Is Your Child a Picky Eater or a Problem Feeder?

The 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.

Picky Eater vs. Problem Feeder + Tips on 100 Days of Real Food

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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 adjust 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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127 thoughts on “Is Your Child a Picky Eater or a Problem Feeder?”

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  1. Has anyone had success switching their offerings to much, much simpler foods? Like deconstructed meals? I have avoided this because I feel if I did that, my pickiest eater would always just pick out the cheese/bread/fruit (not that those are so unhealthy, its just not contributing to the variety in his diet) but when I make something where its all mixed up (casseroles, enchiladas, stews, etc.), he/they often just eat nothing, drink their very small glass of milk and say they aren’t hungry. Maybe its better to serve them the components of a meal separately then to actually prepare and serve them together?

    1. You can hardly separate casseroles or stews. I normally serve meals as deconstructed as possible, for the main reason that I prefer them that way. If there is a certain ingredient they (kids, guests, I) absolutely hate, I just don’t put it in. And yes, my “picky eater” just eats the one or two components she likes best, but I do not care about it. She separates the ingredients she doesn’t like from more complex meals or just refuses the meal entirely. They should develop a good sense for taste and food and I do not see a point in slipping under presumably healthy ingredients by mixing them up or hiding them in smoothies. Do your kids help you cooking? I have noticed with my picky eater, that she loves to eat raw veggies while I am cutting them, but would not touch them once they are cooked and later sticks with plain rice/pasta.

    2. Many kids don’t like “mixed up” foods (at least not the first exposure to it). I’ll serve 3 or 4 items in addition (at least), Like in addition to enchaladas I have cheese, empty tortillas, maybe some of the filling in a bowl, salad with many veggies, cut fruit, and corn. I will let my kids pick the veggies they want out of the salad. My thought is I will make one meal, but they can eat the parts they want.

      I will serve pasta with sauce to the side, and sometimes the browned beef to the side. Takes little effort on my part, but then the kids might eat a lot of the beef and pasta and non of the sauce. Much better meal than just pasta.

      I will also make an effort (sometimes) to make things fun for them. Like slicing carrots to make really long thin carrot sticks or arranging the food on the plate into face (although we usually serve family style). In addition to help like Critical Reader suggests, I have found letting the kids serve themselves helps. They can put as much or as little as they want on their plate, and even have a chance to pick through to get only the items they want out of the dish. It does take a bit of time to help the kids to moderate their own servings (it’s so fun to scoop) but they figure it out.

    3. I generally serve the actually meal and then maybe a component of it so that I can say “that is in the enchelada” to use an example. Cheese is big in our house. i know that everyone will eat cheddar and some other cheeses, so it often accompanies meals that are mixed foods. I still serve the mixed foods so they are exposed to it. just in very small quantities.

    4. This made me LOL–our daughter (usually) eats tortillas, ground beef, lettuce, and cheese…separately. Put them together into a taco and she won’t touch it. However, she ONLY eats cheese when it is with other taco ingredients; NO other time. I put up with this because at least this is one meal I can fix for the whole family. (I told her story in another comment, but suffice to say she is definitely a PROBLEM eater, and not just picky!)

  2. A few years ago I read a blog post (that I can’t find now) by a blogger whose kids were both picky and one was a problem feeder. She was frustrated and wrote about how children in other parts of the world pretty much eat what their parents do without question (she had knowledge in this that most of us don’t).

    After reading “French Kids Eat Everything” and “Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products” by Jeannie Marshall, I can’t help but wonder if some of the picky eating we deal with isn’t caused by what we start feeding our kids. Americans typically give their children bland (rice cereal) or sweet (fruit) foods as their first foods. When we start giving them more savory foods, we either under season them or don’t season them at all. And we assume that they aren’t going to like foods with stronger tastes.

    The French, Italians and others start their children on the more savory foods, seasoned much as the rest of the family will eat. Essentially, they start eating food that tastes good. In cultures where the food is quite spicy or highly seasoned — that’s what the kids eat. It may be toned down a little for them, but it’s certainly not bland.

    Jeannie Marshall wrote about how Italians feed their babies here:

    Helene Garcia, who wrote a guest blog on, writes about feeding her young son here:

    1. According to the IDEFICS-study Italian kids are the fattest amongst eight European countries tested;-) It seems that Sweden is the new Italy with a close to “mediterranean diet”.

      Anyway, what distinguishes Italian and other European parents from North American parents is less of a focus on the eating habits of their kids. Today I asked my daycare provider (we are in Austria) how many kids there are with food allergies or food sensitivities and she said she is not aware of a single one (amongst 90 kids). Terms like “picky eater” or “problem feeder” are barely known here. I am sure there are picky eaters, but parents do not make a big fuss about it. Maybe it is just time to lighten up a bit, stop counting your kid’s food items (that is crazy), stop blogging about how you feed your kids, and enjoy your meals instead.

      BTW, THE Italian food for babies is Plasmon Biscuits. It is frequently the first solid the babies get introduced to, often diluted in a bottle with milk/formula.

      1. I’ve read previously about the decreased incidence of food intolerances and allergies and even strong dislikes in other parts of the world.

        I’m 60+ and I remember extremely few people having food intolerances, allergies or dislikes until about 30 years ago — when my kids were young.

        I do think there’s something about our food supply (processed/manufactured foods) that increases the likelihood of allergies and intolerances. Unfortunately, as our way of eating becomes more globalized, the problems that go with it will also become globalized.

        While I do remember processed foods in our diet when I was growing up, there weren’t nearly as many of them and I think they were of better quality/less processed than they are now. Food didn’t taste like chemicals.

  3. For those with allergies with eggs and dairy, try a whole food plant based diet. Look up Julieanna Hever, the plant based dietitian. She wrote the idiot’s guide to a plant based diet. Also, watch Chef AJ and the dietitian on you tube. They have some great alternatives to some recipes.

  4. Thank You for taking the time to provide such useful information on this topic. I have 2 pick eaters (7&4). I am ashamed to say that it is probably 98% my fault!
    I own that I am the parent. It’s up to me to teach them how to eat. & as of now I have completely FAILED!!
    I am lucky enough to have a super supportive husband by my side.
    My goal for 2013 is to have a Non Processed home!! Wish me Luck!! :)

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Shannon. Best of luck in 2013. Don’t be so hard on yourself – we all do the best we can! Maybe check out the mini pledges to help you guys ease into things… Jill

  5. My now 28 month old was very slow to jump on the food wagon. He refused all pureed foods (we started at 6 months.) After a couple months of trying we started giving him small pieces of our table foods. When he started accepting those, he would chew/gum them and then spit them out. I don’t think even a quarter of what went in his mouth actually was swallowed. He finally started actually eating (and swallowing) real foods at 14-15 months. This whole time he was still nursing so I wasn’t worried about his nutritional input at all. He now eats a variety of foods, although it could always be better. We encourage a taste of a new food, but don’t force the issue. He always gets some of what we are eating on his plate. Recently he’s started eating foods he wouldn’t previously touch. He also will sometimes eat foods with me for lunch that he wouldn’t touch the previous evening for dinner. He does snack throughout the day (I think it’s necessary for him at his age) but I make sure they are healthy options (fruit, cheese, yogurt, green smoothie, homemade muffin.)
    I know there are certain foods that I dislike due to texture and I refuse to make the dinner table a battle ground. It’s my responsibility to provide good healthy foods and it’s his responsibility (barring medical problems) to feed himself.

  6. Great article! My 4yr old has pretty severe food allergies to nuts, milk, and eggs. She also has some sensitivities to wheat and soy. So that pretty much leaves us with rice, oats, meat, fruits, and vegetables. Well, the problem is she refuses to try new foods and if I add them to her meal to introduce she will run from the table and not eat anything. So currently I have been giving her only ground turkey cooked with herbs like basil and oregano with brown rice. She will eat an apple occasionally but that’s very rare for her. She enjoys eating potato chips for a snack (I really want to stop giving her these) and she drinks lots of rice milk. I pray that she will begin to try new things. What can I do to help her? She has had severe allergic reactions in the past which I am sure is the cause for her cautiousness about what she eats.

    1. Natalia – I have an 8 year old son with severe allergies to milk and eggs. He too refuses to try new foods – had gaggged/thrown up when he doesn’t like the smell of something (roast chicken!!!) etc;
      We have had one mistake where he ingested milk at age 4 and I had to use the epi-pen. So “food fears” as I call them in my head are very present. Here is my new tack and I am guessing it will all just take time:

      1. I bought a mini fridge and all dairy and egg products go in that. The big family fridge is free of his allergens. I am hoping this visual reminder to him will show that there is ALOT he can eat!

      2. I try to do family dinners as often as I can and they are always dairy and egg free and I explained to him that everything served will be safe and he can try if he would like. NO pressure. I do cook him his Weaver chicken nuggets (ugh) but a range of food is at least presented to him! He now eats broccoli because of this – and baby spinach salad :-) The victories are few and far between but I think it takes TIME. And I almost cry at the table when he tries something. But I will be honest it is VERY rare that he does.

      3. Talk to your child about their fears. This website has been an amazing resource to me as has She has a great insight as both a mom AND a doctor who specializes in food allergies. This article in particular rocked my soul:
      In addition you might want to consider an outside therapist. My son refers to his as his “worry doctor” :-)

      4. Just be the great mom that you already are – your child’s advocate and center of unconditional love.

      Best of luck –

      1. Dana,
        Thanks so much for your advice, encouragement, and resources! It’s great to get advice from another mom who understands how challenging food allergies can be for young children. I definitely think its time for us to look into getting more help with this issue. The doctors seem to brush it off. But I feel like we need to start changing this behavior. I like the idea of putting the food in a separate container so that I can introduce new things and also I think I am going to make more “allergy-friendly” dinners so that she sees us all eating the same thing. But I honestly I easily become discouraged when she doesn’t try things that are safe but you reminded me to just keep on trying. Thanks again! God Bless!!

      2. My daughter has EE and is allergic is soy and rye. Before we got her diagnosis eating made her belly hurt. She would only eat just a few foods. Now that we have her food allergies under control her throat and stomach inflammation is gone.

        I make 99% of my meals safe for her. I feel like she has enough exposure outside of the home with food that she cannot eat (school, relatives houses, friends houses, birthday parties, etc.) So I make a point of making sure that everything I make is safe for her. I have found that with time she is trying new foods and eating a more diverse diet. It has been a slow process but one that works.

  7. Thank you for this. I’ve been struggling with how to deal with a picky eater and some of my concerns have been addressed with the article above. Time to start serving food and letting her pick on her own… and going back to sitting with her at the table, even if my husband chooses not to sit with us. Thanks!

    1. Oh, your husband won’t sit with you either? I wonder if this is common – he wants to sit on the couch and watch TV when we’re eating – I don’t think it helps develop good mealtime habits. Frustrating right?

  8. Great post. My almost 3 year old used to be a problem feeder. It got to the point that he would not eat any solid food at all. I was giving him Instant Breakfast (which now makes me cringe because we now only eat real food). We also tried smoothies but sometimes he would refuse them. It was scary because he’s a preemie who is already underweight. Finally we realized it was reflux. Everything he ate was coming back up so he had gotten scared to eat because it was painful. First we cut out some trigger foods (mainly milk). But the biggest thing that made a difference was your website. We made the switch to only real food and he is now a phenomenal eater.

  9. Exactly what I needed to hear I have a household of picky eaters and they can be very discouraging. I liked the idea of letting go of control and allowing them to explore at their own will. Also having one food at the dinner table they like to fill up on. Thanks

  10. Wonderful post! I’m dealing with a picky eater and was doing most of her reccommendations without realizing it. I was offering up a “taste” of things he isn’t very fond of simply because I was NOT going to turn into a short-order cook. He still can’t stand broccoli, but he’s at least eating the one piece I put in the tasting cup without arguing about it. He’s 6 and my third…you’d think I’d have this “feeding the kids” think down by now! My 13 and 10yo girls will eat just about anything I put in front of them. And may I second the probiotics suggestion? We are firm believers in that suppliment, in addition to many others.
    Thanks again for the post!

  11. Thank you for this! I have a problem feeder. It gets so tiresome to have others tell you he is just picky, he will eat when he is hungry, ect. My son will go hungry. His list of foods was getting shorter. For us this started around 6 mo. I finally found a feeding disorder clinic and we have been driving 90 minutes one way 2x a month and it is making a difference! He sees an OT, nutritionist, and psychologist and they all only work with feeding disorders.

  12. I have 3 typical picky eaters, ages 4, 4, and 2. I have always offered a wide variety of foods and as young toddlers, they all ate everything but as they get older, they eat less and less variety (and amounts, it would seem). I struggle with not making it a battle because I know I won’t win but its hard to know what the right thing to do is. In Susan’s advice for picky eaters, #4 says to give them something they like at every meal but #5 says not to cater to them. That seems to be opposite advice to me, especially when you have kids who eat few things.

    1. From what I’ve read and heard is to always offer at least one new item (or something they don’t like) in a very small serving in a separate little bowl or ramican near them but not right next to their plate and one item you know they’ll like on their dinner plate. Then just see if theyll at least try it They say it takes trying a food 8-14 times for a child or even an adult to acquire a taste for a food they don’t like.

      1. I’ll try the off to the side idea. However, the “trying a food 8-14 times” thing baffles me because my kids will usually not try it once and certainly not twice or 8 or 14 times.

    2. Not to cater means don’t make 1 child Mac n cheese with broccoli, the 2nd a PBJ with cheese slices, and the 3rd fish with fries. Instead make a meal you like (enchaladas with green salad) and additionally have a food they will eat (bread and butter). This way there is a familiar food they can fill up on, but also you are not catering to them. This works really well when eating “family style,” starting with empty plate and food in serving dishes.

      1. I guess I was avoiding that because if gave them the familiar food option (not that all the food i serve isn’t familiar, they just refuse it), I feel like that’s all they would eat. What’s the point of cooking a nice meal if I’m the only one eating it? I know these things take a long time but I have been doing this since forever and somewhere around 18-24 months, they started getting picky and have stopped trying new things and started refusing things they once likes. That was over two years ago.

      2. I would suggest reading up on the topic. I really do like the Ellyn Satter books. When my son doesn’t want what I made, I tell him that’s it until the next meal time. Then he’ll eat something. Remember to look at a well rounded kids diet over the course of a week, not in one meal or in one day. So if your kids eat only bread for a few meals it will not hurt them, and they will most likely start to branch out after a few days.

        As far as the “kids try a food 8 times” thing, it isn’t trying it so much as being exposed to it. My son is a classic textbook example: Time 1-3 he refuses it, time 4-5 he puts some on his plate, time 6 he sticks a finger in it, time 7 he takes a tiny bite, then gobbles it down. Then it is hit and miss as to whether or not he will eat it again.

        After reading the Satter books, we have been talking about eating and trying new foods less. We still bring up the subject, but keep it brief and let it pass on the child’s terms. We push less, yet expose more, and it’s getting better.

        I guess in the end, make a single meal, which is what you want to eat, but contains a small variety of foods so that there is something everyone will enjoy and be exposed to. The Satter books go into how to do this as well.

    3. agree!

      I have a two year old vegetarian that will eat any fruit, dried or fresh but limited ammount of veggi’s. She will not eat anything she does not reconize!

  13. Thanks so much for posting this. My two year old is extremely picky and will not eat meat or vegetables. It is interesting to get some more information. We live in a country where we would not be able to see an occupational therapist, but, the information here is certainly helpful. I think that my son has some sensory issues when it comes to eating. We will see if he outgrows this. Thanks for posting.

    1. Find the book “The Out Of Sync Child” by Carol Stock Kranowitz. It will help you to discover more specifically identify which sensory issues your child may have, AND methods of how to teach your child to cope with those issues to minimise their adverse affect on him. Some kids don’t “grow out” and even if he does right now it would be nice for him to have some coping techniques. Good luck

    2. Shallon’s suggestion is good. “The Out of Sync Child” is a fantastic resource. I have children at either end of the sensory spectrum and it helped for both. I have two problem feeders and a picky eater. I try to make meals fun.

      1. my son has autism. and will be 4 in August. he has never touched, picked up or eaten 1 piece of fruit or single veggie. Motts fruit cups are the only way I can get fruit into him. and any veggie in mashed potatoes are my only means of getting them into him. I am not able to leave veggies chunky/whole in the mashed potatoes. although I am getting to my breaking point. Making food fun, delicious, and something he will eat is problematic. these trends have now been pasted onto my youngest who will be 2 in April. I am having no luck with many of the suggestions I have read.

  14. What a great resource this site is. And how serendipitous to have this post pop up on my FB as we are dealing with a problem eater (8 year old girl) that is complicated by a severe fear of throwing up. She is so scared of vomiting, she is scared to eat and constantly says her tummy hurts. We have done blood and stool tests and everything has come back normal. Constipation seems to be the main culprit. Her diet is terrible (she has gone backwards on her range of foods she will eat) so that obviously contributes to the constipation. It is an endless cycle of anxiety and tummy pain, that exacerbate each other. I relate to the parents who have spent “thousands” on therapy to no avail. We just started with a psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders but I don’t know if she is the right person. I will be doing some research on the various techniques mentioned in these posts – thank you so much!

    1. Probiotics, probiotics, probiotics! We had a similar problem with my daughter. We got her on probiotics and the constipation resolved and she started eating better. She may need acid reducing too, but probiotics were a godsend in my home.

    2. Zoe, I had the same phobia and resulting problem as a child and no doubt put my parents through the ringer. Keys for me were finding a food I liked that was full of fiber – for me it was a bran-based muffin. And secondly it was finding a way of easing my anxiety – the one therapist that helped me taught me to deal with situations that were causing me stress by visualizing the event in the best way possible, but also in the worst way possible. A “whats the best thing that can happen vs the worst thing that can happen” exercise. Time teaches that the worst thing rarely, if ever, happens. And while I had to accept that a lot of elements were outside my control, I did have more control then I thought at making the best thing happen. Tell your daughter she won’t feel this way forever, and best of luck to you all.

  15. Great article! I keep hearing about not making kids try new things, and while I grew up with, and thought “a thank you portion” was a good idea, I really see the potential for kids to really enjoy foods a lot more if they are the ones making the decisions about exploring on their own! My 6 yr-old is especially stressed out about not getting to make enough choices, so I think this will appeal to her a lot! I have a new post with some books, and the DVD that you guys promote (Copy Kids), to help with picky eating! Plus, some tips and tricks for picky eaters: Very interesting about the differences between problem and picky eaters — thank you for the clarification! Have a great weekend!

  16. For us we try to make dinner a good thing. Whether the boys eat or not, they are expected to be at the table until dinner is finished. We are able to have good conversation and a good laugh, and usually because there is nothing else to do with their hands they are often times found eating. If they choose not to eat that is ok, but there is nothing else until the next meal, if they are not hungry I don’t want to force them to eat, but they are not punished either.

    Also, I do ask the boys what they want to eat. I don’t cater to them, and I don’t make separate meals but they are more willing to eat when they know they have a say in what is being served. If they ask for chicken nuggets, I just make them myself. When they ask for fruit salad, I dress it up with favorites and new fruit to try.

    I try to have them help me in the kitchen, they are also more willing to eat something if they make it. So I have them in the kitchen and I ask their opinion on what we are making. {what else can we add? Do you think it needs more garlic ect.}

  17. I wonder if your source of information should have cited Dr. Kay Toomey’s “SOS approach to feeding: Picky eaters vs. problem feeders” for this article. The title, plus all of the information, sounds like it comes directly from the SOS approach. Great approach to treat feeding problems. I urge parents with problem feeders to check into it. Thanks for giving the shout out for OT’s.

  18. I am an occupational therapist! But have never looked at my 3 year olds picky eating habits as a therapist. I dont work with children but I will definately start looking at her behavior with my therapist goggles.

  19. Thanks for this great info! I have a picky eater on my hands but he is getting better with time. I’m always surprised when for whatever reason on his own, chooses to like a new food (celery for example… *I* am hard pressed to like celery… but he just up and decided it was an okay food :-P) I *have* noticed as I cook more of our food from scratch and so little is processed foods, and serving more variety, he adds more favorites and acceptable foods to his list (which is a good number over 40 foods)…

  20. Thankfully my kids have become less picky over the years, but I have experienced picky eating for sure. Sometimes I use ‘deceptively delicious’ recipes, its a cookbook where the auther/mom purees cauliflower, butternut squash, and other things and sneaks them into her kids’ food. I love the homemade mac n cheese with butternut squash puree. SO do my kids, and they don’t know the difference. ;)

  21. I think there are massive differences between fussy eaters and problem eaters. Our kids (7 year old boy-girl twins) are so different it isn’t funny. Our boy is autistic (though mild) and he has some interesting food difficulties. He really doesn’t like potatoes (which frankly is opposite most autistic kids I know lol) but will eat raw veggies like they’re going out of style. I think maybe it’s because he grew up pulling them out of the ground and getting to taste them. That’s “normal” to him. Perhaps that’s why potatoes are so icky to him… they’re “processed” and “wrong”. :)

    Our girl is picky but not the least bit of a problem. She has a very wide repitoire. But she HATES onions. She dislikes mushrooms but can tolerate them, but onions… omg you’d think the world was ending. On the other hand, both kids eat fish, liver, venison, chicken, beef, goose, pork, and anything else that passes the table. They love cheeses, except American. They adore raw veg, and are mostly okay with steamed veg. They like leafy greens, both cooked and raw. They like natural sweets like honey (though they like icecream and chocolate too lol).

    We have a rule. Kids have to try (one teaspoon equivalent) everything that hits the table (we do make exceptions, for instance if we make spicy curry and such, which we allow them to opt out of if they wish). If they have their “no thank you” helping and dislike it, they are allowed to go make a sandwich for themselves, or eat leftovers. However, they eat at the table, with us. If they don’t eat at dinner time, there is no food later. Dessert is earned, an extra you get to top off an already full belly. No dinner means no dessert. But if you decide you don’t want to eat dinner, generally speaking we don’t bug them about it. It’s their choice. Just don’t whine about being hungry later – you have to wait for the next meal.

    I’ve been called a Nazi in regards to food, though. Apparently some of the grandparents in the family feel that I run a gulag because I don’t serve chicken nuggets and kid-tv-dinners often enough. :)

  22. Our son was a late talker and walker (17 months and 1 day) and drooled excessively until 20 months. He was diagnosed with low but normal mouth muscle tone and texture sensitivity. His speech was delayed until age 4. He pretty much refused baby food and went straight to soft finger foods at 8 months. He is now a thriving 10 year old sports playing fanatic with great coordination (w/o any therapies) but remains a picky eater and is not a fan of playing in dirt, sand, etc. He has grown to curb and control his own texture sensitivities. We chose the path of least resistance because his limited preferences were very healthy – whole wheat bread vs white, PB, assorted veggies and fruits. We did cook separate meals for him and sometimes still do, but we have never given up suggesting new foods without forcing the issue. In time, he has been willing to try everything, and his palate continues to expand with age. This solution worked for our family. I will never regret not taking on dinner table battles, but understand it is inconvenient. Children are little people who need our guidance, but sometimes they now themselves best too. I did not want eating to be associated with stress for our son. To this day, he is one of the healthiest eaters of all of his friends, and it has essentially all been his choice. Just another option to consider.

  23. My 4 year old has been in feeding therapy on and off since he was 11 months old. He eats maybe 10 things. No bread, veggies, cheese, meat, etc… He lives on fruit, yogurt, smoothies, nuggets, crackerish type foods. He has burned through 3 feeding therapist and thousands of dollars to no avail. He gags, vomits, you name it. We are at a loss and so are the therapists. Everyone tends to believe that it stems from his severe reflux and milk protein allergy when he was a baby. We have taken the last 6 months or so “off” because, quite honestly, I couldn’t take it anymore. Getting ready to start working at it again. And no, we didn’t cater to him… until he was off the growth chart and we had no choice and were told to do so by all of his doctors. Some kids just won’t eat, no matter how hungry they are, for various different reason. It continues to be a long, hard road. On a brighter note, my 5 year old eats everything!

    1. Katie – I am a pediatric Occupational Therapist with 10 years of experience in an outpatient clinic. I’ve worked with numerous kiddos with feeding issues and was wondering if you’ve heard of Eosinophilic Esophagitis – EE for short. Didn’t know if any of your feeding therapists have mentioned this term, but it may be something to look into. Kids with EE often have a history of severe reflux, ear infections, chronic congestion/illness/inflammation, poor sleep habits and behaviors during mealtime (even as an infant).

      Lisa, this was a great post! As an OT who strives to feed my family and patients REAL food, I really appreciate you sharing this information.

      1. AHayden, thank you. I had not heard of EE, so,I just finished reading some. Eagan saw a GI for about 1 1/2 years and was treated for reflux and the protein allergy with Nutramigen and Prevacid. They both helped relieve his symptoms. He continued to vomit some, but did not projectile anymore and did not appear to be in pain anymore. We had him allergy tested, swallow study, endoscopy…among other things between 1 and 3 years old. He was aspirating a small amount of fluid…and did cough once or twice while he was drinking at that time. His allergy test (skin test) came back negative, even for milk at 2 years old. He did have severe and constant ear infections. He had tubes put in at 15 months and had his adenoids removed. He also was congested for probably the first 2 years of his life. I think (and this is just my opinion) that any or all the physical issues that he had when he was younger have either been “cured” or have worked them selves out. He also has had 4 surgeries for severe Hypospadias where they had to take skin grafts from the inside of his lips and mouth to grow a new urethra for him. I am sure that this did not help either. However, even as a tiny baby he had issues feeding. I believe what we are left with is the backlash of the feeding aversion. He is scared to eat new things. He shakes, cries, hyperventilates. It is truly a physical reaction. I tend to believe that it is more behavioral now than there being a physical reason for it. I am obviously not a therapist or a doctor, but that is really what I believe. I am always open to other options, but from what I see every day he is scared. One of the things (and this is just one example) that leads me to believe this is Eagan has never eaten eggs on his own. When he was maybe 2 years old we started adding tiny bits of egg to his rice which had soy sauce in it. The soy sauce helped to hide the egg color. When we started out the eggs in the rice looked just like the rice. Now, I just scramble up eggs normally and dump them in there with some soy sauce. He still refuses eggs, as is. His whole body quivers if he thinks for a moment we may ask him to try them. We have never discussed that ere are eggs in his rice. Never said the words because it is one of the few meals he eats and I am scared to screw it up. But, I know he has seen me take the eggs out of the pan and put them in the rice and stir it up. He knows what eggs look like, his brother eats them multiple times a week. Yet, no egg has even entered his lips on his own. whewww…that was a loooooong story :) Overall, I have been very disappointed with the therapists ( and I’m normally pretty easy going in regards to all the doctors we see between my two boys) They have all basically just given up and said there isn’t anything more they can do. I KNOW there is someone that can help us, it is just a mater of finding the right person. We paid totally out of pocket with the last therapist and after 6 months she basically just walked away shaking her head. I find it hard to believe that he is sooooo bad that no one can help. He eats various different textures, colors, tastes…he has a preference for crunchy, but it is not to the point of refusing other foods based on that alone. I am just really at a lose. If you’re still with me….thanks for reading and thanks for the info.

      2. Katie,
        Not to throw another potential issue at you, but are you SURE your son isn’t allergic to eggs (or soy sauce, for that matter)? I only ask because I, myself, am an adult picky eater with multiple weird food allergies and eggs (actually egg yolks only) are among them.
        My mom was organic before organic was cool, but unfortunately subscribed to the “You Must Take at Least Three Bites of Anything onYour Plate” school, so I ate a LOT of stuff that I both flat-out hated and was allergic to for years. And I’m still picky, though I’m working on it slowly.

      3. Katie, Thanks for the additional info. I believe you are probably right, your son IS scared… and can you blame him?? This breaks my heart. If he’s had pain and discomfort associated with food for the first few years of his life, of course he wouldn’t want to eat. I agree with Bethany’s idea of continued investigation into food allergies or sensitivities. The symptoms you described from his infancy sound like he was in a constant state of inflammation… that early in life, food sensitivities are generally the cause. Sometimes, food allergies don’t show up on skin/patch tests OR blood tests, but the kid is still sensitive to the food. They may have reactions (poor behavior, changes in activity level, poor sleep patterns, decreased speech, etc) days after being exposed to a food they can’t properly digest. Their meal time behavior deteriorates as a result, because, hey, who wants to be adventurous and try new foods when they make you feel terrible?? You could consider retesting for allergies with a patch skin test (the kind where they leave the patches on the kid’s back). If you’re confident that he doesn’t have any food sensitivities, and is truly scared to try new foods, you could look for a therapist who is trained in Kay Toomey’s SOS approach… if you haven’t gone down that road yet. The original post discusses a lot of her ideas. You are right, there is someone out there that can help your son and I truly hope you find that person! Best wishes :)

      4. Oh Katie, my heart goes out to you. We finally found the “right” therapist for my son so please do not give up. My son eats no more than 5 foods and has even gone through malnourishment in the past. Previous therapy just made him worse and then I found “my angel”. Unknown to me, my son’s core was so weak that he can’t properly digest food. His nervous system was so unresponsive that he couldn’t always detect hunger or taste real food. We did a blood test for allergies and he is allergic to eggs, soy, peanuts, wheat, and coconut. Our next step is sensitivity testing of foods. His current therapist has suggested all these steps and organized our approach. She never talks about food with him or does anything to his mouth. Yet after just 4 weeks he was eating more and he always eats more the days after therapy. He still has a long way to go but at least we have hope. What city are you in? I highly recommend finding a therapist that takes a biomedical approach.

      1. I have! Thank you. I read the book last year. It related to much of the instruction we had recieved from the therapists that we have worked with. I thought it was great and made total sense. Unfortunately, we have not had much luck with it. We continue to try it though :)

      2. I food chained my son all day long for months! He was so not ready for that. If food chaining didn’t work for you, I would look at a source other than his eating.

  24. I think it really depends of the individual. Those tips would not cut it in our house. Yes, I made my son try new foods. Over and over again. He just ate one of whatever he didn’t want to eat. Certainly, if he were gagging on something, I would not make him eat it. He’s actually a good eater now at age 13. It took him 2 years to like green beans–eating one at every meal. Now he loves them. Like others, we only cook one family meal. I don’t make separate food for my child. And it works in our house. Things I know he definitely does not like I save for nights when he’s doing things with friends or relatives.

  25. NIce job addressing a real problematic issue. As a teacher of special needs children I was often confronted with “my child won’t eat…..”. Children on the autism spectrum often have texture issues, but the biggest thing I found was kids who were given crap finger food by themselves. Many of these kids never experienced “family dining”. So my staff team made sure at least one of us was at the table every school lunch, eating our meal (with silverware, another issue) while we encouraged the kids to eat/taste what came on their lunch try. Several times a tear we took them to to a chain buffet restaurant and everyone had to go through the buffet and take a spoonful of several new things and try it before they got the burger of whatever they wanted. We full well knew who had feeding and swallowing issues, each visit, caused the kids to gain a better relationship with food. You just need to expose your children, baring allergies, to things many times, in a family setting. If y’all are not setting together at the table what can you expect?

  26. Oh my goodress! Thank you for this post! My son definitely continues to eat less and less and I don’t think he ever ate more than 20 foods in his life! Everyone keeps telling me they go through phases, but this is NOT a phase! It makes me feel less crazy :)

  27. Another good idea is to cut out sugary foods. Just offer good, simple foods to kids. I love when she says to control the menu. Adults don’t seem to realize that they actually are the ones in control at meal times just by what they serve.

  28. Great article! Something I heard Rachael Ray say was that her Mother never cooked “down” to her. Meaning, she didn’t make simpler meals for the kids. I LOVE to cook and try new foods, and I never made a separate meal for my daughter. She’s 16 and has always been willing to try new things, sometimes more willing than I am! There are a few things she’s not fond of, but overall she’s up for whatever I put in front of her. She’s now beginning to ask for recipes. I work in the restaurant industry and 80% of the food parents order for their kids are chicken tenders (they call them nuggets to their kids) and fries = NO NUTRITIONAL VALUE! It just makes me sad because we have loads of wonderful things like grilled chicken and fish, and steamed or grilled vegetables on our menu but kids rarely eat them.

  29. As a dietitian who works with both picky and selective eaters for over 15 years, I would recommend Ellyn Satter’s book Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Her website is also filled with information including the all-important division of responsibility (

    1. I am a feeding specialist and I looked at Ellyn Satter site and was appalled. I’m not sure what qualifies her to give feeding advice but it was terrible! I am also a mom of a problem eater, who is doing quite well, so I have both professional and personal experience to pull from. I highly suggest you look elsewhere for information.

      1. Michelle, I am curious what appalled you so much about Ellyn Satter? I have read two of her books (one introduced in a feeding children university course) and I like her overall approach (basically what is written in the 3rd section above). However, I truly am interested in what you find is lacking in her advice.

      2. I haven’t finished reading all the comments, but you seem to be just the person I need to ask: can you recommend resources that DO address problem eaters instead of just picky eaters? My daughter is 13 and we’ve put up with the judgment of parents of less difficult feeders since she first rejected baby food mashed potatoes, but every time I look for help, all I can find is the same frustrating advice given for picky eaters. Recently I’ve begun to suspect my daughter has hyperosmia. (She informed me she can smell when I am on my period from across the room!!) She gags easily and her list of approved foods is indeed shrinking. She has had occasional struggles with diarrhea, but that has diminished recently. Our family doctor assures me she is healthy and she has even had an esophageal endoscopy to check for swallowing problems. (It all looked good.) The only thing diagnosed at this point is IBS and anxiety (or rather that she gets stomach aches as a symptom when she is feeling anxious.) Honestly I recently started wondering if there is some way to just deaden her sense of smell! Anyway, if you are a professional and are having success with your own child, I would love to hear your thoughts!

  30. To Bethany,
    My suggestion would be to offer meals when you do. If he gets up saying he’s done. Take his plate and put it in the fridge. When he asks for a snack offer the plate. When he complains, put it back. At breakfast, offer the plate. Don’t let him snack on other things. Our kids are grateful for their food(sometimes we have to be a little creative, like chopping mushrooms up tiny) but they eat what I give them. They are very healthy kids! They even love Brussels sprouts! :) a little real butter and real salt do the trick! Twice my four year old sat down to breakfast, complained that it wasn’t what he wanted, so he missed out on breakfast. It only took two times. :) my two year old gags on cooked spinach. So I chop it up smaller for her and she has no problem getting it down. Don’t be grumpy or whine at your kids for not eating what you’ve made. Just simply say they can have it later. The problem we fall in to is we let them snack on other things and only at meal time do we bring the plate back out. It should be their only option. The last thing is letting your kids help in preparing the meals. My kids love tearing the lettuce and eating it too! Kids enjoy eating things they worked hard at creating(don’t we all?). I grew up being catered to. I despised onions, tomatoes, and peppers. So my family always did without. Now as a mother, I still don’t like them and wouldn’t take a big bite of tomato but I am working them into meals. Mine was a “texture” thing with onions. But you can finely chop or purée them and you’re still getting all the great stuff from them. I like what the article said.. There is a big difference in gagging trying to eat something and simply not enjoying eating something. One last thing.. If there’s something I know one of the kids doesn’t really like, I serve only that first. Once it’s gone, I plate the rest. And a little cookie now and then is great incentive to force those “gross foods” done! :) good luck and happy cooking!

  31. I get not forcing them, but my son chooses not to eat and then wants to eat extra stuff an hour later, which I would allow because he usually just asks for an apple but then his sister, who eats plenty of dinner, also thinks she needs to eat again because he is eating. I can’t be serving food from 3:30pm until 8pm, and she doesn’t need to eat that often. What do you do with kids like that. I don’t force him to eat things he doesn’t like, but he also changes what he likes randomly so I never know if I am actually offering things that he will eat. It is very frustrating and with 5 kids I can’t allow him to eat all evening long.

    1. Bethany, what we try and do is have a set time for meals and snacks. If my daughter (our pickiest at the moment) does not care for our meal, then I have a few easy “other” options for her. (She’s only 4 so I generally get them for her but with an older child these would be self-serve!) Right now, she can choose to have nut butter with bread or an apple. Once dinner is done and she gets down from the table, we don’t serve food again until evening snack and she’s slowly learning that it is best to make sure she has eaten enough at dinner from what she does like. I like making it self serve for older kids as it means I’m not going out of my way to cook something completely different for them (and leaving my dinner!!) and it gives them a sense of control over what they are choosing to eat. HTH

    2. Bethany–As a response to my complaining about our children’s pickiness my husband had been telling me for years that if I would stop giving our children snacks they would eat better at meals. I never believed him until recently. I read French Kids Eat Everything & decided to give it a try. It has totally changed our families eating & espcially our mealtimes. The children know they are free to eat what is served (I make sure there is something that everyone likes), but if they choose not to eat their dinner, there will be no snacks until the next meal. Our 3 children are 6-8-10years old so it took a little time to adjust, but staying firm they eventually switched over to filling up on real food & not even needing or asking for a snack. Of course if we are eating a late meal or if we are guests in someones home & I’m not sure at the meal schedule, certainly allowances are made for occasional snacks. But, as I read in French Kids… and as my husband had told me, its ok for the children to be hungry. There is a difference between hunger & starvation…they will not be literally starving, just hungry. I would encourage you to read Karen le Billon’s book.

    3. Consider reading one of the books by Ellyn Satter – How to Get Your Kid to Eat, but not too much – is one of them. She basically goes in detail of what the above Physical Therapist, Susan Roberts, said in the Picky Eater Advice section above. I have found that when I tell my son “What we have on the table is what we eat. There will be nothing else until the next scheduled eating time” works to encourage him to devour what is offered. As far as Eliza says about snacks I generally agree with, however younger children need them, and if there is a long time between meals they are needed by older kids as well. BUT snacks need to be at a scheduled time, and considered a “small meal” vs a junk food fest.

    4. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Bethany. I know it may sound harsh, but, I don’t serve anything past dinner. We also go to bed pretty early though, so, it’s not like there is time to eat once we leave the table. Could you consider pushing your dinner time a little later? I find the later we eat sometimes mine are more hungry and might eat a little more. Just a thought. Best of luck to you. Jill

  32. Thanks for this. Now I know the difference. I now know that my son with Autism is a “problem feeder” another is a picky eater. Thankfully the other 2 boys are pretty open eaters. Lol

  33. One of my twins has a lot of food problems stemming from severe reflux and time in the NICU. Her problems are mostly texture related – she can chew and then “pockets” food like meat and most vegetables and grains but won’t swallow it. She also has a terrible time gaining weight so we struggle to get calories into her. One of the best things I discovered (aside from just giving her limitless avocado!) that she just gobbles down is a combination of potato soup and broccoli cheese soup – all pureed together. It’s thick (I can control it with more or less chicken stock) and I can put tons of veggies in there with good broth and my 3 year olds eat it without making a mess like they would with a thinner soup. I think the cheese sauce is what helps it meet their taste bud approval.

    1. Oddly enough, I have a non-picky eater but soup is one of the few things she wont’t try! Maybe I’ll give a shot at one that’s dairy based!!

  34. Some good advice…some I definitely don’t agree with from raising 4 kids. We don’t go out of our way to serve foods we know our kids dislike, but I refuse to cook ‘for the kids’ and as a result our kids eat a much wider, and healthier, variety of foods an most of their peers. Taking age into account, we expect our children without medical issues to eat their vegetables and a reasonable amount of the rest of their meal at lunch and dinner or they go directly to nap/bed. It is their choice and the rule never changes. We do have one child with extreme dietary needs and she is required to eat the food we give her because it’s what her body needs to work. We certainly go through periods where kids choose to go to bed rather than eat…and we let them. But it never lasts long and now they think eating spinach salads, roasted veggies and raw veggies from the garden is totally normal despite the fact that the oldest two kids are only 6.

  35. Carrie, I wanted to post some encouragement regarding your son – my little brother was a very picky eater growing up and would not touch a vegetable with a 10 foot pole. My mother sometimes forced him to sit at the dinner table after we were all finished if he hadn’t made an effort to touch a vegetable. He would cry, gag, ect. He is now almost 18 and my mother cannot keep enough broccoli in the house as he eats at least a bowl of it every other day. He is still hestitant to try something if he’s never seen it before but he has ‘recovered’ from his vegetable aversion after almost 18 years of refusing vegetables. Your son may take some time (Potentially a long time haha) but he will probably come around in the end!

  36. So thankful for this. I had a son with eating problems, was failure to thrive, and no one really believed me that he wouldn’t eat ‘when he got hungry enough’. While I’m sure there are many, many children who are just plain picky, after reading this, I hope people remember that when they hear a parent lamenting one aspect of eating/feeding/nutrition/weight that it’s a multi-faceted issue and to slap easy answers on it helps no one. Kind words and encouragement to seek help from professionals like those above may make all the difference.

  37. This is great advice! My middle son has some definite food aversions. He hates spaghetti and mashed potatoes for one thing. We try really hard to serve some foods I know he’ll eat while exposing him to new foods. He discovered earlier this summer that he actually liked fish! :) I have some of the same texture issues, so I know what he goes through. He’ll eat just about every fruit under the sun, but I can’t get him to try a vegetable. I just keep serving them, hoping that someday he’ll be able to enjoy a wider variety of foods.