When Picky Eating Is Problem Feeding

Picky Eater or Problem Feeder?

If you have a child who’s a picky eater, mealtimes are anything but fun.

Picky eating usually starts somewhere after the first birthday and can continue through life.

So, what constitutes a picky eater?

A Picky Eater

When a child:

  • eats 30 different foods or fewer,
  • wants to eat only certain foods for days at a time,
  • will switch to other foods and eat them over and over again, but will eventually want to go back to their former favorites,
  • doesn’t like foods to touch one another,
  • won’t eat certain foods unless they are a certain temperature, texture  and/or consistency.

But what if it’s more severe than just picky eating? Well then you might have a problem feeder on your hands.

A Problem Feeder

When a child:

  • eats less than 20 different foods,
  • will eat only foods like deep fried chicken fingers, hot dogs, pasta, and pizza and appears to be addicted to them,
  • will begin to eat a food and will request only this food, eat it for several months, then switch to something else,
  • has a strong phobic reaction to new foods and will often throw a tantrum, scream, kick and/or refuse to eat,
  • rejects an entire food group, such as vegetables or fruits,
  • doesn’t want to touch food.

With problem feeders, feeding was never easy, even from infancy.

Some typical warning signs for a problem feeder might be poor latch or a hard time with bottles. They might struggle to finish meals or have a hard time transitioning from a bottle to a cup.

As problem feeders get older, they might appear to not enjoy eating at all or actually appear to be scared of their food.

One problem that almost all problem feeders share is weak facial muscles. Weak facial muscles will then present as delays in speech.

Speaking and eating are controlled by the same muscles so if they have weak facial muscles then both speech and eating will be affected.

Eating is a very sensory activity, involving sight, smell, touch, taste.  

A sensory compromised child is one who either has an overactive or underactive sensory system.

For a child with a brain imbalance, many times it becomes apparent through a sensory processing disorder.  

One way to tell is by the child’s eating habits.

The most commonly affected sensory systems in a sensory processing disorder are smell and taste, which obviously are directly related to eating.

A child who has an underactive sensory system craves more sensory input and might eat more than usual and will most likely gravitate toward spicy foods or foods that are more “grown up”.

On the flip side, a child who has an overactive sensory system is easily overwhelmed by sensory input.

For these kids clothing, crowds (even small crowds), bright lights and loud noises can all be unsettling.

Then add food to these situations and they become totally sensory overwhelmed!

These are the kids who insist on eating the same foods everyday, day in and day out.

Children with overactive sensory systems may avoid food because of the way it looks or feels or they may spit it out as they chew because the texture is changing. The sight of some foods might even make them gag or throw up.

How these kids react to food, depends on the severity of their brain imbalance.

Remember, problem eaters are not trying to ruin your family meal or hurt your feelings when they refuse to try something. Their behaviors are not intentional.

How do I help my child with sensory issues about food?

First, try to determine which sense(es) are the most under stimulated or overstimulated.

Second, start on a good probiotic. When your child has a diet lacking in variety, it has an impact on the diversity of the bacteria in the gut. (Read up on the brain-gut connection here.)

Tips For The Table:
Proprioception:  our ability to feel ourselves in the space around us

Proprioception is what makes us feel grounded.

A child with poor proprioception doesn’t have the ability to be aware of their own body and this causes them to feel anxious and unsafe in situations where there is a lot of sensory stimulation, like the family dinner table.

Over 90% of the sensory input a child gets for brain development is through proprioception. It’s a BIG DEAL!

That means, almost all of our sensory input comes from movement of the spine. Which means that if a child has a spine problem and doesn’t get it fixed completely, all of their other senses are affected.

This is where pediatric chiropractic comes in. Safe, effective, and gentle.

Pro Tips:

  • Put a step stool under your child’s feet while they are eating.
  • Have a picnic on the floor or eat around the coffee table.
  • Make, or ask a crafty friend to make, a pad for the child’s seat that has a foot rest built into it (like a foot hammock).
Smell and Taste

For the hypersensitive- bland foods (potatoes, rice, grains, millet, quinoa, corn, pasta, “naked” steamed veggies and plain chicken.)

Pro Tips:

  • Make ice pops from pureed fruits and veggies (think frozen smoothies). Freezing will help desensitize the palate which allows the child to try more foods.

For the hyposensitive- try adding strong spices to food (cinnamon, chiles, curry, turmeric, vanilla, etc. Add onion, peanut butter and almond butter to help stimulate the sense of taste and smell.)


If your child doesn’t like to touch food with her hands or will pull away from a plate of food that is placed in front of her. For example, she might gag when touching food or while eating. This child probably doesn’t like having a messy face either. This child might also play with their food just to stay engaged during meal time.

Pro Tips:

  • Try “food mittens” so your child doesn’t have to touch the food before eating it.
  • Introduce different textures gradually. Whichever “feel” your child likes, try that one first. Soft, try ice cream. Smooth, try chicken. Bumpy, try vegetables. Rough, try nuts and nut butters.
  • To help with a dislike of food on their face, try thickening foods up so they aren’t so messy; think hard boiled eggs v.s. sunny side up, or oatmeal v.s. Cold cereal with milk.

Notice or set up a recorder to help you notice how loud meal time might be at your home; chairs sliding across the floor, TV or radio blaring, siblings running or fighting, dishes clattering, everyone talking over one another… this is overwhelming to a child who has auditory processing disorder.

Pro Tips:

  • Dim the lighting, turn off the TV and the radio, turn off the ringer on your cell phone; remove/turn off all screens on or near your table.

This will help increase your child’s attention span and comfort level throughout the meal which will improve digestion.

  • At school this can be particularly challenging so talk to the school and the person in charge of lunch and ask if your child can sit in the area with the least noise and distraction.
  • At home you can consider employing the “talking stick” where a spoon or other object is passed from person to person and only the person with the stick can talk.

For a child with visual processing disorder the whole meal ritual is overwhelming; the table setting, the glasses, silverware, and the food. So think minimal to help these kids.

Pro Tips:

  • Limit items on the table to only what is needed. Keep serving dishes on the counter.
  • Allow the child with the sensory issue to be seated first.
  • Keep portions small. The smaller the size the less visually distracting.
  • Try a green tablecloth or placemat, green is a calming color.
  • Contrasting colors can help your child more easily distinguish the color and texture of each food;  for example, white plate with green table cloth.
  • Colored forks will help your child visually process the foods on a white plate.
  • Minimize/get rid of fluorescent lighting. Use natural lighting whenever possible.

Being a parent is challenging.  

Being a parent of a child with a sensory processing disorder is a whole other level of challenging.

If you can identify what helps your child to be able to focus the best and eliminate other distractions, they will be able to get the nourishment they need from a wider range of foods.

A child with a sensory processing disorder has a brain imbalance that is correctable.  

That’s what we specialize in here at Radiant Life.  We understand that the human body was designed to heal and regulate itself.  Our joy is to help you empower your child to learn, grow and heal the way God designed.  

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