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The Picky Eater Problem Is Harder to Crack Than You Think

Photograph by Twenty20

We see the headlines all the time. "Simple tricks to please your picky eater!" "5 ways to get your picky eater to eat broccoli," and "Reform your picky eater."

But what the picky eater tips and tricks don't address is a very real and underlying issue many poor families face: low-income households just don't have the luxury of transforming picky eaters' taste buds.

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A study published in the Journal of Social Science and Medicine showed that poor parents tend to buy foods they know their kids will eat because they want to minimize food waste.

In a separate 1990 study, kids had to see unknown foods between eight to 15 times before they would accept them. And that's not even saying that the kids will eat the food and enjoy it. So what do you do if for most of those eight to 15 times (per food type, mind you), it just ends up on the floor or in the trash?

When you're strapped for cash, the answer seems to be to only buy foods you know the kids already like. And unfortunately, that usually means buying calorie-dense and nutrient-poor options like chicken nuggets and mac 'n' cheese instead of broccoli.

The study interviewed 73 parents in the Boston area on how they decide what to feed their families, including asking them about their priorities and concerns. The author, Caitlin Daniel, then followed 38 of them on shopping trips, even following some of them on more than one trip.

She found that low-income parents gave the cost of food a lot more weight, so much so that they were more willing to travel further if it meant getting cheaper food. Meanwhile, higher-income parents were less likely to worry about food waste and more willing to introduce and reintroduce foods their kids didn't initially like.

"For poor parents, waste is very salient and when they assess whether something is affordable or expensive, they don’t just look at the number on the price tag, they also think about whether the food will actually get eaten," Daniel told the Harvard Gazette. "In some cases, when the food goes uneaten, something that’s affordable on paper becomes expensive in practice. Currently, ways of measuring food costs don’t account for the cost of waste."

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We all want our kids to eat healthy and be healthy, but it's another thing to expect people to take financial risks when they can't afford to do so.

So how do we even start to address this problem? Daniel and other experts point to institutions like schools and summer camps where the risk of food waste can be shared across the board instead of just on one family.

“I think one of the things, one of the best things in the world, is feeding lunch, snack and breakfast programs in schools because it then gives the opportunity to try things but not at home," said Gail Nyberg, executive director of Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank, to The Toronto Star. "In these breakfast programs, there are a variety of fruits and vegetables, and then if my child came home and said, I ate pineapple, then I might invest in it, or if I go to the food bank and I see it, I’m going to pick up a pineapple.”

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