer the mac and cheese when they didn’t know about the vegetables.”
But sneaking in vegetables may backfire as people get older. A follow-up study had college students eat brownies made with spinach and blueberries. “When you say spinach in chocolate brownies, people make a face and think it sounds gross,” says Novak. “We thought it would sabotage everything if we told people and that ignorance is bliss.”
Turns out, people are more complicated than that. When the college students weren’t told about the spinach-infused brownies, they expected it to taste like the decadent sweet treat they’re used to. But when they bit into it, they reported that the taste was off and questioned what was in the brownie. The students who were told about veggie-packed brownies beforehand expected it to taste nasty, but found it was surprisingly good. “They ended up liking it more when they knew about the spinach and brownies,” says Novak.
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