‘Stealth Veggies’ Are Good Enough for Mom, But May Not Cut the Mustard in School Cafeterias

‘Stealth Veggies’ Are Good Enough for Mom, But May Not Cut the Mustard in School Cafeterias

Stealth Vegetables Are a Proven Strategy for Moms

In Tuning into Mom: Understanding America’s Most Powerful Consumer, we explore how many moms use the strategy of “hiding” vegetables in homemade meals and also purchase pre-made products like Pirate’s Veggie Booty to increase vegetable consumption among their children.  This was such a common strategy among moms that we titled the chapter on Food “Stealth Veggies and Panini Making.” Recent research confirms that hiding vegetables continues to be one of mom’s most common strategies.

Do school cafeterias use this same strategy to meet nutritional guidelines and help students eat more vegetables? My research shows that stealth veggies in schools are actually fairly controversial.

Some Schools Love Hidden Vegetables

Historically, many schools have followed a similar strategy as Mom to increase vegetable consumption in their meals, for instance, by blending squash into spaghetti sauce or hiding legumes within the meat in burritos.

A typical comment from a Food Service/Nutrition Director in California:

“We already do that (hidden vegetables) and do that for years, we are the guinea pig for that. Like in our pizza, the onions and bell peppers were on top but now they are in the sauce and the kids don’t know they aren’t getting it.” 

In addition to blending in vegetables at the school, K-12 foodservice suppliers also offer popular foods with added vegetables.

‘Stealth Veggies’ Are Good Enough for Mom, But May Not Cut the Mustard in School CafeteriasOne example is Uno Foods sweet potato-infused pizza crust.  Or consider American Pride’s “Whole Grain Sweet Potato Alaskan Pollock Nuggets.” These are fish nuggets with a sweet potato crunchy coating.  In addition to adding vegetable content, a K-12 foodservice director mentioned that the sweet potato crust on the fish actually made the students like the product more. This is a win-win where the hidden vegetable enhances the taste and adds nutrition.

One Food Service/Nutrition Director in Massachusetts says:

“It’s out of this world delicious. Fish is a hard sell, and when you get something that makes the fish appealing, it really helps.  It’s done well for us.”

Against Hidden Vegetables in Schools

But not all school food service and nutrition directors agree with Mom about stealth veggies.  In fact, another equally large group of food service directors are philosophically opposed to hidden vegetables, and also feel that hidden vegetables are not in line with the latest government guidelines.  By our estimates, this group is as much as 50% of directors.

Says one New York Food Service/Nutrition Director:

“I tend not to like the hidden vegetables, because kids need to know what they are eating. Hidden vegetables aren’t the answers. The state and federal guidelines are more whole and fresh.”

In Kansas, another director agrees:

“No reason to hide vegetables except to meet regulations.  The whole point is to get the youth to eat more fruits and vegetables as a lifestyle change, so when you hide the vegetables, that doesn’t really meet the objectives of them selecting more vegetables in their everyday life.”

The Bigger School Context for Hidden Vegetables

Regardless of how the school food service and nutrition director nets out on stealth vegetables, these individuals are juggling taste acceptance issues in light of national guidelines that can make the meal options in schools less tasty (e.g., whole wheat, reduced sodium).

Other topics that food service directors must consider are:

  1. Using more locally sourced, farm to table foods
  2. Doing more scratch cooking
  3. Modernizing their facilities
  4. More universal feeding (dinners, open sites).

Districts vary greatly in the percent of students who eat free and reduced meals, the taste preferences of their students, the underlying enrollment of the area and meal participation, adding to the complexity of the picture.

Hidden vegetables, while potentially helpful or a deal breaker to individual directors, aren’t the top item on many school foodservice/nutrition director’s priority lists. But for mom, if she has a picky eater, or a child that dislikes vegetables, getting veggies into her child’s meals likely trumps any philosophical concerns, and she will try the stealth veggie approach.


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  • Strange that a nutrition director would be against hidden veggies. I agree that a big goal is to get kids used to seeing/enjoying vegetables. But why take sides? Why not do both?

  • It's a great point Colleen, thank you for asking!
    To your point, there are lots of times that added/hidden vegetables are a win-win. However, there are at least 2 other reasons foodservice directors choose not to get added vegetables in the product: 1. added vegetables may add to the cost beyond the regular product and school budgets can be tight, 2. despite best efforts, the added hidden vegetables may alter that taste or appearance of the product such that it loses acceptance and appeal.

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