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Feeding picky toddlers comes at a price

Kelly Dilworth

Like many toddlers his age, my 15-month-old son is a picky eater. He won’t eat meat unless it’s heavily doused in mayonnaise or sauce, ignores any fruit that’s not scarlet red or navy blue, turns his nose up at bread, potatoes and all other bland foods and prefers to dine almost exclusively on green peas, cheese and beans.

If he’s not warily eyeing a piece of food, he’s usually tossing it on the floor or to the dog who’s come to expect a hearty meal each time the baby sits down to eat. So much food regularly gets wasted I’ve given up on guessing how much we’ll have to spend each month to feed him. He’s so fickle with his preferences, there’s no telling what he’ll eat one night and refuse the next.

Encouraging our picky toddler to eat as much food as his pediatrician recommends has strained our nerves and put a serious dent in our family budget.

To help boost his weight, I’ve started spending an extra $60 a month on calorie dense foods, such as avocados, Greek yogurt and full-fat cheese, and roughly $50 more a month on a wider variety of vegetables and fruits. (According to nutritionists, it usually takes kids up to 15 tries before they’ll accept a new food.) In a quest to get my toddler to eat more than just cheese and legumes, I’ve also started tossing ready-made dinners into my cart so that I’ll have a couple of backup options in case he refuses to eat whatever homemade meal I cooked. My pantry is stocked full of freeze-dried yogurt drops and other pricey toddler snacks I know he’ll eat.

Because I can’t predict what my son will eat on any given day or reason with him as if he were an adult, I’ve come to accept that wasting food and money is inevitable — at least until he’s old enough to talk. Because our food budget is somewhat flexible, I’ve been able to get away with temporarily stretching it. But as sociologist Caitlin Daniel points out in a recent New York Times column, many families on stricter budgets have a much harder time feeding their picky kids.

“Poor parents not only have to calculate how much their food costs, they must also consider what happens if no one eats it,” wrote Daniel. As a result, many parents minimize the financial risk of feeding picky kids by only buying foods they know their kids will eat — even if that food is high in calories and low in essential nutrients.

For a recently published study in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Daniel followed 73 parents and caregivers on a shopping trip in Boston and found that many parents on strict food budgets can’t afford to risk wasting food on fickle eaters and so they’ve given up trying to buy a larger variety of foods. “For the poor parents I met, children’s food rejections cost too much,” wrote Daniels in The New York Times.

Even though pediatricians urge parents to expose young kids to a variety of healthy foods to help set them up for a lifetime of good eating, the parents Daniels met didn’t think they had a choice. “I met plenty of poor parents who wished that their children liked healthier food. But developing their children’s palates has hidden costs. When I asked her about offering cauliflower 10 times to shape her son’s tastes, a poor mother from a town outside Boston said: ‘No, no, that’s a lot of wasted food,'” wrote Daniels. “This mother faces an uncomfortable choice: She can experiment and risk an empty cupboard, or she can make her food last by serving what her son likes, even if it’s not the healthiest and even if she feels guilty about it.”

It’s possible to minimize waste
Serving picky kids a wider variety of foods doesn’t always lead to an excessive amount of waste. I’m still experimenting and have yet to find the magic formula for how much new food to serve. But I have found a few tricks to be helpful in minimizing wasted food.

For example, rather than open a new single serving carton of yogurt – most of which won’t get eaten – I buy cartons designed for multiple servings and divide the yogurt up into tiny portions. I also take the time to pre-portion cheese and other snacks into tiny Tupperware bowls or plan my meals around my toddler’s snacks and finish up what he doesn’t eat. In addition, I’ve started dividing our family dinners into foods I know he’ll eat and foods I want him to try. That way, if he refuses a particular food it won’t automatically go to waste.

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