Do socioeconomic factors play into children’s picky eating behavior?
That’s the premise of a recent Atlantic article, provocatively entitled, “Why So Many Rich Kids Come to Enjoy the Taste of Healthier Foods.” It drew on new research by Caitlin Daniel, a doctoral student at Harvard, who last week wrote her own New York Times op-ed on her study’s findings, “A Hidden Cost to Giving Kids Their Vegetables.”
Daniel spent two years studying 73 families of varying income levels in the Boston area to determine how they decided what to feed their children. What she found was that low-income parents feel they can’t afford to keep buying foods their kids are likely to reject, such as vegetables, and so fall back on the less nutritious foods they know their kids will eat. As a result, low income kids have fewer opportunities to become accustomed to those more challenging foods, while children in more affluent families are offered the multiple exposures almost all kids need to overcome initial picky eating behavior. Here’s an excerpt from the op-ed:
For the poor parents I met, children’s food rejections cost too much. To avoid risking waste, these parents fall back on their children’s preferences. As the mother of the 3 year old said: “Trying to get him to eat vegetables or anything like that is really hard. I just get stuff that he likes, which isn’t always the best stuff.” Like many children, her son prefers foods that are bland and sweet. Unable to afford the luxury of meals he won’t consume, she opts for mac and cheese.
TLT reader Katherine Weber (author of Bite This! Your Family Can Escape the Junk Food Jungle and Obesity Epidemic) first emailed me the Atlantic piece with some thoughts of her own, which she’s allowed me to share here. She argues that a child’s picky eating doesn’t necessarily mean food has to be wasted. She wrote:
As a parent feeding a family – including one very picky and unpredictable child – I face this challenge all the time. But I would never throw away good, nutritious food that I had bought and cooked just because the kid turned up their nose at it! (All the more so if I were on a tight budget.) I eat it myself or put it in the fridge for another meal tomorrow. It certainly does not go to waste.
. . . in healthy family eating, the whole family eats the SAME healthy diet. If the kid doesn’t eat their portion of broccoli, then someone else will. It’s a marginal amount of food we’re talking about. So where is the waste?
I completely agree with Weber, but her argument does presuppose that low-income parents are willing to eat the healthier food their children may initially reject. As Daniel notes in her op-ed, “Parents’ preferences are also part of the solution. When parents eat foods from apple to zucchini, they can offer children a bite with less risk of waste.”
But what if that’s not the case? I recently wrote a piece for a forthcoming issue of Sugar & Rice regarding a promising program here in Texas which brings free produce to needy families on a weekly basis. And one thing I learned through my interviews is that low-income parents often worry that they, too, won’t like unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, so they’re afraid to buy them. One interviewee told me, “We got to try stuff [through the program] I would never think of buying because of the price. You don’t want to spend money on new things in case you might not like them.” Another added, “You miss out on a lot of fruits and vegetables if you can’t experiment. You tend to just stick with the same old stuff every week.”
Meanwhile, Daniel’s piece inspired a slew of reader letters which appear in today’s Times, ranging from agreement with her premise to arguments that parents just need to take a firm stance with kids and refuse to offer alternatives to the family meal. They’re all worth reading, as is Daniel’s entire piece, which also offers some ideas on how to remedy this problem.
And let me know what you think, too, either in a comment below, or on TLT’s Facebook page.
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