Finicky Isn’t Frugal: How to Prevent Picky Eaters from Blowing Your Budget

If there’s one thing a family with a tight food budget can’t afford, it’s a picky eater.

One place that I always held a hard disciplinary line at was the dinner table. Our budget was so incredibly tight at times that the very idea of one of my kids refusing to eat whatever I managed to serve was unthinkable. (I wrote more about these difficult times here.) Sure, I did my best to accommodate favorites and make food they’d enjoy, but as any parent knows, there are hits and misses.

This is a very personal decision and I’m not going to tell you how you “should” handle it. I’m going to give you the two options of which I’m aware for sticking to your budget with picky eaters in the house and share what I did. How you choose to handle it in your household is totally up to you. Some people will think I’m the world’s meanest mom and others will probably say, “Heck, yeah.” You have to decide how to handle this in your family.

And also, keep in mind, your picky person might not be a child. If there’s an adult at your table who refuses to eat what is served, you can’t exactly order them to eat it and like it. Some of these tips may still be helpful even if it’s a grown-up gagging at the idea of eating home-cooked oatmeal.

Why is picky eating such a big deal?

There are a few reasons that folks who refuse to eat what is served to them can cause issues with your grocery budget:

  1. It’s expensive.  There’s nothing more distressing to a flat-broke mama than seeing a meal she prepared sit there on the table uneaten while her children rebel against the very idea of it. Not only is it kind of hurtful, but if the meal can’t be salvaged and reserved as something more palatable, it’s like throwing dollar bills down the garbage disposal.
  2. It makes it harder to experiment. If you’re looking for ways to use your leftovers like in soups or casseroles, it can be tough to get creative when your efforts are likely to be met with stony refusal.
  3. It’s harder to shop the sales. If your family members will only eat specific brand names, certain cuts of meat, or one type of bread, it’s a whole lot harder to go stock up on whatever happens to be discounted during your shopping trip. A friend of mine had a child who refused to eat any kind of boxed macaroni and cheese besides Kraft Dinner. Back at that time, I could get generic mac and cheese for 33 cents a box but KD was 79 cents. Even though it was only small change, paying more than double for an item just to assuage a picky kiddo was unthinkable to me. (Here are some ways to jazz up your boxed macaroni and cheese, by the way, whether it’s generic or brand name.)
  4. It makes it harder for the picky person. One day, the only things available or affordable could be something far from desirable. it could be a lot more difficult to make the adjustment then than in the safe, secure surroundings of today. As well, it makes it more difficult for them to go out to eat or go have dinner at a friend’s house.

Picky eating is no picnic for anyone at the table – the chef, the other family members who witness the drama, or the person who doesn’t want to eat what’s served.

The Picky Eater

The way I see it, there are only two options: plan your meals around the picky eater or don’t allow picky eating.  What you choose really depends on who the finicky person is, why they’re so particular, and your own level of stubborn determination.

First, is the person who won’t eat someone over whom you can exercise some rule-setting? It makes a big difference in what strategy you use. If it’s your spouse, you’re not exactly going to be able to take away his Nintendo if he doesn’t eat the meal you cooked. But if it’s your kid, you can change the wi-fi password, take away devices, or do something else Machiavellian if you so choose. Of course, if you have a partner, you two will need to be unified in your decision on how to handle it if your child refuses to eat what’s served.

Next, it’s important to understand why they are particular. Sometimes it’s just because they’ve been allowed to be. But there can also be other things involved. Sensory issues can make certain textures unpalatable, even sickening, to the person dealing with those problems. Sometimes mental health issues can affect a person’s willingness to try new things or eat something outside their norm. There are also physical health concerns that children might not be able to explain: a kid who has indigestion might not be able to put into words that tomato sauce gives him heartburn or a little one with mouth ulcers might not be able to convey the fact that the acidity of a certain food makes her mouth hurt.

How much are you willing to go through to change the eating habits of your crew? If you’ve always been the type to make a different, bland meal for your children converting them into adventurous eaters may be challenging. You will probably face some tears and tantrums along the way.

Before I had children of my own, I’d seen friends and family members who pretty much allowed their kids to run the dinner table. These children would flatly refuse to eat what was offered or in some cases, wouldn’t even be offered the meal that the adults were eating. I knew that wasn’t how I wanted to raise my own kids. So, I was pretty strict about this from the time my children were old enough to have a logical conversation about consequences and I never made them a different meal – I made one dinner and we all ate it, whether it was Indian cuisine, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, or a casserole concocted from the leftovers of five different meals.

Planning meals around picky eaters

One option to prevent food waste is to plan your meals around the picky eaters in your household. In my opinion, this is the less ideal choice because it means that you can’t stock up on and base meals around whatever happens to be on sale. But if you don’t think you can convince them to eat the food, or if you aren’t willing to do so, then at least this way everyone gets fed and groceries don’t get wasted.

If you intend to plan your meals around their preferences, make yourself a list of all the things these family members will eat. Create a revolving member consisting of these foods and keep a grocery list of the necessary ingredients in your wallet. Every time you shop look for these itmes on sale and stock up as much as you can on them.

  • Experiment slightly. You can potentially expand their palates a little bit by adding different versions of the same thing. If they prefer one particular kind of chicken nugget, you might be able to make a scratch version that gets close that they’ll also consume.
  • Make only meals they like. You can limit the entire family to the meals that the picky folks eat. If this is the majority of your family, then this could be the easiest solution rather than trying to convert everyone at once.
  • Save the package. If you have a kiddo who will only use one brand of ketchup (and of course, it’s the expensive one) you might try stealthily refilling the empty brand-name bottle with bargain-priced generic ketchup. It’s possible they’ll never notice.
  • Make them separate meals. Some families make separate meals for finicky folks. My mother used to make two versions of salad, for example, because my dad would only eat lettuce, onion, croutons, and French dressing in his. Meanwhile, we had a salad with a different dressing and a whole host of vegetables. If everyone else will cooperate with an inexpensive meal, have some low-effort, low-priced alternatives such as PB&J, grilled cheese, or hot dogs.

These strategies will vary with the families and the reasons.

Or you might choose not to allow picky eating.

As I mentioned above, I was determined that my children not be picky. So I simply didn’t allow it.

That may seem overly simplistic if your child has already developed his or her own strongly held preferences. It worked for me because I started it as soon as they could eat food. And I was a big old meanie.

My babies were exposed to a wide range of foods. Once we got past the single ingredient stage, they ate whatever my husband and I were eating in a suitable consistency for their age. So, if I made a lentil and rice casserole, I squished it with a fork, gave them their little spoon, and that was their dinner too. The only things my children didn’t like were foods that were “too spicy” so I just used cayenne pepper as a table seasoning like salt and black pepper for the adults. Because they grew up from the time they could chew eating everything, there was never an issue with expanding their palates.

This is not to say there were never any stand-offs at the dinner table. Like anyone, they had preferences. I had a few rules to handle mealtimes.

  1. You have to try one bite. When something is served, you must try one bite. Just because you didn’t like artichoke hearts last year doesn’t mean you won’t like artichoke hearts this year.  (Not that artichoke hearts are overly thrifty – it’s just the example that popped into my head.) Just because you don’t like mushrooms in spaghetti sauce doesn’t mean you won’t like them in gravy.
  2. You have to be polite. If there’s something on your plate you don’t care for, after trying one bite, you can quietly push it to the side. If you make a scene and yell “ewww” or “this is gross” then you’re getting a double serving of it and you’re not leaving the dinner table until it’s gone. If you still don’t eat it, you will have it for breakfast. (This only happened once or twice for each of my girls. When they learn you absolutely mean business, they no longer challenge you on stuff like this. They’ll eat their bite, then be happy they were allowed to quietly push it to the side.)
  3. What’s for dinner is what’s for dinner. I never made a different meal for my kids. If they didn’t care for what was served, they’d nibble at it and follow the rules above. There were no snacks after dinner except the small one right before bed. (Usually a graham cracker and a small glass of milk) If you didn’t like dinner, well, nobody ever died from missing one meal. Generally, they used the “suck it up, buttercup” philosophy because whatever they didn’t eat was bound to show up as a leftover at some point in the future so they might as well get it over with and just eat it the first time.
  4. I made stuff they liked too. One night a week, each of my kids got to pick what was going to be for dinner. To keep it budget-friendly, I’d offer them two choices from their favorites, for example, “Do you want vegetable soup and bread, or bean burritos?” Doing this kept them from revolting over the occasional unpopular meal.
  5. We played Crapper or Keeper. I tried tons of new recipes and experiments over the years, even before I began writing cookbooks and blogging. We played a silly game I called Crapper or Keeper, where we’d vote at the end of the meal whether or not that particular combination should ever be served again. It was a fun way for them to share their likes and dislikes, and have some say in the menu.

You may come to a point at which you have to outlast your child. There are very few kids on the planet who will willingly starve to death to get a chicken nugget instead of chicken soup. They might hang in there for a day or so but you need to remember, you’re the adult and you set the rules. I know it’s stressful – one of my stubborn daughters went until dinner the following night refusing to eat a food that she later (in a totally different meal) really enjoyed.

Disallowing picky behavior has benefits that go further than frugality. When my girls were invited to dinner at a friend’s house, they politely ate everything they were offered and complimented their host. I nearly always got a comment from the other children’s parents about how polite my kids were at the dinner table and how they wished their own would eat as cooperatively. As adults, both of my daughters are excellent, creative cooks and both will eat just about anything – which really helps when they’re on tight budgets.

What about you?

How you handle finicky family members is a very personal choice. I hope some of these suggestions I offered help you come up with your own successful strategies.

Do you have picky eaters in your home? Are they adults or children?  How do you manage it? Share your thoughts, tips, and challenges in the comments.

 

 

Finicky Isn\'t Frugal: How to Prevent Picky Eaters from Blowing Your Budget
Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is an author and blogger. She's the single mom of two daughters and credits extreme frugality and a good sense of humor for her debt-free lifestyle. She is the author of numerous books, the editor of TheOrganicPrepper.com, and is the founder of a small digital publishing company in the emergency preparedness niche.

19 thoughts on “Finicky Isn’t Frugal: How to Prevent Picky Eaters from Blowing Your Budget”

  1. Our approach was ‘you have to have one bite of every food on your plate for every year old you are. At 4 – 4 bites. At 10 – 10 bites. That was coupled with having at least one food at each meal that he liked, so he could get seconds on that … after the bites of other foods. When we went out to eat, he had to taste what my husband and I ordered, and we like to try new foods, so he ended up trying new foods. Now he loves everything except onions.

    1. Raising 5 kids picky eating wasn’t in the budget. Our rule was 3 polite bites. We also explained that your tastebuds are always changing so just because you didn’t like something before you might actually like it now.

  2. How does one live with and try to feed a very picky roommate who hates everything except meat and potato’s? She’s no kid either. She’s in her 60’s.
    I am trying to stock up for a lean future and I end up spending what little money we have for food for her to complain and it does get expensive. So danged tired of it.
    And I don’t think she will ever change. I’ve told her several times: get over your pickiness because of what’s coming you better be grateful for what is on your plate instead of constantly complaining about “I don’t like that”.
    She hates everything!
    I am sick of it! About the only solution I can see with this situation is to take my money, and my animal’s and try to find another place to live.
    What else could a person do?

    1. Mae, moving is very expensive, and it is late in the unfolding worldwide coronapanic deathtrap to start over. When she gets hungry enough, she’ll eat, yes. But now she is threatening your very life and it is a sort of stealing–costing you extra.
      One possibility is separating your meals. She can cook her own. Or half her own and you share ones you both like.

    2. JoEllen Jennings

      why is she costing you extra? Doesn’t she pay her share of the food budget? You can stay and make separate meals or you can stay and cook what she wants only or you can move to somewhere you won’t have the ulcer producing nonsense of her picky habits. I have a family member who stayed with us for a time and I thought she would be the death of me. No matter what was prepared, she wasn’t eating it. Her dislikes changed frequently so it was impossible to accommodate her. Since you have been struggling to make her happy and she isn’t allowing it, do what will make you happy. People who are adults and persist in their childish, picky eating habits are, in my opinion, control freaks! Take care of yourself!

  3. My 9 yr old GS is crazy picky. Will only eat a handful of things. Only one brand of lunchable is acceptable to him. I tried the saving the package route and make my own but it was a total no go. Since they’ve moved out, DD has had a little bit of success with the one bite rule. So I am hoping he outgrows it. I was pretty picky as a kid (there was the one time dad chased me down the hallway with a fork full of sauerkraut LOL). As I got older, and esp working in restaurants, I slowly expanded my pallete.

  4. I WAS the picky eater. I still am. It turned out that I have an exceptional sense of smell. Therefore things taste stronger to me than to others. I will never forget my father making me eat beef liver when I was about 7 or 8 and making me eat another bite even after I gagged and threw up the first bite. That was cruel. Only he and I were left at the table in a standoff and if I didnt eat the liver, I was going to get a spanking. He let me go after the second time I threw up. I did take a taste of everything to oblige my mother but I didnt like very many foods. My mother cooked soul food like a lot of old southern cooks. I graduated from high school weighing 95 pounds. I weighed 98 when I got married. I was starving in the land of plenty. I raised my children differently. I didnt force them to eat things they didnt like. The pediatrician said give them vitamins and don’t worry about it. They will grow no matter what they eat. They did. My son is 6’5″ and my daughter is 5’10” tall. When they started eating at friends’ houses, they began to eat different things. Then they started eating at in-laws’ houses. They were polite and either ate it or said No thank you, I dont care for any (whatever). They now eat more different things than I do.

  5. When my oldest was little, I made her eat everything on her plate. Some days were a struggle, but she always finished. If it was something she didn’t like, I gave her a smaller portion, but she still had to finish. When my son was born, his father felt my methods were “mean”, and my son was not made to eat anything he didn’t want to. Now they are adults. My daughter is a real foodie, and loves to try new things. My son will live forever eating his seven favorite foods on a constant loop. If I had to do it with another child, I would use the “eat everything on your plate” method again.
    On another note, they both claimed they hated onions. When they saw onions in a dish they would protest. Finally I told them celery turned clear when you cooked it. They ate the “celery” onions every night and thought they loved celery. 🙄

    1. I may or may not have told one of my kids that the green stuff in various foods was “probably just parsley” when in fact there was both chopped spinach AND parsley in the food.

  6. the best advice i have ever seen is get the picky person involved in the cooking
    like kids: if they hate for instance chicken soup: have them help prepare chicken soup with the ingredients that they will eat, see how that tastes
    never know, they may realize those ingredients they think they do not like are the flavors that make the dish special
    and what i have found is if u invest your time into preparing the food you most generally learn what goes into the meal and it soon becomes something that can be balanced with the taste of those you are serving
    Sometimes taking an ingredient that normally is not liked and altering the texture might help, or adding a familiar spice to it
    good luck
    i learned to cook all on my own when i was 8 (i am 63 now)because i was such a picky eater, now its fun to play with the textures and flavors of food to stretch the boundaries

  7. I had 6 kids & a farm to run – no time or patience for picky. You could eat what I fixed or make yourself a peanut butter sandwich. It’s the height of passive-aggressive behavior & one kids learn early. Guess what? They all grew up healthy & still seem to like me.

  8. Our rule for the kids was, “It’s either this or a bowl of cereal”. They are what I made, or they got a bowl of cereal. As a working Mom, I was NOT making a separate meal. It worked out well. We ended up with two kids who would pretty much try and eat anything.

  9. As someone else noticed, the pickiest eaters are the elderly. I see people in their eighties and nineties who refuse anything for dinner except one combination of mashed potatoes and patties. At that age, getting them to change anything is a lost cause.

  10. Ok, a little off topic, but I”d value advice here or on the other blog. I was sent an invite for a meal train for a young family with a new baby and 2 young children. I ignored the invite because they specified “non-dairy, gluten free, certified organic, non-gmo,” et. al. food – couldn’t come up with a loving but frugal meal that I might be able to bless them with given all those restrictions. I couldn’t fathom that someone would even want a meal train with those specifics. I understand food allergies (to a point), food sensitivities, and food preferences but, for heaven’s sake, what in the world are people going to do when food shortages become rampant??! How can you even prepare for that with all those restrcitions (and how could I encourage those with said restrictions to stock up)? I prefer to eat wholesome, clean, and healthy food as much as the next person but I am not going to turn my nose up at canned food in a pantry casserole when the time comes, if it means my family won’t starve.

    1. Ah…that new age, death trap that so many folks have bought into. No one wants to knowingly eat chemicals, but the laundry list of “acceptable” to some of these idiots is crazy. The Farm to Fork movement, combined with the left over Hippie-Dippy sentiments will simply be the death of some of these people. There is nothing wrong with a casserole made from Campbell’s Soup, store bought pasta, leftover hamburger, etc. Yes, you could spend the day making cream of mushroom soup, making the dough and rolling the pasta…………if you want to butcher your grass fed steer the same day-more power to you. However-reality check is for most, this is not possible. How incredibly rude of this couple to make a list of their unacceptables and expect other folks to do all of this for free. In California, because of Covid, businesses are crashing right and left. Not just restaurants, but bars, farms, wineries, cothing stores, etc. All of those laid off folks would really like a free casserole made with store bought ingredients.

  11. We use a combination method. When they were young my kids ate everything but…. as time went on they got pickier. Things they once ate they began to refuse and at this point they were in that 2-4 year old stubborn phase. I got sick of making meals they wouldn’t eat only to have to throw them out. My husband is also picky and wouldn’t entirely support me on letting them go hungry if they wouldn’t eat something. I have had to somewhat work with what my family will eat. At this point (they are 7, 8 and 39 now) I won’t let them refuse things that they historically have eaten with the exception of my husband. He has developed some digestive issues and will occasionally decide there is something that he won’t eat anymore. There isn’t much I can do about that.
    My main strategy is to serve deconstructed meals. If I leave most of the ingredients separate ie: plain pasta, meatballs plain, sauce on the side, cheese optional, usually everyone will eat enough of the ingredients to make a meal. In this case my daughter would have pasta with cheese, my son would have plain pasta and plain meatballs, my husband would eat the meatballs with bbq sauce and I would eat pasta and cheese with meatballs in sauce on the side. Everybody would eat broccoli and bread. Another technique we use is the same ingredients, different form. All of us except my son eat tacos. For him we pull some of the ground beef out and while I make tacos my husband will quickly grill a burger for him. Another meal like this is Italian subs, my husband and I love them. The kids don’t. We eat subs and the kids get what I call cold plate, basically it is the meat and cheese from the sub, cold and cut to be finger food, served with crackers. This keeps the extra work and ingredients to a minimum.
    Luckily my kids eat most vegetables. I keep a raw vegetable tray in the fridge almost all the time so there is always a vegetable that they will eat ready and available. If I keep it plain my family will eat most meats and starches. My son won’t eat potatoes but I usually just give him bread or crackers instead. No big deal, not really any extra work.
    If all else fails and I am getting a lot of push back I revert to what my mother always did. They have the choice of whatever I am serving or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
    We do have about a dozen meals we rotate between because they are generally agreed upon as things we all eat and maybe another dozen meals that we occasionally serve that work with small tweaks. These meals are economic and easy. In an emergency situation there are enough basic
    things they eat that I hope they would survive.
    I stockpile shelf stable things they eat, rice, beans, pasta, peanut butter, canned chicken and canned fruits. Unfortunately soups and casseroles are a no go for my kids, that is the one thing I wish I could change. Maybe I can make some progress as they get older. They will occasionally try things that they previously refused so I have hope. I can’t be too surly about it, I wouldn’t eat anything with black pepper in it until I was over 18, lol.

  12. When I was a kid, there was no “or a bowl of cereal” “or a peanut butter sandwich.” It was “eat what’s on your plate. Period.” There were only a couple things I refused to eat – actually I hid the food rather than eating it, because I was terrified of not eating. Not that my parents were mean really but I knew food was scarce and I was a sensitive kid. Now I have an incredibly wide palate, and also a weight problem. I’m taking care of the weight problem. Having an extensive palate actually helps me like healthier foods too. I know one really picky eater – upon questioning I found that he has a really good sense of smell also, and can taste things that other people normally can’t taste. So I appreciate the advice to make sure you know the reason why something is disgusting.

    In fact, finding out from the kid (assuming they can talk) why it’s gross may be the key to getting them to eat it. If they think they are being listened to, maybe they would be more willing to try new things. For example, if I said to my mom “I hate zucchini, I don’t want to eat it,” and she had said “okay, what’s gross about it?” then I could have learned early on that I like gently steamed or lightly stir fried zucchini, but not heavily fried, dripping with oil, mushy, slimy zucchini. And I would have eaten it without complaint. Wouldn’t have taken much time or effort to ask the question either.

  13. Thank you all for the great stories in the comment section! Daisy thank you for getting the conversation started. Take good care everyone.

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