10 Ways to Cut Waste When Feeding Kids

By Carrie Kirby on 28 April 2010 (Updated 25 April 2011) 16 comments
Photo: Carrie Kirby

I don't know about your kids, but mine just will not eat kibble. At least not the generic kind. Which means I have to shell out for pricey people food like vegetables, fruit, and milk.

To be honest, I'm a better mom than I let on — I even shell out for organic stuff for my three tykes. But then, so much of that pristine, chemical-free food ends up on the floor or being scraped into the garbage disposal that I wonder why I bothered. Here are the guidelines we use at our house to try to cut the waste-to-consumption ratio when feeding the kids.

1. Give tiny servings.

One of my kids eats like a bird, and it seems that no matter how small a scoop I give her of the night's meal, she manages to leave some in her bowl. I'd rather refill her little dish three times than have her take a few bites and leave the rest that technically should not be saved now that it's been eaten out of. For this fussy little one, even a 4-ounce container of yogurt or applesauce gets divided into two or three servings lest she waste the whole package.

I don't mind doing frequent refills even for heartier eaters either, because it means less food is lost in the inevitable spill.

2. Ask before serving.

Since I don't force (strongly advise, sometimes, but not force) my kids to eat what they don't want, I always ask before putting something on their plates: Would you like some salad? Would you like dressing on that? Where would you like me to put the dressing? ("Between your knees, Mom," is not an acceptable answer.)

It may seem like pandering, but it prevents waste and I feel that showing them a little respect teaches them to treat others with respect.

3. Slice it, dice it.

Don't you just love finding a pear or apple with a centimeter of fruit eaten off the outside and the rest left to turn brown? My kids always eat their apples that way. But if I serve them apple slices instead of the whole thing, between my two girls I'll actually use up the entire apple. Victory!

4. Serve food that you don't mind finishing for them.

I've read that parents gain weight when they eat with their kids, and it's easy to see why: My husband and I ALWAYS end up finishing our kids' plates. Sometimes after a particularly good meal we tussle over the privilege — a sad sight, I assure you. Maybe we're the only parents not squeamish about sharing our kids' germs, but from the way I see the other moms swoop in on their kids' leftover cake at birthday parties, I think not. So go easy on the fatty, high-calorie foods even if the kids don't need to watch their weight, because the person clearing their plate will probably be you.

5. Don't fear the sippy cup.

I know this is controversial, but I don't mind giving my 3-year-old a sippy at the table when she's drinking anything other than water, because I know the cup will get knocked over at some point during the meal. Organic milk costs $6 a gallon and I don't want it soaking up into a towel, because they balk when you wring that towel into their cereal the next day. (Just kidding! I actually only wring it into my coffee.) If the sippy spout seems too much like a bottle to you, use a closed cup with a straw.

6. Keep food and drink at the table.

You know where I collect the most half-drunk sippy cups? The car. If you let the kids wander the house or go on an outing with a milk cup, chances are that milk is going to get wasted. My kids can have a cup or water bottle in the car, but it's full of just that: water.

7. Don't go all out on school lunches.

If your kid is like my kindergartener, anything left over from lunch will come home too grubby and mangled to save, not to mention that it's been unrefrigerated all day. So don't pack a larger lunch than she can finish in the allotted time, and don't let peer pressure tempt you into overspending either on the most parent-approved organics or the most kid-approved packaged foods for lunch. Pack something simple and healthy that won't drive you to drink if it comes home wasted.

8. Transform leftovers.

Sometimes I will refrigerate my kid's plate after they're done, especially if they haven't much touched the food. But if I put that same plate in front of them for the next meal, they won't go near it. Instead, I have to mix that leftover meat into their dinner casserole or otherwise disguise it. My 3-year-old's leftover milk usually ends up in my morning coffee. And half a jar of baby food — assuming you followed Rule #1 and didn't feed directly from the jar — can be thrown into your meatloaf or pasta sauce a la The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids' Favorite Meals, or frozen in an ice cube tray.

9. Wash it.

Whether or not the 3-second rule is law in your house, some foods like raw fruits and vegetables can be washed even if they've languished on the floor for more than a moment. After all, this stuff wasn't clean to begin with — it began its life covered with dirt. So why not rinse off any floor dust and for an encore presentation?

10. Even if it's beyond human consumption, you can still reuse it.

The absolute best way to guarantee zero waste when feeding your kids is a pet. Families with a dog in the house never have to sweep the chunks off the floor after meals. And I hear about households with guinea pigs and chickens putting those dinner scraps right into the food bowl. Better the chickens having to finish those carrots that fell on the floor than you, right?

If you don't have animals, at least compost the food. Since we got a worm bin in our basement (finally!), I don't feel QUITE as bad about bits of fruit and veggies that get left on the kids' plates. At least it will eventually help our garden grow new fruits and veggies, and maybe next time around the kids will actually eat them.

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Guest's picture

I'd have to disagree with #2, though note I'm not a parent. In observing the nearly 20 kids in my family, I have noted that those who are asked "Do you want X?" instead of "You can have X or Y, pick?" in almost realm of life whether it be food or clothes or their next activity, do drastically better with the second scenario.

My wife's parents would serve last night's dinner to her for breakfast if she didn't finish it. I'm not entirely in that camp, but have found that we make kids lives overly complex by giving them choices they neither want nor need. They don't need to feel self-actualized by what they eat for dinner on a Tuesday night.

Guest's picture
Soben

It's SO hard to know what/how much to pack for lunches.  I have 3 (13,11,8) and they all have different appetites that vary from week to week.  I encourage them to bring home the moldy half-eaten sandwich so I can guage how much to pack for the next day.  I'm always telling them to eat their lunch in the order of perishability -- apple/yogurt first and any sort of shelf-stable item last.  (I think all they hear is the Peanuts' techer noise though-wawaawa).  I just recentl;y found out that my youngest had turned on yogurt and was throwing it away @ school so he wouldn't have to tell me---arghh!

Guest's picture
kt

i wish my mum had read this post when i was growing up. Maybe eating would not have been such a hustle for her, i mean all that ovacado and melons and stuff?? I still feel pukey when i see those things that i was force fed with.

Guest's picture
Suzanne

This was a great post! I can relate to wasted food in my house. My 2 boys, 6 & 7 are great eaters but are always wasting food. I plan to implement a few of these at mealtime! Who knows maybe my grocery bill will go down a little!

Guest's picture
Rosa

My son's another who eats like a bird, so we do the small servings.

We do put some of everything on his plate, though, even if it means wasting 3-4 leaves or salad or a tablespoon of curry - otherwise he'd just eat one food per meal.

Guest's picture
Anara

Some great ideas.  Love your writing but this is the first email link I've received in a while.  Glad it made it through!

My daughter's speech therapists have told me that drinking with a straw is a "higher skill" than a sippy as well as more age appropriate.   If you are struggling with a toddler who's clinging to his past, I would go with the straw to prevent spills.

My 3 year old does spill once every two weeks or so.  We moved him slowly to the open cup (started in the bath), only fill it about half way to reduce waste if he spills, and have worked very hard on teaching him how and where to set the cup down after each drink. He does really well with this, and I figure him learning to prevent and clean up his spills is part of the life lesson. If he spills, we tell him why but don't get excited "you were playing and spilled your milk" etc...

I don't agree with open ended choices -  I prefer to give a choice between 2 items.  When my toddlers go in and out of their food hating phases (no green, no touching, no dip) I have always insisted on putting a little of the hate du jour on their plates.  Just a small amount - two green beans is not the end of the world. I don't make them eat it, but they have learned to stop the drama and deal with having to look at a food they don't like.

Kids do switch on and off dislikes. I never know when they will suddenly start eating a food again. My son has taken food breaks that have lasted as long as 18 months! I would never have known he was ready to try again if I didn't keep putting a little of everything on his plate. 

My son just turned 3 and I have a 4 1/2 year old daughter with Special Needs.  For months now, I have been letting them serve themselves from a serving dish.  I'm teaching them to take a small amount then get more once they have eaten the first portion.

I also bought them nylon knives to help them prepare more food and have started Muffin Tin Mondays.  Making meals fun and different made a bigger difference than I expected. I haven't blogged about the knives yet (love them!) but here's a link to Muffin Tin Mondays:

http://www.able2able.com/2010/04/muffin-tin-monday.html

They are finally getting to the point where being involved in the kitchen encourages better eating - hooray!  For the longest time they would help, and handle foods they would not eat, but would not eat the finished product.  Am hoping the new garden will help with the current veggie phobia.

Guest's picture
Einsmom

My only caveat to the "let the dog have the scraps" is to watch out for things the dog shouldn't have.  Raisins and grapes are know to cause kidney failure in dogs.  As such, I watch those items like a hawk on my kids' plates. 

Also, if you don't have livestock to eat the scraps, consider composting.  At least you can recycle the stuff that's not humanly edible anymore (meats don't compost well, but veggies, fruits and grains do!)

Carrie Kirby's picture

Good to keep in mind that dogs shouldn't get grapes and raisins! I cannot imagine how to keep them away from a dog inclined to eat them if you have toddlers in the house -- another good reason for us to put off getting a pet until our youngest is 3, I guess.

You know, I am probably not as lax as I made myself sound with choice about food. I always make them have some of the main course on their plates, and some kind of vegetable. But my then 5-year-old went about six months where she just did not eat salad, something we have before many meals. So, I didn't bother giving it to her. I offered her carrot sticks before the meal instead. And you know what? She eventually decided she liked salad again. So I figure, I'm glad I didn't spend six months dishing out salad that wouldn't be touched or arguing with her about it.

Carrie Kirby's picture

Good to keep in mind that dogs shouldn't get grapes and raisins! I cannot imagine how to keep them away from a dog inclined to eat them if you have toddlers in the house -- another good reason for us to put off getting a pet until our youngest is 3, I guess.

You know, I am probably not as lax as I made myself sound with choice about food. I always make them have some of the main course on their plates, and some kind of vegetable. But my then 5-year-old went about six months where she just did not eat salad, something we have before many meals. So, I didn't bother giving it to her. I offered her carrot sticks before the meal instead. And you know what? She eventually decided she liked salad again. So I figure, I'm glad I didn't spend six months dishing out salad that wouldn't be touched or arguing with her about it.

Guest's picture

We never gave the children a choice in what they were eating but had a 5 bite rule. You had to take 5 bites of each item that was on your plate, no arguments, no discussion, it was a rule. We also NEVER commented on what they ate. They might have hated broccoli for years only taking their five bites and then one night they would be asking for seconds. When it came to lunches I had a major battle plan which I wrote about in "Cheap, Easy and Healthy School Lunches" I would never eat anything off my child's plate not because I find it icky but because of issues with weight gain. The old saying is "You don't want left overs to go to "waist".

Guest's picture

Great article. From my experience, the biggest impact we can have is to watch portion control in both meals and packed lunches. Nothing worse than having to dispose of food that was wasted unnecessarily. As was mentioned, I'd rather refill a bowl or plate two or three times vs throwing away or trying to salvage what's left of their portions. Great ways to save that are often overlooked. Thanks for sharing!

Guest's picture
Ayme

I recently started paying more attention to my daughter's birdie-eating habits. I try to buy mostly organics and lesser-processed foods, which gets expensive. I use small dishes and custard cups for serving her meal components. It's a visual reminder that small amounts of a variety of things is the best way to serve a kid's meal. For example, I quit making the entire box of Annie's mac-n-cheese and realized that I can get 5 or more servings out of a box, when I consider that she only needs about a 1/4 or 1/2 cup of pasta along with her other parts of her meal. This way, it's less focus on the not-that-great food (pasta) and more emphasis on the others (veggies, fruit, etc). I store the extra noodles and the packet of cheese in a mason jar, and can just dump in a new box into the jar when I need to re-up. WIN!

Guest's picture
Michelle

These tips are sensational!!! Although the chickens aren't so happy as the scrap bucket isn't as full.
Thanks Heaps.

Guest's picture
Eryn

I can relate to this post on a couple of levels. I am the product of some weird parentally enforced eating rules, and now a parent myself. I hate to waste, and #3 and #4 come easily to me. #10 as well. I will be implementing #6 and #7 to see if they work for us. Thanks for the post!

Guest's picture
Guest

3 bite rule: 3 bites of every dish served on the child's plate. When that has been eaten, serve seconds of anything the child wants. Do not give in, ever. Hungry children wiil be exposed to and usually learn to like a variety of foods this way, and if parents are firm and consistent meal times will be peaceful after a few days of this. Thank you Amy Dacyzn for putting wisdom like this in "The Tighywad Gazette!"

Guest's picture
db

get some chickens turn wasted food into eggs and fertilizer