Is Your Child a Picky Eater or a Problem Feeder?

Picky Eater vs. Problem Feeder + Tips on 100 Days of Real FoodThe subject of picky eaters is certainly not a new one around here. But after hearing feedback from readers it occurred to me that not everyone is dealing with the same level of pickiness. Some readers have said their child will eat no more than 5 different foods or literally vomit at the table when attempting to try something new. Other kids are picky, but maybe their lack of adventure at the dinner table is because they aren’t being exposed to different foods often enough. After consulting with a couple of occupational therapists I’ve learned that parents are likely dealing with two different issues: picky eaters vs. problem feeders. And for some who have a “problem feeder” on their hands, intervention might be the only answer.

A big thank you to Occupational Therapist Susan L. Roberts (referred to me by a friend) for providing the following information, which will hopefully help clear things up for some of you!

Picky Eater vs. Problem Feeder

Information courtesy of Susan L. Roberts, MDiv, OTR/L

  • Is the number of foods your child eats getting longer or shorter? All children go on eating jags where they ask for one food all the time and then don’t want it at all. Picky eaters will go back to that food again after a while so over time their food repertoire expands. Problem feeders never eat the food again so they slowly whittle away at acceptable foods until the list includes less than 10 or 20 foods. It’s important for a child to eat a balanced diet consisting of at least 30 – 40 different foods.
  • Can your child tolerate watching others eat a food he or she doesn’t like? Picky eaters don’t mind as long as they don’t have to eat that food. Problem eaters will gag or even vomit just watching others eat a food they don’t like. (Caution: sometimes this behavior grows out of forcing a child to “try” a food they don’t want.)
  • What’s coming out after meals? Children with food sensitivities or gastrointestinal problems don’t retain food long enough to digest it. This means frequent messy diapers and trips to the toilet. Chronic diarrhea warrants medical investigation. So does chronic constipation. Both these conditions usually get better with a more varied and healthy diet.

Possible Culprits for Meal Time Blues

Information courtesy of Susan L. Roberts, MDiv, OTR/L

  1. Force feeding or asking a child to eat, taste or try a food they don’t want can create super-cautious or resistant behaviors that often get worse over time. It’s your child’s body, give them control over it. Letting children explore food on their own terms leads to better eating (and happier mealtimes).
  2. Food sensitivities or allergies may go undetected in young children. If you’ve ever experienced the symptoms of an allergic reaction (intense itching, shortness of breath) or sensitivity (stomach distress) you can imagine how these experiences would make a child cautious about food exploration. It’s often hard to identify the food culprit(s) so as a result many children respond with global food refusals. It’s worthwhile to have food sensitivities checked out medically and/or work with a nutritionist or dietician who understands food sensitivities and how to resolve them.
  3. Problems with coordination of breathing and swallowing can also lead to cautious food exploration. Most new eaters take a while to get these rhythms down so babies and toddlers often gag, choke and even vomit in their beginning explorations of solid foods. It’s OK for these experiences to happen but if they persist or a child begins more global food refusals get your pediatrician to recommend a “swallow study.”
  4. Sensory processing disorders make it hard for children to explore foods because they have extreme reactions to texture, smells, tastes and the sound of foods being chewed (by themselves or others). Often these children will also seek out or avoid sensory experiences in play. They may want to swing, spin or crash around all day or stay glued to a video device or other type of quiet play. Occupational therapists can help you figure out if your child has problems with sensory processing.
  5. Gastrointestinal inflammation such as irritable bowel syndrome or reflux can also make eating unpleasant for a child. Signs of GI inflammation can be seen as ulcers in the mouth or diaper rash around the anus. Diarrhea and constipation can signal GI inflammation. Children who exhibit frequent head banging, tantrums for no discernible reason, hanging upside down, and putting pressure on the abdomen all the time may have GI inflammation. Have your pediatrician or a pediatric gastroenterologist examine your child and give you an opinion about whether more testing is needed.
  6. Mouth breathing and nutritional deficiencies can affect a child’s ability to taste food. If food doesn’t taste good we usually don’t want to eat it. Talk about these possibilities with your pediatrician.

Picky Eater Advice from the Occupational Therapist

Information courtesy of Susan L. Roberts, MDiv, OTR/L

  1. STOP asking your child to eat, taste or try foods. In fact, STOP talking about food at all. Let your child explore foods on his or her own terms and at his or her own pace. This means looking, touching, smelling, tasting, and refusing. This may seem counter-intuitive, but research shows that healthy eating habits come when children have control over what they put in their mouth.
  2. Always sit with your child any time they eat. Food and eating have been about sharing comfort throughout history. Don’t mess with a winning strategy. Children who eat with their parents get better grades as well as have less teen pregnancy, drug use, and eating disorders.
  3. Take control of the menu. That’s your job as an adult. DON’T ask a child what they want – serve them what you know they need. At every meal or snack they need a protein, fat, and carbohydrate (in the form of fruits, vegetables and whole grains).
  4. Always provide at least ONE food you know your child likes and serve enough for them to fill up if they choose to eat only that one food. I know this means they may only eat crackers or bread for a while, but eventually they will try other foods IF you let them explore at their own pace, and provide plenty of other choices.
  5. NEVER cater to a picky eater, it just prolongs picky eating. If a child says they don’t like a food – keep serving it on a regular basis. Serve what the family enjoys and let the picky eater accommodate to the family’s tastes.

Be sure to check out our 100 Days of Real Food Picky Eater Tips as well and share any additional advice in the comments.

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  • Comments

    1. Melanie |

      Helene- obviously by your severely inarticulate response you are uneducated and silly. My children do not fit into this category, but your nonsense responses make me sorry for you. You are truly an unfortunate soul and should be blocked from your lack of heart (and perhaps intelligence).

    2. Marie |

      As the mother of 4 children with sensory processing issues, I am so thankful for you bringing light to this difficult issue I face every day. We eat strictly whole foods and it is often very difficult, but I choose to never give up trying to expand the food list of my children. They want to try new foods, but it is very scary for them. One child would not even try ice cream until he was 5. It looked good, but it was cold and creamy and that literally scared him.

    3. Dr. Juke |

      Some of those tips at the bottom seem a little contradictory. How are we supposed to not force our children to eat food they don’t want to, while also taking control of the menu. How do I make my kid “discover foods” by not catering to him, but also serving enough crackers, bread, or whatever to fill him up?

      • Amy Taylor (comment moderator) |

        Hi there. She is saying to be sure to provide at least one thing that is a sure thing at meals so the child is not hungry (but not changing the menu), don’t force foods on them, and they will eventually come around to trying things when they are ready.

      • Kat |

        I agree- my parents and day-cares dealt with my picky eating by ignoring it, and as a result I went many meals without eating, and it did nothing to help me. The foods I would not eat then I still won’t eat now- they have always smelled and looked disgusting, and smell nothing like what I think of as food. The one’s I’ve tried- mostly various types of hamburger helper- don’t even taste very much like food, and if I have kids I hope very much to never serve them anything that horrible. I’m not saying to always cater to picky kids- I have a friend who is so picky that I view it as rude to her hosts, and she should never have been allowed to get that bad. But I am a super taster and have issues with certain spices, compounds, and preservatives- it’s actually getting worse, because I now get sick from eating hot dogs or bratwurst, and have to avoid those as well as entire categories of food.

    4. Robin V |

      Problem Feeding is a real issue and varies greatly from typical picky eating. Dr. Kay Toomey, PhD is an expert in the area and has changed many lives. The article above touches on the tip of the iceberg. There is a vast amount of information on the topic. Feeding difficulties is often sensory based and/or has medical basis. It is so important to seek professional medical advice if your child shows signs of a problem feeder. This is a real problem for many families with real solutions out there. Here is the Kay Toomey link that differentiates between typical picky eaters and problem feeders:

    5. Robin V |

      P.S. Dr. Kay Toomey also has a “Steps to Eating” chart that breaks down eating into various steps. At first glance this may appear pointless but it is actually the key to getting your child to eat a new food if they are a problem eater. Basically you use the chart to figure out what the next step or attainable goal is. For example, the parent with the child who wouldn’t eat ice cream. Maybe the child would tolerate the ice cream on a plate in front of him. That determines the step that the child is currently on. By looking at the chart or just understanding the breakdown of the steps to eating you can encourage a higher level of interaction with the food by saying something like, “You can touch the ice cream with your spoon.” Eating the ice cream may be threatening but touching it with a spoon might not be. Interaction has increased as soon as they touch it with the spoon. Now they can consider the next step: smelling the food. In this way step by step over several introductions of the food a child’s interaction with a food can develop to the point that they will actually eat a food once rejected. Using “You can” statements and following the steps has done wonders with our problem eater. Here is the link:

    6. Colleen |

      I have a picky eater and we have already been trying a few if these things mentioned in this article. It’s slow going but it is working we do planned meal nights, and even though it’s tough and hard to stay on track 100% if the time I’m not giving up. My child is experiencing some stomach issues and are currently working with her pediatrician to fix this issue. Hopefully it will get better with time and patience. I’m not being a short order cook anymore and am incorporating more choices slowly.

    7. Goldfish |

      My Dad & stepdad collectively have 11 children together. 6 biological and 5 adopted. Neither were catered to as kids and my stepdad and his siblings were first american born of their entire ginourmous Italian family. When they were babies and started eating solid foods they weren’t given baby food, they were given easier to eat versions of whatever they were cooking. As a result they all were excellent eaters with a huge variety of foods. Also when I was little and my Dad was still with my biological mother she was a terrible cook, it wasn’t for lack of trying, she followed recipes to the letter but her food was so bad that when we would find out she was cooking dinner my 2 older siblings would start to cry LOL. As a result of that my Dad started learning to cook just for survival (and im 18 now and he’s an excellent cook and so is my stepdad) by 3 I was showing interest in cooking and once that started and my dad noticed I ate anything I helped to make with gusto he started my 2 older siblings to help prepare, as we got older we were taught how to use knives properly and were fully encouraged to cook entire meals. Once he and my stepdad got together we were introduced to gardening, all us kids really enjoyed the process of growing veggies and fruits from seeds, or harvesting our fruit trees and then to take those foods from the garden to the dinner table we were always excited and happy to eat those foods. They now have 3 year old twins and one of them was VERY picky about solid foods and my stepdad decided to take his parents approach. She wouldn’t eat traditional jarred/packaged baby food but she’d gobble up pasta and other foods. We always eat together as a family and that really does make a difference. My 3 year old picky eater sister now helps make salads, or she sprinkles the cheese over something like enchiladas, plus this last summer she had her own cherry tomato and cucumber plants ;nurture and she gobbled those up and found those so yummy she started eating more veggies and has a list going of what she wants grow this summer. Another tact they took was letting all my younger siblings (3,3, 7, and 9) help plan a weekly dinner menu and when they went to the store each kid got to pick out 1 new veggie and 1 new fruit each time for everyone to eat and now they have pretty varied and healthy eating habits. Getting kids directly involved with planning menus, growing food, and letting them choose healthy items at the store works wonders with picky eaters and also helps grow an interest in cooking and eating real foods for all kids regardless of being picky or open to trying new things.

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