Stew Maker Packs Pantry for Parents of Boy with Autism, Who Struggled to Eat Before Finding a Favorite Meal

"He is non-verbal, and 'Dinty Moore' were some of his first words," Danny Young's dad wrote to the company, which responded with gifts and a year's supply of free food

courtesy Matt Mills
courtesy Matt Mills

Any time Matt Mills starts his day feeling a little sluggish, both he and his wife, Jamey Young, know they can count on instant inspiration from their 8-year-old son Danny, who has autism.

"We're like, 'Oh man, life's tough,'" Mills says. "But then you see him, and he's got a disability, but he's still smiling, and there's no care in the world. And it's like, wow! It's very uplifting. He wakes up early, and he will stay up late. He's got lots of energy, and he goes, goes, goes."

That includes going to the kitchen — a lot.

"He's like a seagull," says Mills. "He eats every half hour, it seems. Every two hours, I swear, he's going in that kitchen and getting something."

And the second-grader — who loves bowling, running and being chased, swims in Lake Superior, wrestling his dad and shaking his mom to playfully wake her up — has a favorite meal that dominates his diet: Dinty Moore Beef Stew.

"It's either oatmeal, canned spaghetti, or Dinty Moore," says Mills.

Finding a favorite meal for their son lifted a burden on his parents, who'd struggled for years to find food Danny would eat as he grew. Mills wanted to share their appreciation with the makers of the stew and sent a message through the company's Facebook page in early 2022.

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"My son is autistic and obsessed with Dinty Moore beef stew," he wrote. "I was wondering if you have any care packages or anything like that for such a big fan? He is non-verbal, and 'Dinty Moore' were some of his first words. He is seven, and he eats it so much that we call him Danny Moore."

He didn't really expect a reply. But managers at the brand, part of Hormel Foods, took note. Last June, a team showed up at the family's home in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., loaded down with Dinty Moore-branded t-shirts (one of which was custom-printed "Danny" on the back), a "Danny Moore" customized stew can in a mini trophy case as well as a branded stocking hat, blanket and toy truck.

Best of all for the family, they delivered the first of a year's supply of Dinty Moore stew.

"That was a big surprise," says Mills, 40, a toll taker at the International Bridge that links Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. "When you live paycheck to paycheck, that really helps."

courtesy Matt Mills
courtesy Matt Mills

Aly Sill, Dinty Moore's brand manager, says: "When we first got Matt's comment on our Facebook post, something grabbed my heartstrings. ... It was just a no-brainer to take action, learn more about that family, and figure out what we can do to make their life just that much easier."

"They represent so much of what the Dinty Moore brand means," she says, adding, "It was built on a legacy of hard work, on positivity, and also damn good beef stew."

Making a connection to food Danny enjoyed was a "lifesaver," says Young, 31, a family service worker with Head Start. Their household includes twin 9-year-old boys, a 14-year-old daughter who lives with them part-time, and Mills' parents who live in an attached apartment.

"I noticed when he was about a year and a half, he wasn't saying any words yet, and he was having food aversion, so he was still stuck on baby pureed food," Young says. "He didn't want to try different foods or different textures." Diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was about 2 years old, "he still was nonverbal, and the food thing was very concerning because he needs to eat."

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"When initially he was diagnosed, of course, it was a shock to me and Matt," she continues. "But a lot of parents, I know when they receive that diagnosis, it's either denial or grief. I actually saw it as relief because we had an answer, and now we are in touch with people who have resources and information they could share about how we can help Danny to improve his quality of life and to communicate with everyone."

Says Mills: "He had his favorite blankets, his bunnies, and we took pictures of all of the stuff that he loves and knows. That way, when he wanted something, he would bring us the picture. And that way, we knew. Then sign language became a part of that, too."

"But now he can communicate. He can speak more, and so he knows when he wants a can of spaghetti, he'll either go get it and tell us, 'Spaghetti,' or ask us," he continues. "He can't just go up to some random thing and ask for it. But the stuff that he knows and has learned over those couple years, he can now ask for those things."

courtesy Matt Mills
courtesy Matt Mills

Transitioning Danny through foods required a similar process of "trial-and-error," says Young.

"We just slowly moved him up from a pureed food to a more gritty food, then to chopped food," she says. "But it was very defeating, especially at home. I felt very alone, and I was like, I need my child to eat because if he doesn't eat, there's dire consequences to that."

Mills says: "We tried everything, and my dad was making homemade stew one night. And of course, we're like, well, we've got to let Danny try it, because we try to get him to try everything just to see what we can get away with and what he'll actually eat."

"Danny sat down, and he just started eating it," he says. "But we're like, we can't make homemade stew every night. We can't afford that."

That's when they decided to try a family favorite. "We grew up on Dinty Moore, and my dad always ate it, and so did his dad," says Mills. "So mom and dad picked up some cans of Dinty Moore and said, 'Hey, give this a try.' "

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Before long, "Danny would just go to the pantry and get it himself," adds Mills. "He loves this stuff."

Danny was around 4 or 5 when the stew became the staple of his diet, his parents say.

"It's got vegetables, meat, potatoes. So we started buying cases of it, and it just never stopped," says Mills. "He'd eat it three, four, five times a day. And they've got those pop-tops, so we could take it to the beach, and he'd eat it right out of the can."

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Young adds: "As long as he was eating food, I was happy. Plus, he gets a multivitamin as well. And it's like a hearty meal. And when we'd bring him to the doctor, he was growing fine."

Mills reached out to the company that makes his son's favorite stew because the discovery made a world of difference for their family. "We just wanted to say thank you," he says.

Unlike her husband, Young says she'd never tried the stew before her son started eating so much of it. Now, she's a fan.

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"If you warm it up, especially if you have biscuits with it, it's not a bad meal at all. And then now the twins, they'll ask, 'Can we have Dinty Moore stew too?' I'm like, 'Of course. There's plenty of it.'"

Now there will be even more in the family's pantry. After the company's initial gift, Sill says they've pledged to provide a second full year of the product to the family at no cost.

And what was Danny's reaction to the bounty? "He didn't really have much" of one, says Mills.

"However," adds Young, "every morning he has to have his Dinty Moore hat. He'll even say — because he recognizes the name, of course — 'Dinty Moore hat?' And I'm like, 'Oh yes. Can't forget your Dinty Moore hat.' He wears that thing religiously."

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