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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.