Picky or Problem Eater?

How to tell the difference. Guest Authored By Nicole G, M.S., CCC-SLP/L

It’s not uncommon for children to have difficulties with mealtime! This is true for many different reasons, but when should we be concerned about our children’s eating behaviors? This resource is to help differentiate between “picky” eaters and “problem” eaters.

Picky Eaters

Picky eaters are more commonly known to parents. We often believe our children will not eat because they are “picky.” Often, picky eaters are generally selective about what foods they are willing to eat. Picky eaters will accept at least 30 or more types of food. The rate of acceptance varies, and for a certain amount of time, your child may want to eat (or not want to eat) certain foods. Commonly, as children begin to explore and age, they begin to express autonomy through pushing boundaries. This may include fluctuating compliance in the foods they choose to eat. This may explain why a child may suddenly refuse food they previously enjoyed. If you notice your child begins to refuse a specific type of food frequently, then take a break from presenting that food. Your child may accept that food again after a certain amount of time has passed from the last time they ate it.

Problem Eaters

Problem eaters are less common. Often problem eaters are severely restricted in the types of food they accept. Commonly, problem eaters will accept 20 or less types of food. When a problem eater is presented with new foods, they will often have a severely negative reaction. New foods may often cause problem eaters to cry, throw a tantrum, gag, or even vomit when presented. Common associated behaviors include possessing fear when seeing a new food and/or unwillingness to tolerate its presence. Problem eaters also often have difficulty with entire food groups rather than specific foods. For example, problem eaters may not tolerate any meat or will not eat anything crunchy.

What to do

If you have concerns about your child’s feeding or wonder what can be done to help, refer to a feeding specialist. This may be a speech therapist, occupational therapist, or dietician. Refer to your local provider to determine what resources your family may have near you!


Fraker, C., Fishbein, M., Cox, S., & Walbert, L. (2007). Food chaining: The proven 6-step plan to stop picky eating, solve feeding problems, and expand your child’s diet. Da Capo Press.