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Get saucy to hide vegetables from picky eaters

Even the most enthusiastic vegetable lovers can have a hard time getting that five a day. But when you have kids who act like you’re trying to poison them with peas, it’s even harder. That said, I’m not above suggesting you sneak veggies into your children’s food. Welcome to this episode of “Crouching Mother, Hidden Veggies.”

Encouraging kids to genuinely love their vegetables is the ultimate goal, but this week I’m sharing ideas for hiding vegetables for the kids (and adults. Who are we kidding?) who just won’t budge.

I must say I’m conflicted about this because I believe our responsibility as parents is to teach good eating habits and willingly eating vegetables is part of that life lesson. But some days you gotta pick your battles. Here are my top tips.

Make “Everything Spaghetti Sauce.” The next time you make tomato-based pasta sauce throw every vegetable you have in the pot, simmer until tender and blend smooth. Good vegetables to add are bell peppers, eggplant, carrot, zucchini or spinach. Serve this over pasta, in lasagna or on pizza. Add a bunch of Italian herbs, garlic and cheese and they’ll never know.

Try making “Very Veggie Meatloaf.” Finely mince and sauté onion, celery and carrot (about 1½ cups total) to add to any meatloaf recipe and bake as usual. Use the same meatloaf mix to make meatballs for irresistible little bite-sized servings.

Do your kids love macaroni and cheese? Who doesn’t? Here’s how to fortify cheese sauce with a clever and crafty selection of hidden vegetables. This sauce is also divine over steamed vegetables.

When making this magically nutritious cheese sauce, you can add any single or a combination of vegetables with mild, sweet flavor and light color to disappear into the cheese sauce. To preserve a rich orange color, don’t use green vegetables. Optimal choices are cauliflower, carrot, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash, orange or yellow bell peppers, summer squash and (peeled) zucchini.

In the recipe below there are two optional (but highly recommended) additions, red bell pepper and a buttery crumb topping. I find most people like red bell pepper because of its sweet taste. Adding it to this macaroni and cheese covers for any vegetal flavors and adds appealing color and crunch. The crumb topping adds delectable texture and flavor that helps sell the whole casserole.

If you really want to be a rock star, add cheddar cheese-flavored potato chips to the topping and watch the kids dig in.

Now, I have a favor to ask. Would you please add a side of vegetables that the kids can see at each meal? The goal is to offer super nutritious food they’ll eat while continuing to expose them to healthy foods they’ll grow to love. Bon appetit!

CRAFTY MAC AND CHEESE

Yield: 6 servings

Time: 40 minutes

What you’ll need:

3-4 cups vegetables, see suggestions above

1 16-ounce package your choice of pasta

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon flour

1½ cups milk

½ cup (half a block) cream cheese, cubed

2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

¼ cup Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

Optional: ½ cup red bell pepper, diced

Optional: crumb topping, recipe below

Here’s how:

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9-by-13 baking dish, set aside. Start salted water boiling for the pasta.

Peel and roughly chop about 4 cups of vegetables. Steam them until very tender using your preferred method for steaming vegetables (steamer, microwave or stovetop with a steamer basket). When they’re cooked, puree (using an immersion blender or countertop blender), adding up to ¼ cup water, until completely smooth (think baby food). You should have around 3 cups of vegetable puree.

Get your pasta cooking while making the sauce.

In a saucepan, melt the butter, then add flour, whisking together until bubbly. Gradually add the milk and whisk until thickened. Add the puréed vegetables, cream cheese, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses and whisk until smooth and heated through. Add salt and pepper, and taste for seasoning.

Drain pasta and return to the pot. Add the sauce, red pepper and stir to combine. Place the pasta mixture into your prepared baking dish and sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the casserole. Bake for 25 minutes or until it’s bubbling, and the top is golden brown.

Cheesy crumb topping: Melt 1½ tablespoons butter in a bowl. Add ¼ cup each panko breadcrumbs, Parmesan, crushed potato chips and shredded cheddar cheese. Stir to combine.

Lifestyle expert Patti Diamond is a recipe developer and food writer of the website “Divas On A Dime – Where Frugal, Meets Fabulous!” Visit Patti at www.divasonadime.com and join the conversation on Facebook at DivasOnADimeDotCom. Email Patti at divapatti@divasonadime.com.

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