Back in February, I posted about Caitlin Daniel, a Harvard PhD candidate in sociology whose research examines the role of family income in a child’s picky eating. Specifically, her recent study found that low-income parents often consciously limit the amount of healthy food they serve their children out of fear of food waste; as a result, these kids get fewer opportunities to overcome any resistance to fruits and vegetables.
Daniel’s New York Times op-ed on her study’s findings, “A Hidden Cost to Giving Kids Their Vegetables,” generated a lot of discussion both on this blog and on the Times website, and within a few days Daniel contacted me and kindly offered to be interviewed here on TLT. As with my belated interview with author Bee Wilson, it’s only due to my own delay that we’re just getting around to this Q&A in June! But I do think this interview was worth the wait, and I hope you agree:
TLT: How did you first become interested in studying the interplay between socioeconomics and picky eating?
CD: At the outset, I didn’t know that I’d end up studying children’s taste acquisition. This theme came up spontaneously in interviews with low-income parents who expressed concern about the cost of their children’s food rejections. This concern was most salient among parents who had “picky” eaters, whereas it was weaker among parents who felt that their kids would “eat anything.”
TLT: Were you surprised by your findings?
CD: I didn’t realize that I’d hear concerns about the cost of food waste, and immediately this issue piqued my curiosity. In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so struck by low-income parents’ reluctance to purchase food that might go uneaten because the family didn’t like it.
It makes sense that people who have few resources to spare would not take a risk on a purchase that may go unused. But I hadn’t considered children’s food aversion as a source of waste, and I hadn’t considered how parents might make less-than-healthy choices in order to avoid squandering money on foods that children might not like, even if the parents would ideally like to provide something more wholesome.
TLT: You may recall a comment from one of my Lunch Tray readers who took issue with the notion that just because parents are less well off, they have to forgo serving healthful food. She felt that a parent ought to serve only small mounts of an unfamiliar food and if that food is rejected, the parent can eat it instead, thus minimizing any waste. What do you think of her view? Is that a realistic option for all families?
CD: This reader rightly points out that when children eat from what the rest of the family eats, waste should be minimal, especially
when caregivers offer children small servings of new foods. But adults and children cannot always share food. This non-overlap can occur for several reasons. Parents and children may eat at different times; some parents and children have dietary restrictions that prevent them from sharing food; or, mostly commonly among the caregivers I interviewed, parents themselves may like a fairly narrow range of foods. If parents who like a narrow range of foods purchase something new and healthy for their children, and neither the child nor adult likes it, that food could go to waste entirely. When low-income parents 1) like and eat affordable healthy foods and 2) are able to eat the same foods at the same time as their children, as in the situation that the reader describes, I observe less deference to children’s preferences. In other words, deferring to children’s preferences in order to avoid waste stems from an interaction between other family members’ tastes and eating habits, on the one hand, and economic constraints, on the other.
TLT: So, to the extent a reluctance to buy healthier food also reflects the parents’ own distaste for it, what might be done to broaden parents’ palates as well as kids’?
CD: In a sense, the tastes of parents and other household members define which foods pose a potential economic risk. The conservative food choices that I observed resulted from an interaction between economic constraints and household-level food preferences. When another household member likes the food in question, they can offer small amounts of what they’re already eating; similarly, they can absorb what they child rejects. When parents have limited budgets and limited palates, a much larger range of foods may result in waste. The ways that children learn to like new foods–repeated experience in a positive social environment–should encourage adults to acquire new tastes, too. SNAP-Ed and other cooking/food education programs can expose parents to new foods, as can organizations that caregivers are involved in, including houses of faith and neighborhood organizations. Initiatives at children’s schools can also expose parents to new foods, as the Texas-based NGO Brighter Bites has done. Of course, these are not easy solutions, and each one faces barriers–funding, parental time scarcity, and the need for coordination.
TLT: You cited in your study some parents who started buying healthier foods after their kids were exposed to them and grew to like them at school. Do you think schools can play a real role here, giving their current underfunding for meal programs? What are some other proposed solutions?
CD: Many schools already struggle to deliver nourishing, palatable healthy foods, and it may be a tall order to expect schools to additionally assume the role of introducing children to foods that they may not like at first. Underfunded schools most likely make conservative food choices just as low-income parents do. Many of the parents who started buying healthier foods were in a school district that does a good job of providing fresh fruits and vegetables, sometimes thanks to private partnerships. But children’s wellbeing should not depend on whether a family lucks into such a school. We need to reframe children’s taste acquisition as a competency that children develop, just as they develop language, motor skills, and social skills, among other competencies. While the public expect entities other than parents to help children acquire these competencies, we often see exposing children to the world of food as the private responsibility of parents. Instead, we need to reframe children’s taste acquisition as a shared responsibility, as we do with learning in other domains.
TLT: Were you surprised by some of the heated reactions your op-ed received from Times letter writers, or did you anticipate that this would be a hot-button issue?
CD: Frankly, I didn’t anticipate the spirited responses that I received from both right and left, although in retrospect it makes sense that the piece would have tapped people’s moral intuitions. For many people, how we eat and how we relate to children are fundamental indicators of what kind of society we live in–and of what kind of society we are creating for years to come.
TLT: You’ve told me that many readers essentially asked, “If parents are concerned about food waste, why don’t they make it clear that what they serve is what the child is going to eat, period? A child who refuses at first will ultimately become hungry enough to eat. And when the child finally eats the food they initially rejected, no waste will be created. Isn’t this a parenting problem more than a poverty problem?” What’s your response?
CD: Parents across the socioeconomic spectrum would benefit from doing the following: 1) serving unfamiliar foods when kids are hungry, 2) not overloading kids with snacks such that they’re not hungry for meals, and 3) not caving immediately when children turn their noses up at something. That said, there are limits to the suggestion that low-income parents withhold food until their children finally succumb to hunger. First, parents across the socioeconomic spectrum find that hungry, cranky children are difficult to deal with. At least among the caregivers I’ve spoken with, parents would prefer to give their children something expedient than manage an ill-tempered child for an indeterminate number of hours. Second, although hunger can increase our liking for a food, distress decreases our liking for what we eat, and studies have documented that people develop aversions to foods that they were required to eat despite not liking them.
For the low-income parents I talked to, having a hungry child on their hands cuts deeper. Many low-income mothers saw buffering their children from hunger as a hallmark of good parenting. For them, letting their child stay hungry teeters uncomfortably close to compromising their maternal integrity. Additionally, some low-income respondents expressed concern that a hungry child may prompt neighbors or teachers to report a case of suspected neglect to Child Protective Services, even if was the child was hungry because she herself declined to eat what was served. For many low-income parents, whose lives are wrapped up in the state institutions that both serve and surveil them, the prospect of facing a CPS investigation does not sound improbable.
TLT: Do you have plans to do more research and/or writing in this area?
CD: I am writing more generally on how caregivers across the socioeconomic spectrum decide what to feed their children–how they manage a tight budget; how they think about the cost and value of food; how food provisioning connects to parents’ identity; and how they think about the place of food in their children’s lives. I will, most likely, depart from picky eating for a while, but I plan to come back to it later.