Covert cooking: how do I sneak healthy food into my family’s diet?

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Diet Statue

Dakoma asks:

I have been trying to get back into good shape and am reading lots of health articles. My husband is a police officer and spends most of his time eating fast food and sitting in a car all day — it’s not the most active lifestyle. And while the Offbeat Empire promotes beauty in all its forms, I am concerned for our health.

I recently watched a really informative documentary called Forks Over Knives, which promotes whole food diets with little to no dairy or meats to avert and even in some cases reverse heart disease and some cancers.

My question is: how can I stealthily convert my husband’s diet and my teenaged picky sister’s diet to get them to eat healthy without knowing. You know… baby steps. AND! what are some good whole food protein substitutes aside from tofu?

Normally I’m not about tricking people into things, but in this case I think it is a valid, non-manipulative answer. I’m going to assume you’ve had some discussion with Mr. Dakoma about your concerns and he’s just not down with an improvement plan, for whatever reason.

My advice is: go ahead and start making changes for yourself if you haven’t already. Going from crap food to healthier food is hard, but make it easier by allowing yourself patience in changing your habits. Set a single goal at a time — “I’ll have an apple instead of candy for one snack today” or “I’ll take a walk at lunch time” and then, once you get those changes cemented you can add in harder ones like “I’mma cut out high fructose corn syrup in my non-snack foods.” And then “I’m going to focus on eating whole foods instead of processed foods as much as is humanely possible.”

I know; you didn’t ask about how to change your diet! The truth is this: If you change your diet, your family likely will, too. In the years since I moved in with my husband, we’ve leap-frogged each other over and over in diet adjustments — and we eat a loooooooot more healthfully than we did in the beginning of our relationship. When you live together, you’ve got to adapt to your partner’s diet. It’s so much easier.

If you can be successful in improving your habits for yourself, your family will come along somehow. Whether it’s because you are the main grocery shopper, or the main cook, or because you get pulled into research on nutrition and share what you find because you feel it’s interesting — people who are close to you will be influenced, and may decide to make their own changes as well.

If nothing else, frame it for yourself like this: you are absolutely a role model for your sister. Eat more better for her.

Oh, and non-tofu proteins? EGGS, baby. Vegan? Beans. Make it a treat with edemame. It’s like popcorn, but nicer to you!

Comments on Covert cooking: how do I sneak healthy food into my family’s diet?

  1. I’m going to echo what a lot of folks here have said: baby steps. It will help too, if you’re the main grocery buyer. Maybe just start by subbing out certain ingredients for others. Or one healthier snack item in place of a not so good one. People tend to revolt if they have too many changes all at once (if they’re in charge of it or not!). It can be overwhelming especially if you’re doing most of the meal prep. Slowly swapping out ingredients (1 per week or however often you & your family are comfortable). You’ll get there!

  2. While I can’t offer any advice about how to get your family on-board, I’ve made the slow transition from mostly prepared foods to mostly whole foods and feel a lot better (and better fed!) because of it. First off, although hearing about drastic changes and the benefits that come from them can be inspiring I found the slow and steady approach to making dietary changes worked best for me. Instead of focusing on what I was cutting out of my diet I focused on what I was adding to it. The documentary you mentioned advocated no (or maybe just minimal) meat and dairy, but what ARE you supposed to eat? I found that the best way to think of my diet is “mostly plants” ala Michael Pollan’s great book In Defense of Food. Once I’ve filled up on a beautiful green salad I don’t have room for a giant burger. Rather than creating a completely different meal my first change was to just try to shift the proportions so that the veges take up more room on the plate than the meat. I’ve really enjoyed buying my produce from my Farmer’s Market or Co-op as well, where it’s fresher and they have tons of varieties I’d never find in a grocery store to keep me excited. As I got used to that, I also tried to shift my diet away from ground beef and towards healthier meats like seafood. Did you know that all the frozen seafood from Target is sustainably caught?? A bag of frozen shrimp is super easy to use and can be added instead of chicken to a lot of dishes, and pan-sauteing or baking fish cutlets is easy to pick up as well. After getting used to leaner meats, I also started making vegetarian dinners some nights with heavy doses of beans or lentils as a protein. My third technique (in addition to bumping up the vegetables and making dinners with seafood or legumes) was to attack the other meals of the day. I don’t mind eating the same things for breakfast and lunch every day for a week and have been going vegetarian and whole-food only for those meals. On Sunday, I make enough McCann’s steal-cut oatmeal for me and my boyfriend to eat all week and just add flax seeds and frozen fruit each morning. Nuke it and it’s ready to eat! For lunch, I make a huge green salad and eat some cheese and a piece of fruit. I don’t talk myself into eating fast food because I already put the work into preparing the good stuff. I try to make whole-food dinners as well (with enough for leftovers!) but if I wind up popping a frozen pizza in, well, at least it was the exception and not the rule!

  3. I’d like to thank EVERYONE for their great comments. Since I sent in this request I tried a few of these things myself on my family. I already ate a lot of veggies and I am ALL ABOUT portion control. I have also started a love affair with my food processor, being able to mince all vegetables into a colorful confetti display makes them a lot easier to mix into things like meatloaf. Doing things like that I have been able to get them to eat some of the more nutrient friendly vegetables without them knowing. I have also taken to packing up my leftovers after dinner into easy portioned out containers for lunches and quick meals. My garden has helped get more vegetables into the food mix too. And it seems I mostly just have to not give anyone a choice in the matter. I did sit down and talk with my Hubby, about our food habits, and how I thought things needed to change and he was pretty reluctant, not blatantly against it but it wasn’t the thing he wanted to hear. But he started warming to the idea and now we are doing great. We are both very self conscious about working out in front of the other, so there aren’t many active tasks we can do together, but he works out with his police buddy on their days off and paintball on the weekends. I stick to my belly dancing and gardening and we seem to be doing better. Not where I think we need to be, but great progress. Since our veggie amount has increased I have also “Saved” money on meat, 1 pound of meat will feed the three of us with left overs depending on what it is. I was spending 50-60 every two weeks at the local butcher and now I spend that much a month. And with hunting season in full swing I am hoping to stock up on super leans like deer and boar. The teenager has been the hardest to convert, but there are things that she eats that she just doesn’t know about. Thanks again everyone I can’t wait to read the rest of these comments and articles. Oh and if anyone is looking for how to cook a new veggie in a way that actually tastes good and they have a recipe calculator to tell you the full nutritional value of what you are making.

  4. It’s a cheap trick, but I’ve found I can get my guy to eat anything if I say the magic words, “I dunno, this might be a little too spicy for you,” before serving. He’ll eat it just to prove that no food is too spicy.

  5. About a year ago I switched over to eating Paleo/Primal (high healthy fats and low carbs – mostly meat and veggies!) to see if it would help with my chronic migraines. My Love hasn’t switched over yet but he understands that I feel so much better eating this way (and lost 20 lbs to boot!) that he willingly eats and tries anything I cook and I don’t throw a fit if he buys bread to have sandwiches for lunch. I agree with everyone else, start eating how you want and then gradually get everyone else on board. Like I don’t make pasta anymore because it makes me feel bad but if anyone else wants it they can make it themselves.

  6. Oh, another sneaky food that worked on our six year old – spaghetti squash served with marinara sauce instead of spaghetti (or, to be less drastic, mixed in with spaghetti).

  7. “Normally I’m not about tricking people into things…”

    I think the part quoted above is really important.

    I’m never OK with tricking people into things, particularly when it comes to food. Nor am I a fan of diet changes that someone didn’t completely agree to without nagging or guilt from anyone else.

    I find all of this “how do I get my husband/boyfriend to eat healthy” stuff that advocates telling less than the full truth about the food to be demeaning, and is treating the man in question like he is not an adult capable of making decisions about his food. Sure, prepare healthy food, but tell him what it is, without leaving out details like low fat ingredients.

    I like the advice for the person asking the question to eat healthy themself and lead by example. Trying to force someone else to eat healthy often causes the opposite effect, as the person rebels against it and eats even more unhealthy food.

    (I hope this comment is okay.)

    • I am a super picky eater. My mother grew up in the airforce and very rarely ate anything that wasn’t tinned and sold in the naffy until she was 14. Consequently, my childhood dinners were very beige-food heavy – lots of things covered in breadcrumbs from the freezer, or else battered and fried. I never acquired the taste for ‘green things’, and I especially have a problem with plant textures (I literally gag if I try and eat something leafy, like lettuce).

      Until I met my partner, I lived on supernoodles and jellybeans. Now, I am very conscious of the fact that I am missing out on a) nutrients and b) flavours… But I also know I REALLY don’t like veggie X or fruit Y. So when my partner cooks, he sneaks in a few things. I don’t need or want to know what – until afterwards, so I can identify what I am prepared to eat again and what I’m not.

      If he said “hey, there’s going to be kale in this” I would argue that I don’t like it. I’d pick out the kale. I might throw a massive strop. I he doesn’t say anything and he puts it in and I like it? A whole new world of deliciousness is opened to me. If I don’t like it, I get pizza and he doesn’t do it again.

      Openness and honesty is a brilliant theory – but knowledge affects the way we perceive things. I think it’s great that you have you way of doing things, and that you’re happy and comfortable with that. But I think it would be great if you could consider what it’s like to be on the other side of this debate.

  8. Hi, I see you have loads of responses. I think the trick is to limit the snacks that are around. People are less willing to try new foods if they know they can just have cookies and ice cream later instead. I had a student live with us who was 100% picky. But he loved mashed potatoes, so I would add veg to mashed potatoes (up to 50%) then puree the lot with my potato. He ate it every time.

    I also use yeast extract (like marmite, but less strong if you can, buy Essential organics… not sure of an American brand equivalent). I add it any time I’m making a “cheese sauce”, and I use ground almond instead of bread crumbs, or to thicken a sauce. But make sure you have tasty ground almonds (it also makes a difference). And I have some good veggie/vegan recipes on my blog:

    I promise, all are 100% full proof and kid friendly (all my son’s friends ALWAYS finish their plate at my house, even the “I only eat rice crispies” kid).

  9. I’m making chili right now and it’s got kale in it. The spicy tomato-y sauce covers up the green taste and kale cooks so dark you don’t eve notice it.

    Except we love kale in our house and my boyfriend loves cooked greens and fresh spinach even more than I do! Lol…

    I know you’ve already had a bajillion comments, but in terms of eating less meat, I make a lot of dishes where meat definitely plays second, or sometimes even third fiddle to veggies. Case in point: the chili. It’s at least half beans with additional tomatoes, onions, and corn (yes, I put corn in my chili). With dried bean dishes, smoked ham hocks or smoked ham neck bones, bacon, and smoked turkey legs add tons of flavor without too much meat. Ditto slow-cooked greens (although then you have to eat the pot liquor, too to get all the vitamins). And a little fat can help straight up veggies go down easier. A lot of people hate vegetables because they’ve only ever had them plain boiled or steamed. Roasted root veggies and brassicas are amazing. Spicy roasted broccoli with chicken and pasta? AMAZING.

    Hope your experiment goes well!

  10. I bake a lot, and you can sneak veggies into pretty much ANY baked good LOL! My whole family is crazy about anything with bananas/pumpkins/zucchini/apples/cranberries in them, and I sneak spinach/carrots/zucchini into spaghetti sauce. After about 9 months of raving about my sauce I finally told them it had so many veggies in it. Puree is totally the way to go. Get a food processor or blender. We have apples and bananas in our pancakes. Make food that include veggies as part of the main dish, like beef broccoli, or stuffed bell peppers. Plus meatballs and meatloaf are a great place to put veggies, they are obviously there, but taste great. My family is to the point they think plain burgers are weird and want their ‘veggie’ burgers back with bell peppers, green onions and carrot shreds in them… Basically, if you cook it yourself, it’s going to be healthier than if you buy it in a bag or box. If you can sub a more healthy ingredient (say whole grain pasta, or brown rice) for a less healthy ingredient. Go for it! If you can add fruits or veggies to something. DO! You will often find that they make the food item in question taste even better! Don’t forget trying recipes from other cultures, a lot of these have become staples in my house.

  11. i think the main “trick” is just not making a big deal over it being healthy. western culture tends to link healthy with nasty tasting stuff. i’m vegan & gf (allergies) so i’ve learned to make lots of substitutes & additions.
    *ps i <3 forks over knives … you'd like food rules & food inc also.

    ok so for healthy things you can add …
    milled flax seed – you can add this into baked goods or sprinkle on yogurt. just start VERY, VERY small (like a pinch) or you might get stomach pains. it's very high in fiber & omega oils
    nutritional yeast – i like this sprinkled on popcorn & in some baked goods. it's high in b vitamins
    leafy greens – try throwing a fist of fresh baby spinach leaves into a fruity smoothie. they will never taste it.
    watermelon – high in lycopene, vitamin c, & fiber. it's not sneaky, but it's a great snack. i like a little salt on mine. i also like to mix it in a blender w/ fresh basil.
    spaghetti squash – this stuff is AWESOME. it's really nutritious. i like to mix it up w/ a very thick sauce. mix in lots of bell peppers & chopped mushrooms. my non vegan husband loved this mix on a hoagie bun w/ cheese.
    quinoa – you'll usually find this in the gluten free section, but it's also a great source of protein. it normally looks kinda like cous cous, but if you want to be tricky, you can buy it in pasta shapes. it can take a few tries to cook it just right, but once you get it, nobody knows the diff.
    smoothies- that is one of my best recs. it's fast, easy, & you can toss all kinds of good stuff into it. it gives your family a very easy, on the go way to start the day healthy.

    • Wow, sounds like my husband. Good luck with that…. (maybe try puree-ing some veggies like people have said and adding them in VERY small amounts to things? That’s what I’m going to try… and it might get them slowly used to it.)

  12. If your SO is a gamer like mine, with perhaps a slightly obsessive personality, they might benefit from my husband’s realization that progress bars make it a competition that he just can’t pass up. He joined SparkPeople, and trying to get his weight bar down to his goal made him super go-get-em about exercising and dieting. And trying to reach all of his daily recommended goals for protein, vitamins, iron, etc…. it was hilarious to hear him complain that he went over on his carbs and it threw off his progress bar. Anyway, it worked for him (for a while).

    Even if you don’t join any kind of “club” (althugh SparkPeople is free and awesome), maybe you can create your own progress bars for amount of nutrients and protein and carbs each day, and post them somewhere visible in the kitchen or dining room. Makes it a game and a constant remind.

    Oh, have a free-for-all day each week where you can eat all the unhealthy things you want, as long as it doesn’t go beyond that one day. This will actually help your metabolism too.

  13. Another Forks over Knives convert! My boyfriend was, up until a week and a half ago, a red meat addicted, pack a day smoker. He started watching all these documentaries and before I knew it, we were buying KALE and TOFU and VEGAN BUTTER. And he quit smoking which is possibly the best thing of all!

  14. I really find that certain types of cuisine are more receptive to vegetarian/vegan substitutions than others. A lot of Asian cooking, for example is really easy to make vegetarian or at least mostly so. Certain foods are easier to add and/or substitute healthier ingredients to – pizza, for example, can have all kinds of substitutes put in without anyone noticing particularly, as can lasagna. A lot of Asian foods (both far east and Indian subcontinent) are very easy to vegetarianise. Lentils are a bit of a joke, but they do genuinely make a good substitute/add on to recipes that might otherwise use ground meat. And I’m a big fan of big salads with extra nummy ingredients like eggs or meat and a nice dressing. Lots of healthy stuff with a bit of sin to make it extra tasty. I think that when trying to eat healthier it’s important to make sure that you’re still satisfying yourself, so getting a decent portion of ‘good fats’ is key. Your body needs a bit of fat to keep everything going anyway. If you really need to be sneaky, like with a little kid who is a picky eater; my best friend who is the mother of a very picky little girl found that you can sneak almost anything into a muffin if it’s pureed. The kid would also drink ‘green juice’ which is a store-bought smoothie that mixes mostly vegetable juice with enough fruit that it still tastes like ‘juice’. link That stuff would also probably be pretty easy to mix into more conventional recipes, and is tasty enough that it doesn’t necessarily need to be.

  15. Neat trick I’ve learned recently, adding canned pumpkin to mac and cheese, it’s already orange and makes the cheese extra creamy! I freeze the pumpkin goop in ice cube trays and later knock them into a heavy zipper bag for storage in the freezer. 2 cubes is about 3 Tbs, you can start with that in your mac n cheese and scale up to 1/2 pumpkin and 1/2 cheese eventually! Also, the Barilla White Fiber pasta is much less “whole wheat-y” than the regular brown whole wheat pastas. Try adding a chopped up broiled chicken breast and/or a steamed zucchini (wash, chop, zap in a covered bowl in the microwave for 60-90 seconds) to make up for the fact that boxes of whole wheat pasta have less pasta in them than a box of regular pasta. Same amount of food, more nutritional oomph!

    Picky eater husbands are rough. I second all the mentions of spicy food, my husband will try almost anything if I warn him that it’s spicy first! If you accidentally make it TOO spicy, try adding a tiny bit of brown sugar or honey to tone it down a notch. Or just stir in a dollop of yogurt or serve with a glass of milk on the side. Spicy food FTW!

  16. The first thing my Hubbo and I did was cut portions – if we’re eating fast food I usually order a kids meal and instead of a quarter-pounder he’ll get a slightly smaller burger. And at home I use smaller plates too. In the end its very rare that we’re still hungry and we were able to indulge with fewer calories and less fat.

    Another thing i’ve noticed in almost any recipe you can cut the butter/oil in half and you’ll never notice- I’ve just started trying this with sugar too (not in baking) and its got mixed results.

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