Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Book review: The Sneaky Chef

I recently received a review copy of Missy Chase Lapine's The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids Favorite Meals. When the publicist first offered it to me, I'll admit to being a little bit skeptical.

The blurb in the introductory e-mail said, "Learn how to make the meals your children already love -- but with secret sneaky ingredients that pack a healthy punch. Your kids will never suspect that there's blueberries pureed into their brownies, cauliflower in their mac 'n' cheese, or sweet potatoes in their lasagna -- but they'll love every bite! Here are simple, practical recipes and techniques that will help every busy parent create healthy meals for the whole family."

I was skeptical, but I was also curious. Curious, and rather exasperated at trying to get Tristan, my fussiest eater, to consume even a few bites from each food group every day, let alone hitting the recommended daily targets.

I was formulating a post in my head before I even received the book. I had doubts about the premise of the book, about the concept of hiding healthy food inside foods my kids might deign to eat. Spinach in brownies? How the hell would that work out? And it would probably be a lot of extra work, and I'm not so fond of cooking in the first place, let alone anything that makes cooking even MORE work. And anyway, isn't the point to teach kids to make healthy choices, not to trick them into eating good stuff they wouldn't even know was there?

Okay, so I was a little biased. And you know what? I ended up really liking this book. Mind you, I haven't actually tried any of the recipes so far. I'll blog a few of them over the next little while. But once I got over my initial skepticism, the recipes intrigued me enuogh that I've bought into the concept in principal.

My only criticism of the book itself is that it takes WAY too long for the author to expound upon her food philosphies. She spends three long chapters giving background and justifications and rationalizations, discussing why kids are fussy eaters and why we need to improve their diets. Can't say I learned anything from the first 55 pages, but I really liked the section titled The Lists, which includes a list of the 12 most important and 12 least important foods to buy organic. (#1 most contaminated food = peaches; #1 least contaminated food = sweet corn.) I was also greatly reassured that maybe this was a good cookbook for me, the world's laziest chef, by the fact that not only did I recognize all of the items on the shopping list of staples, but I already had most of them at hand.

The recipes weren't what I was expecting either. I was expecting tips like add shredded carrots to meatloaf and spaghetti sauce, and using apple sauce instead of oil in your baking; the kind of tips that are in my favourite-of-all-time cookbooks, the Podleski sisters' trio of LooneySpoons, Crazy Platesand Eat Shrink and Be Merry.

I admit, I cringed when I first read The Sneaky Chef's premise. And yet, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. She suggests 13 make-ahead purees of concentrated, nutrient dense foods. For example, the "purple puree" contains baby spinach and blueberries with lemon juice; the "orange puree" contains carrots and sweet potatoes; and the "better breading" contains whole wheat bread crumbs, almonds, wheat germ and salt. The idea is that the purees and blends are rich in nutrients but deviod of unpleasant textures and easy to hide in foods kids will eat.

The thing I liked best about this cookbook is that it has a whole whack of recipes for foods my kids (and by kids, I mean Tristan and Simon and Beloved, the latter being perhaps almost as if not more fussy than the first) will actually eat.

Some of the recipes are simple in a "why didn't I think of that?" kind of way, like adding wheat germ to oatmeal (my kids, they love oatmeal from a box), or adding "orange puree" to quesadillas. I was won over completely by the idea of adding "orange puree" to canned pasta, as my boys adore that unnaturally neon-orange pasta in a can and I feel a twinge of empty-calorie and maxed-out preservative guilt every time I serve it.

There are more complex and interesting recipes, too. I'll be trying the Magic Meatballs soon. They contain the usual lean ground beef or turkey, a bit of tomato paste, an egg and some salt, but also 6 to 8 tablespoons of "green puree" (baby spinach, broccoli, sweet peas and lemon juice) and 1/4 cup of wheat germ. And both the Unbelievable Chocolate Chip Cookies (with hidden special Flour Blend, rolled oats ground to a powder, ground almonds and "white bean puree") and the Brainy Brownie (with "purple puree" - the one with spinach and blueberries!) sound intriguing enough to try at least once.

And for the truly lazy (you're looking at me, aren't you?), the author even suggests that if you are averse to food processors and blenders, you can replace the home-made purees with store-bought baby food.

Am I really thinking about putting a blend of spinach and blueberry baby food in my brownies? Hey, if I have learned one thing in this whole parenting adventure it's that my motto ought to be "whatever works."

What do you think? Crazy idea, or just crazy enough to work?

(Editorial aside: In my continuing capitulation to commercialization, I've finally signed on as an Amazon Associate. My book review links now contain a referral code that give me, in theory, a small commission if you happen to choose to buy one via my link. No pressure, though. The boys can always panhandle their way through college.)

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