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Why Rich Kids Like the Taste of Health Food

A new study illuminates the complex reasons why low-income children struggle to acquire a taste for "health food."

by Wyatt Marshall
Jan 31 2016, 3:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Cara Difabio

For new parents with young families, dinner time can be challenging, if not a warzone. There are concerns as to whether your child is eating enough; then there are concerns about whether the kid is eating the right things. And even though it's 2016, lots of kids still hate vegetables. Food may be thrown.

It turns out those pleas from parents for kids to eat their vegetables do work—eventually. A 1990 study found that kids require eight to 15 encounters with a particular food until they become accustomed to it. And once they're used to it, they'll not only eat it, but also come to choose those foods on their own.

But getting to the point where kids will readily consume peas and broccoli isn't as easy for lower-income families. Wasted food is wasted money, and families on tighter budgets are more likely to feel a squeeze when kids don't eat the healthy foods on their plates. A new study published in Social Science & Medicine found that lower-income families are more likely to give up on attempts to feed their kids dreaded good-for-you foods like Brussels sprouts and to resort to less-healthy foods their kids will eat, while richer families will keep at it until their kids have developed a palate for them.

Researcher Caitlin Daniel spent time with 73 parents in the Boston area, interviewing and grocery-shopping with them. Her presence didn't seem to affect the buying choices the parents made—The Atlantic notes that three of the study's participants shoplifted while she was with them.

READ MORE: Making Your Kids Eat Healthy Won't Stop Them From Loving Junk Food

On those trips, she observed lower-income parents choosing foods like frozen burritos instead of more nutritious alternatives, despite their wishes to buy nutritious foods for their children. "I try not to buy things that I don't know if he'll like because it's just, it's a waste," one parent explained. Wealthier families were also distressed by the waste, but were more likely to put up with it. They were also more likely to make sure that food rejected by a child was ultimately eaten by another member of the family.

"I find that many low-income respondents minimize the risk of food waste by purchasing what their children like—often calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods," Daniel wrote.

Previous studies have shown that people with higher incomes tend to have healthier diets, and those who spend more money on food tend to eat healthier and consume more fruits and vegetables. With future eating habits and preferences formed at a young age and partially determined by economic limitations regarding waste, Daniel's study offers insight as to how to potentially address the problem from a public health standpoint. Schools might stomach some of the sunk costs of encouraging a healthy diet by serving healthy foods kids aren't familiar with at school, or parents could purchase frozen vegetables, as they last a long time and can be served bit by bit, thereby avoiding waste.

But for parents of all economic backgrounds, the struggle to feed kids healthy foods remains—that is, until they learn to like them on their own. After that, parents have all sorts of other fun growing up milestones to look forward to, like being the chief recipients of their children's hate and anger during their teenage years, and helping to pay for college or any other unforeseen expenses throughout life. Cheers!

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