Picky Eating vs Problem Feeding

By Amanda Pettman, Dietitian and Nutritionist


Most young children are picky eaters. For example, it is typical for children to:

• Tolerate different amounts and types of food from day to day (i.e. like yoghurt one day and refuse it the next).

• Be cautious and/or resistant to trying unfamiliar foods (Many children have to taste a particular food 15-20 times before they learn to ‘like’ the food and readily accept it into their diet. It is normal for children to put the food in and out of their mouths 15-20 times before they feel comfortable swallowing).


If a child becomes repeatedly agitated and upset when presented with an unfamiliar food, this may be of concern. If he or she only eats 5-10 “safe” or “favourite” foods and becomes anxious when eating in unfamiliar environments, parents are encouraged to consult an experienced dietitian or speech pathologist (i.e. a dietitian trained in the management of sensory food aversion and eating competence). Expert nutritional assessment and intervention may be required to ensure the child’s nutritional intake is adequate to support optimal growth and development.


Whilst parents can’t “force” or “get their children to eat”, a number of strategies may be employed to gradually reduce meal-time anxiety and improve food acceptance (i.e. increase the variety and volume of food tolerated). To encourage their children to have a positive relationship with food, parents or carers can do the following:

• Provide regular meals and structured snacks

• Organise family meals i.e. eating is a learned behaviour. Children learn how to eat well by observing people with positive food and meal time behaviours.

• Keep mealtimes positive, relaxed and enjoyable i.e. avoid power struggles. Don’t pressure your child to eat. Avoid using bribes, coercion or fear of punishment to “get your child to eat”. This will lead the child to develop negative feelings towards feeding and reinforce challenging meal time behaviour.

• Avoid meal-time distractions

• Use neutral and non-judgemental language to describe food and food-related behaviour i.e. avoid describing food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Encourage your child to say “no thank you” as opposed to “YUK” or “GROSS”.

• If your child is behaving poorly, ask him/her to leave the table i.e. if your child starts playing with their food, pooling food in his or her mouth or has finished eating, let him or her leave the table. Do not keep your child at the table as a form of punishment for refusing to eat.

• Prepare “family-friendly meals’ i.e. pair an unfamiliar or not-yet-liked food with a familiar or liked food.

• Let your child serve themselves i.e. place food on side-dishes in the centre of the dining table and let your child pick and choose what they put on their plate. Don’t react to their food selection (i.e. verbally or physically with disapproving facial expression). Over time, this impassive response will encourage your child to become more adventurous with their food choices.

• Avoid force feeding i.e. let your child take food out of their mouth and place it in a napkin if they feel uncomfortable swallowing.


• DON’T become a short-order chef (i.e. don’t make special food for your child, if they refuse to eat the family meal. This will only reinforce food refusal).

• DON’T let your child graze on food between meals, even if they refused their previous meals.

• DON’T limit the menu to familiar, well-liked, accepted foods.

• DON’T put pressure on your child to eat or become angry if they refuse food.

• DON’T actively talk about your child’s food preferences (i.e. likes or dislikes).

References; Satter, E, 2015, ‘The Feeding Relationship and Eating Competence – Education and Intervention Workshop’, Australia.

You can find more articles like this in our Autumn 2016 issue e-magazine!
Click on the below image to download