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Oregon Family Magazine

Picky Eater or Problem Feeder?

02/28/2018 ● By Sandy Kauten
It's not unusual for kids to be selective about what they eat. A child's behavior toward food often begins to change between 2-4 years old and may last for several years, but there is a difference between a picky eater and a problem feeder.

Picky eaters

Does your preschooler object to the shape, color or texture of certain foods, or have they suddenly decided they no longer like a host of foods—even ones they loved yesterday? Don’t be alarmed. Try these useful strategies:

  • Never force your child to eat. If mealtimes become a time of conflict, anger and upset, your child’s pickiness will escalate and become prolonged.
  • Avoid bribing kids to take bites. Statements like, “If you eat your peas, you can have a cookie” will reinforce that peas are less desirable.
  • Place a teaspoon-sized serving of a food on your toddler’s plate repeatedly. Research shows that repetition will increase the likelihood that your child will one day try that food. It may take 80-100 times before your child willingly tries it, but it will happen.
  • Refrain from playing “short-order chef.” Instead of making one meal for your picky eater and a separate meal for everyone else, serve the same thing to everyone. If your child refuses all of it, serve the “back-up meal.” That meal should always be the same, be nutritious and easy to prepare, but NOT their favorite. Eventually, they will become bored of the back-up meal and will be more likely to try the family meal.

Within a year or two of implementing these suggestions, most picky eaters improve and their food acceptance increases.

Problem feeders

Sometimes a child's aversion to food becomes more serious and a visit to a feeding specialist may be in the child’s best interest.

Concerning signs include:

  • Eating fewer than 10 foods, eliminating entire food groups or certain textures.
  • Inability to tolerate a new food being on their plate or sitting at the dinner table with the family.
  • Choking, swallowing or breathing problems occurring during meals.
  • Feeding challenges accompany developmental problems, such as speech delay or sensory sensitivity.
  • Signs of malnutrition or vitamin deficiency in your child.

If you are concerned that your child may be more than picky, talk with your pediatrician. We can help parents identify whether a child is exerting typical behavior, or if there’s something more to address.

by Pilar Bradshaw, M.D., F.A.A.P.

Eugene Pediatric Associates