Research findings and management recommendations typically emphasize responses of the "average" individual, yet more than half of the animals in a group may differ significantly from the mean regarding food preference and intake. The productivity of a herd may be adversely affected if animals differing from the mean are fed a uniform diet formulated to meet the needs of the "average" individual. We compared the intake and performance of beef calves offered a choice or no choice among foods. Diets consisted of ad libitum access to either a chopped, mixed ration of rolled barley (31.3%), rolled corn (31.3%), corn silage (15.5%), and alfalfa hay (18.9%) (n = 16 calves) or a choice among those foods offered individually (n = 15 calves). Averaged across the 63-d trial, the two groups did not differ in ratios of protein to energy ingested (43 vs 43 g CP/Mcal ME; P = 0.50), but preference for foods high in energy or protein varied markedly for animals fed free-choice: on d 21 they had protein:energy ratios higher than those of animals fed the mixed ration, on d 2 the ratios were equal, and on d 40 they had protein:energy ratios lower than those of animals fed the mixed ration. Throughout the trial, no two animals consistently chose the same ingredients, and none selected a diet similar to the nutritionally balanced mixed ration, yet each animal ate a diet adequate to meet its needs. Animals offered the mixed ration tended to eat more than animals offered a choice (109 vs 102 g/kg MBW/d; P = 0.10), but they did not gain at a faster rate (0.89 vs 0.92 kg/d; P = 0.65). Gain/unit of food consumed also was similar for both groups (0.09 vs 0.10 kg/kg; P = 0.38). However, food cost/day was higher for animals fed the mixed ration than for those offered a choice ($1.58 vs $1.36; P = 0.03). Consequently, cost/kilograms of gain was higher for the mixed ration than for the choice group ($1.84 vs $1.49/kg; P = 0.045). These findings suggest that 1) animals can more efficiently meet their individual needs for macronutrients when offered a choice among dietary ingredients than when constrained to a single diet, even if it is nutritionally balanced; 2) transient food aversions compound the inefficiency of a single mixed diet by depressing intake even among animals suited to that nutritional profile; and 3) alternative feeding practices may allow producers to efficiently capitalize on the agency of animals, thus reducing illness and improving performance.