Picky Eaters vs. Problem Feeders

Many parents find themselves navigating meal time with a child who is a “picky eater”.  It’s no easy task, that’s for sure! But, how do you know if your child is a “typical” picky eater, or if they have a more serious problem that may require professional help? Well, here is some information below that we hope will help!  The informational chart below was written and copyrighted by Dr. Kay Toomey, developer of the SOS Approach to Feeding.



– Accepts a decreased variety of food

– 30 or more foods typically eaten

– Accepts a restricted variety of foods

– 20 or less foods typically eaten

– Foods are no longer accepted due to “burn out”

– Typically, the child will eat these foods again after roughly a 2 week break

– Foods are no longer accepted due to “burn out”

– The food is not added back in as a preferred food, further decreasing the number of accepted foods

– Eats at least one food from each food group (vegetables, fruits, carbohydrates, proteins, dairy)

– Eats a variety of textures (purees, meltable foods, crunchy foods, soft foods, etc.)

– Refuses entire categories of foods

– Refuses certain textures of foods

– Frequently eats a different meal than the rest of the family BUT will eat at the same time and place as the family

– Almost always eats a different meal than the rest of the family AND often eats at a different time and place than the family

– Can tolerate new food on their plate

– Typically will touch or taste the food (it might be reluctantly)

– Cries, screams, tantrums, or “falls apart” when new foods are presented

– Demonstrates strong preferences (only accepts foods from a specific plate,  refuses preferred foods if close to non-preferred foods, etc.)

– Parents sometimes feel that their child is a good eater and sometimes feel that he/she is a picky eater

– Parents always feel that their child is a picky eater

(Copyright 1997/2019 Kay A. Toomey)


Tips & Tricks for your picky eater:

Okay, so let’s say that you’ve determined that your child is a “typical” picky eater. Now what? Mealtimes are still stressful and with a busy schedule, you’re tempted to just give in and make them chicken nuggets for the fifth night in a row. We don’t blame you! However, we encourage you to follow these tips below to help your child develop healthy relationships with the food that they eat.

  • ALWAYS keep eating a positive experience! Avoid pressuring your child to eat a food, providing ultimatums (“no TV if you don’t eat your dinner!”), using bribery (“if you try just one bite of broccoli, you can have ice cream”), and engaging in power struggles. It is so important for children to develop healthy relationships with food at a young age that will stay with them into adulthood.
  • Make small changes to your child’s preferred foods to help encourage acceptance of a greater variety of foods. Try presenting a food on a different plate, cutting food into a different shape, placing it on their plate in the shape of a smiley face, or trying a different brand. Sometimes the smallest changes can lead to the biggest gains.
  • Play! That’s right, let your child play with their food. No expectations to taste or eat the food – only to play and interact with it. Want your child to eat vegetables? How about using a carrot as a rocket ship? Broccoli as the trees in a forest? Green beans as swords? The more interactions a child has with a food, the more likely he/she will be willing to taste it on their own.
  • Lastly, as a general guideline – You’re in charge of what goes on the plate. Your child is in charge of what goes in his/her body.

What if you have a “problem feeder?:

If you find yourself thinking that your child’s eating habits place them on the “problem feeder” side of this chart, it is important that you seek the help and guidance of a trained professional, such as an occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist. Intervention by a trained professional is critical to help prevent your child from enduring the long-term nutritional impact unhealthy eating habits could have, or are already having, on your child. Our job as professionals is to identify the underlying cause of your child’s eating difficulties (i.e. sensory, oral-motor, behavioral). We can then help guide your child and you in the process of repairing the unhealthy relationships that he/she has developed with food. Our goal is to work together as a team to make food and mealtimes something that your family can enjoy together! 

If you’re concerned that your child’s eating habits are impacting their nutritional well-being, please talk to your pediatrician. They’ll be able to help you create a plan that best fits your child’s nutritional needs! 😊

Written By: Cortney Kunkle, M.A. CCC-SLP