In the world of children’s therapy we make a distinction between two types of kids with distinct (negative) opinions about some of the things they are presented with at mealtimes; picky eaters and problem feeders.

The distinction?

Picky eaters refers to lots of kids, and sometimes even to adults. They often dislike and reject all kinds of vegetables, and standard meats – things like steak, chicken breasts – and have a shortlist of their favorite foods that often consists of things like pizza, chicken nuggets (note the preparation difference from the rejected chicken breasts) peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, French fries etc.

Picky eaters will often complain if they are asked to try new foods, but rarely have a complete melt down when a new food is presented. They will also usually eat 30 or more different foods in their food range – the range of foods a child will eat when you add up all snacks, breakfast, lunch, and dinner combined.

Problem feeders are much trickier child. Problem feeders will not just reject meats and veggies, but much larger categories of food such as nothing sticky, no fruits or veggies of any kind, or nothing cold, and only eat crunchy. The foods that problem feeders WILL eat become tricky and very specific as well, such as only “Kraft Easy Mac” and not “Kraft Macaroni & Cheese” made from the box.

When a new food is presented, or a known food presented in a slightly different way, problem feeders often “fall apart” and begin to cry and tantrum at the sight of the new or altered food even being on the plate. In fact, some problem feeders will begin to gag at even the smell of a new food. And finally, problem feeders typically have less than 20 foods in their food range.

‘Picky eating” can be addressed at home, under the general guidance of your pediatrician. However, “problem feeding” is more serious. Problem feeding requires a multidisciplinary approach between the family, the pediatrician, a feeding therapist (generally an OT or ST), and sometimes even a registered dietitian.

However, whether you have a picky eater or a problem feeder, here are some tips that your family can try:

Keep Trying

Kids are and they are temperamental. Don’t assume a child doesn’t like something just because they reject it once. You never know when a child will change his/her mind. It can take a dozen presentations of a new food for a child to become comfortable with it.

Stay Small

If your child is a picky eater, smaller meals with fewer ingredients may help. Serve small portions and only three different foods on the plate at a time. If they are still hungry they can always ask for more.

Forget Vegetables for Now

We know health experts everywhere will cringe at this one, but vegetables are an acquired taste. Focus on adding variety to fruit choices and to the overall diet first. Then, tackle veggies once the overall diet has improved. Is the diet already good except for veggies? Congratulations! Your kid really isn’t that picky – just being a kid. Keep placing that tiny tablespoon of green stuff on the plate, and call it a truce.

Practice Family Eating

Study after study has shown us that family meal time is one of the biggest factors for raising healthy, happy, successful children. Focus on the child being at the table as a member of the family, and being exposed to the culture, values, and food of the family.

And… the child needs to witness that other members of the family eat and enjoy a variety of foods. If the child routinely sees his brother eating veggies, and notices that brother doesn’t keel over and die, then the child is more likely to try them too.

On the flipside, if Dad picks all the broccoli out of the pasta dish and refuses to eat it, you have a much smaller chance of the child trying broccoli. If you won’t/don’t eat it, neither will your child!

Don’t Negotiate

Dinner time should not be a time for arguments. Go ahead, place a non-preferred food on the plate. If needed, and the child is ready for it, set a clear expectation of a REASONABLE about of smelling/tasting of the new food that is required of the child. And then stop the negotiations. Many children love the power battle back and forth at meal times. Disengage. Change the subject. Make polite dinner conversation.

Once again, these are simple tips to be tried at home, school, etc. These are appropriate for “picky eaters.” If you feel that you have a “problem feeder,” and these tips are not working, get help! Talk to your child’s pediatrician or therapist and find out what can be done to make meal time more successful.

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