Chicken nuggets, corn dogs, french fries, grilled cheese…repeat, repeat, repeat! Sound like a familiar menu in your household? Kids tend to gravitate toward processed, bland foods because these foods are predictable and easy to eat.

So how do you know if your child’s eating habits are something to worry about? There are key differences between a picky eater and a problem feeder (i.e., a child who has trouble eating food in general or a variety of foods). Picky eating can be a normal part of childhood, whereas problem feeders often end up with nutritional deficits and a very limited variety of foods they will eat.

Picky Eaters vs. Problem Feeders

This chart outlines the differences and can help you determine if your child has one of these behaviors.

Picky Eaters Problem Feeders
Eats at least 30 different foods Typically eats less than 20 different foods
Allows new foods on their plate Typically cries, may have a tantrum and refuse new foods
Eats at least one food from most nutrition groups and food textures Likely refuses entire categories of foods or certain textures
Eats meals with the family Often eats at different times than the rest of the family
Sometimes eats different foods than the rest of the family Almost always eats different foods at meal times
May get tired of certain foods but will return to eating them after a few weeks Gets tired of foods due to frequency of eating them, often will continue to refuse to eat them
Choking, gagging, coughing or vomiting with meals
An infant/child who arches, cries or demonstrates other negative behavior with meal times
Difficulty coordinating breathing with eating
Difficulty transitioning to baby food purees or table food solids

Ways You Can Help Your Child

If you feel your child has tendencies of a problem feeder, here are ways you can help improve your child’s eating and relationship with food.

Have Meals Together as a Family

This is a great opportunity to model good eating behaviors. Serve food family-style if you are able to depending on the age of your child. This gives children an opportunity to interact with the food, even if all they do is get it to their plate. They are now exposed to a variety of smells, sights and textures of the food and can interact in a non-threatening way. Praise their efforts and interactions with foods. “Wow, look how you balanced those peas on your spoon!”

Make Food the Priority During the Meal, NOT Your Child

It can be easy to bribe and persuade our kids during mealtime.

“Just take one more bite.”
“You’ll like it, I promise.”
“Take two more bites and you can have the iPad.”

Does this sound familiar? Instead, make food the focus. Talk about the food and be specific…It’s crunchy, it smells sweet, it’s slippery in your fingers. It’s all about learning.

Limit the Number of Foods on Your Child’s Plate

Keep it to one preferred food they enjoy and two other foods the family is eating. This gives them the comfort of a familiar food while exposing them to new foods, even if they don’t eat them.

Remember that Eating and Learning About Food Takes Time

Think about going to a foreign country with a variety of new foods. Would you scoop up a huge bite and put it in your mouth or might you poke it with your fork, pick it up to smell it, maybe lick it with your tongue first? Allow your child time to explore new foods, too.

Be Specific with Praise and Realize There Are Many Measures of Success

Chewing and swallowing, touching, smelling, licking and tasting are all ways to learn about food. Children need these opportunities to explore food without being criticized or punished. Stay positive. For example instead of saying, “Don’t play with your food,” try “Good job touching. It feels squishy, doesn’t it? You can smell it, too. It smells sweet!”

Seek Help If You Have Significant Concerns

Consider a consultation with a feeding clinic if you have significant concerns about your child’s eating behaviors. This type of clinic specializes in helping children with feeding problems and includes speech therapy, occupational therapy and a registered dietitian. Your child’s doctor can provide a referral for this type of consultation.

Trust Your Instincts to Help Your Child

Mealtime battles are hard, frustrating and downright exhausting. Trust your instincts when it comes to your child. Try the above strategies to encourage your child to explore foods. If you think there are real problems with his or her eating, talk to your child’s doctor. A referral to speech and occupational therapists who specialize in feeding also can help you build better relationships between your child and his or her food, and bring the fun back to family meal times!

Julie McDaniel

Julie McDaniel

Health Expert

Julie McDaniel, MS, CCC-SLP, is a Speech and Certified Neonatal Therapist with Bryan Health.
Stacey Anderson

Stacey Anderson

Health Expert

Stacey Anderson, OTR/L, CPST, is an Occupational and Certified Neonatal Therapist with Bryan Health.

Struggling with a Problem Feeder?

Bryan Outpatient Pediatric Therapy has professionals who specialize in infant/child feeding problems and improving health. To learn more, please call 402-481-3316 or visit the link below.

Learn More

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