Picky Eater or Problem Eater?
by Stephanie Celaya
Kids Place Speech and Language Pathologist

As many parents (and non-parents) know by now, children do not come with a neatly written manual that explains everything one should know about their child (bummer!). One of the hurdles that some parents come across with their children is during meal times. While some children are quick to adapt to new foods, other children have difficulty and they begin to exhibit aversions to foods with certain smells, tastes, textures, consistencies, etc. One of the biggest questions parents ask is “How do you distinguish between a “picky eater” and a “problem eater?”

Many of the symptoms of a picky eater and problem eater initially appear to be typical issues. Parents are constantly struggling to get picky eaters to enhance their diet by trying to add a variety of nutritious foods (i.e., fruits, vegetables, proteins, etc.) into their food repertoire. However, the frequency, intensity, and disruption of everyday life are what distinguish between a picky eater and a problem eater.

The following are some general signs to look out for to distinguish between a picky eater and a problem eater:

Picky Eater

Limited diet= 30 foods or more
Food jags regained after ~2 weeks
Tolerates novel food(s) on plate
Tolerates touching/tasting novel food(s)
Consumes at least 1 food from most or all food groups
Will add new foods to his/her diet in 15-25 steps through use of feeding hierarchy

Problem Eater

Limited diet= less than 20 foods
Food jags are not regained after a break
Crying, tantrums, and/or other atypical behaviors when presented with novel foods
Exhibits aversions to entire food textures
Will add new foods to his/her diet in more than 25 steps through the use of feeding hierarchy

“Problem eaters” are very reluctant to interact with and/or taste new foods and will often exhibit adverse behaviors (i.e., pushing food away, turning their face, crying, kicking, screaming, tantrums, etc.) when they are presented with new foods. As a caregiver, these adverse behaviors can be frustrating. Some parents may even resort to ‘force feeding’ their children. While this may seem like a last resort, parents should not attempt to force feed their children because this causes children to have negative experiences with food and this will further delay their progress.

Let’s say you went to eat sushi for dinner and later that night you realize you got food poisoning from the sushi and you were sick all night. I’m certain that the negative experience you had with the sushi will cause you to steer away from eating sushi for a long time, if not altogether, right? That is the same idea with children when they have negative experiences with food(s); they will steer away from it if they have negative experiences with it. Meal times should always be a positive experience and there is a hierarchy of steps to follow to ensure that meals are positively introduced into the child’s food repertoire. The following are steps you can follow to get a child to interact with, taste, and/or eat foods.

1. Tolerating:

  • on the table (near the child and/or directly in front)
  • on their plate

2. Interacting:

  • Helping parents during meal preparation/set up
  • Using cup, plates, utensils, etc. to interact with foods

3. Smelling:

  • Smell of the food present in the room
  • Smell of the food directly in front of child
  • Bringing food up to their nose to smell the food

4. Touching:

  • Fingertips
  • Hand
  • Lips
  • Teeth (holding it between their teeth)
  • Tip of the tongue

5. Tasting/Eating

  • Licking
  • Bites small piece, hold in mouth for a few seconds, spit out
  • Bites small piece, chew 1-3 times, spit out
  • Chew and swallow (with drink and/or independently)

These steps will help the child ease into interacting, tasting, and eventually eating novel foods. It is very important to follow these steps progressively; do not move onto the next step until the child has successfully mastered the previous step. Additionally, it is very important to praise the child for any level of progression.