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

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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