Picky Eaters vs. Problem Feeders

I spend a lot of time talking about picky eating and many parents consider one or more of their kids to be a so-called “Picky Eater”.  But what does that really mean? Does a child that is refusing several vegetables fall into the same category as child literally gagging at the site of food? Not usually.
Moreover, I often hear a few well-intentioned, but vastly incorrect comments from parents on how they need to just give their kids some tough love when it comes to eating.  That may work for some kids that fall on the picky eating spectrum, but for others it could be disastrous – leading to future eating problems. So how does a parent know when they need to be concerned? When does picky eating go too far?

While there is no specific definition, experts agree that generally speaking, picky eating can be a normal part of childhood (albeit an extremely annoying and frustrating part). Problem Feeders are beyond picky eating and usually need the help of a feeding expert to make progress eating new foods.  In these cases, eating is actually a clinical problem for the child and the family, general feeding advice often doesn’t apply to these kids. Additional strategies are needed from a dietitian or other feeding expert. Have a look at these guidelines to determine the difference between a Picky Eater and a Problem Feeder.


  • PickIMG_2926y Eaters:

    • eat less than 30 foods
    • eat at least one food from each food texture
    • willing to have new foods on their plate and willing to touch new food
    • willing to try new foods after 10 time trial
    • eat enough calories to gain weight and continue to grow without problems


  • Problem Feeders:

    • eat a very poor diet
    • deficient in many vitamins and minerals, often affecting growth and development
    • eat fewer than 15 foods consistently, eating fewer foods over time
    • refuse food from entire food texture groups
    • unwilling to have new foods on their plate or touch new foods
    • throw tantrums at the dinner table over a change in food or routine
    • need for sameness and rituals around mealtime
    • inflexible about particular brands of foods
    • not willing to try new foods even after multiple exposures

Another piece of well intentioned advice often given to families that will not work on a problem feeder is to serve your child what you are eating and eventually they will get hungry and eat. Many problem feeders will continue to refuse food and will NOT eventually eat. These children require a step-by-step process to determine the feeding issue (sensory processing disorder, oral motor difficulties, medical conditions, behavioral or other) and often requires a feeding expert (a Dietitian, Occupational Therapist, Speech Language Pathologist, or even all three!) to get them back on track.


Whether you think you have a picky eater or a problem feeder on your hands, it doesn’t mean that eating shouldn’t or can’t be improved. A functional, healthy relationship with food can be developed for your child (and your whole family).  Book a consultation with a registered dietitian (RD) to determine a feeding plan will work for your child.

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