Keeping Food Costs Down With Picky Eaters at Home

Mary writes in:

Trying to follow your food strategies but I have a very picky 6 year old and a picky 2 year old at our dinner table. They refuse to eat most things that are put in front of them and insist usually on a certain kind of mac and cheese that’s not the cheapest. Thoughts?

When our children were younger, they were somewhat picky, though they grew out of that pickiness over time.

Our strategy for picky eating children was to simply prepare and serve the meal before bringing them to the table, which meant that they could decide for themselves whether to eat what was before them. This eliminated the sense that they could dictate what they were served at mealtime. Since the food was already on their plate when they sat down, they lost that sense that they could dictate what was being prepared, which helped a lot.

Another strategy we adopted was to not worry too much about how much they ate at meal times. If they didn’t eat, it was okay; they would eat when they were hungry.

Of course, that often meant that they were snacking, so we intentionally kept healthy snacks within their reach and unhealthy snacks way out of their reach. The fruit bowl was easily accessible, as were the bananas. The cookies? Not so much.

We would sometimes have meals that they loved, but most of the time, we prepared typical meals bought with low-cost ingredients. We did not let their tastes dictate our meal plan. What dictated our meal plan was low cost and healthiness.

Another strategy we found that worked well was asking that they simply eat one “real bite” of anything that they were served. That way, they could decide for themselves if it was good or not. If they ate a real bite, chewed it up, and swallowed it, we wouldn’t ask them to eat any more if they didn’t like it.

In short, part of our success with having a variety of foods at home when the kids were little was to simply find subtle ways to nip their complaints in the bud before the complaining ever had a chance to begin. If supper is already on their plate before they even think about it or get to the table, there’s not much they can really do about it. If we only ask them to eat one bite, it’s not that big of a deal – it seems far less cataclysmic than having to eat a big pile of some weird food.

As our kids got older, we gradually realized that just because we were having dinner didn’t mean that the kids were hungry right then. Often, most of the disagreements about food came from the fact that they weren’t actually hungry at all when they were being plopped down at the table and told to eat, so they’d complain about any food that wasn’t something they loved. You can’t expect a kid to be hungry when you want them to be hungry, after all, and forcing them to stay at the table under the idea that they’ll eat someday creates unnecessary conflict. Staying at the dinner table when they’re older is another matter, as you’re teaching polite behavior in society, but that’s not a useful lesson to a two-year-old.

So, here’s what I’d recommend if I were you.

First of all, I’d follow The Simple Dollar’s usual recommended meal preparation strategy. It goes like this:

Step 1: Get a grocery store flyer.
Step 2: Find sales on fresh ingredients.
Step 3: Do some recipe research.
Step 4: Create a week-long meal plan.
Step 5: Make a shopping list from the meal plan.
Step 6: Go grocery shopping – and stick to your list.

Our meal planning starts with grabbing a grocery store flyer from which we identify items that are on sale. We then base our meal plan for the week on those on-sale items and then prepare a grocery list from that meal plan (which means the grocery list is automatically full of on-sale items), after which we just go to the store and stick to the list.

As you’re following that plan, you should, of course, keep what your family likes in mind, but that doesn’t mean it has to dictate all of your meals. Naturally, if you see some of the ingredients of a meal that your children love and they’re on sale, you should pick those up. However, that shouldn’t dictate your full meal plan, nor should it. You should choose other meals that involve on-sale elements and serve them as described above, putting them on the table and on their plate before they even sit down at the table.

Another good strategy is to stock up hard on a family favorite if you notice that it’s on sale. If you do see the kind of mac and cheese that your children like on sale, stock up. Buy several boxes of that macaroni and cheese at once and stow it away for future meals. Since it’s essentially nonperishable, you don’t have to eat it every day.

We do this with quite a few items at the store. Things like canned diced tomatoes, dry beans, dry rice, and flour are always bought in large quantities (as are virtually all household supplies).

When it actually comes time to prepare a meal, just prepare the whole meal and put some on their plate before bringing them to the table. Don’t discuss what you’re having beforehand – if they ask, just tell them briefly and matter-of-factly and leave it at that. Most of the time, they won’t pay any attention at all unless they’re really hungry.

If they don’t want to eat what you made, simply say, “If you eat one bite of each of those things, you can get down and play and Mommy will be happy.” This worked wonders for our kids. Often, as I noted earlier, they just weren’t hungry at meal time and directed that toward not liking the food.

Some kids are simply “grazers,” and the best way to handle that is to just have plenty of healthy snacks around. Keep apples and bananas on hand and make it clear that those are their snack time choices. Don’t make cookies and candy available with ease – not only are they unhealthy, they’re more expensive than apples and bananas.

These were the strategies we used when our kids were younger and it worked well. Our kids are pretty adventurous eaters these days now that one’s a teenager, one’s a pre-teen, and the other one is in upper elementary. They like things like sushi and lychee and kimchi and pickled garlic and curry, believe it or not, and they’re pretty happy with almost everything we make for dinner.

Good luck!

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