How Do You Distinguish A Picky Eater & A Problem Feeder?

Raise your hand if your child used to eat anything you served them as a baby, but now as a toddler, they prefer to push nearly all foods away that aren’t their absolute favorites. Anyone?

We hear this common struggle from parents of little kids who feel stuck with their child’s feeding. First off, we want you to know it’s entirely normal for your child’s appetite to decrease between ages one to five. Kids’ growth slows down from the pace when they were babies, and they need fewer calories. Secondly, it is also normal for children to become pickier eaters. They want to increase their desire to control what they eat. So, how do you know when your child is going through a phase, or it’s a problem? In the feeding therapy world, we distinguish ‘picky eaters’ and ‘problem feeders.’

Picky Eaters

Picky eaters refer to many kids (and sometimes adults) who have a small range of foods that they will eat. Maybe your child has a shortlist of their favorites, like chicken nuggets, pizza, pasta, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Still, they’ll occasionally take bites of other foods from your plate or various snacks. Picky eaters will usually eat at least one food from every food group and a minimum of 30 different foods.

When a picky eater is served a new or less-preferred food, they can tolerate it on their plate and touch or taste the food. They may enjoy exploring foods with their hands or smelling foods during play activities, like making crafts or sensory boxes, even if they don’t eat them. 

Problem Feeders

Problem feeders have a more restricted range of foods they tolerate eating. Perhaps your child used to eat any chicken nugget, but now it can only be a particular brand or a specific shape. This makes their food preferences even more limited and tricky. Problem feeders may refuse entire food groups based on their texture, color, or temperature. And, they usually eat less than 20 different foods. 

Problem feeders may “fall apart” when served a new or less-preferred food. They may not tolerate their usual, preferred foods if it’s on a new plate, next to other foods, or served differently. As a result, problem feeders may cry, scream, or throw tantrums. These challenges can lead to problem feeders needing to eat their meals at different times than their families, or in other locations, and almost always another food set from what their family is eating.

How to Address Picky Eating & Problem Feeding

Picky eating can usually be addressed at home with accommodations from family and possibly with guidance from a pediatrician. However, problem feeding is more severe and typically requires support from your pediatrician, a feeding therapist (often an occupational therapist or speech therapist), and possibly a dietician or nutritionist. Remember that there is hope and help out there for your picky eater or problem feeder. For more information on picky eaters vs. problem feeders, check out the SOS Approach to Feeding chart.

Schedule a Consultation with Skills 4 Life

Have any questions or concerns about your child’s feeding, eating habits, or other developmental milestones? Reach out to the OTs at Skills 4 Life Pediatric Occupational Therapy for a free, 15-minute consultation. You can reach Skills 4 Life at (303) 351-1828 or karina@skills4lifeot.com.


About Skills 4 Life:

Skills 4 Life offers a broad range of pediatric occupational therapy services to children from birth to high school. We help children master age-appropriate developmental skills, become more independent, increase academic success, & develop confidence. The experts at Skills 4 Life specialize in handwriting, keyboarding, & executive function coaching. We also work with children on the building blocks of writing, social & emotional learning, motor skills, self-regulation strategies, sensory integration, early intervention, & activities of daily living. Skills 4 Life offers your child a safe, compassionate environment to learn the critical skills to succeed in learning and life. Learn more about our team & services at www.skills4lifeot.com. You also can contact our office by email at karina@skills4lifeot.com or by phone at 303.351.1828 for a free consultation.

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