How to tell if your child is a picky eater or a problem feeder, according to an expert.

Meal times shouldn’t be a battleground for families, however countless parents find themselves spending endless hours trying to get their children to try (and eat) a healthy range of foods.

The truth is that around 50% of toddlers can be classified as fussy eaters, and around 80% of the families I see in my clinic and workshops are struggling to increase variety in their children’s diet.

Effort, time and expense spent lovingly preparing healthy and nutritious meals, only to have a little one (or two) turn up their nose, is understandably demoralising – for everyone.

In a previous post, I discuss how fussy eating (which tends to start between the ages of 2-6) is thankfully a phase that most little ones grow out of.

I also go into detail on how and what we choose to feed our children are key factors in how their long-term eating habits will develop. The strategies we implement to deal with any challenges are also crucial.

There are a small percentage of children however, who will require professional intervention as a result of physiological or psychological reasons for their ongoing food refusal. These can include issues such as oral motor delays, sensory issues, gastrointestinal disturbances or anxiety-food related disorders.

These children may fall into the category of what is called “problem feeders”, and the sooner that their issues are identified and treated, the more willing they will be to try new foods.

In such instances, it’s recommended to seek expert support from dieticians, nutritionists, speech therapists, occupational therapists and/or paediatricians.

Listen: We speak to an expert about raising a child who will eat anything, on our podcast for new parents. (Post continues after audio.)

What are the key differences between a Fussy Eater and a Problem Feeder?

Typically, a Fussy Eater…

  • Eats a decreased range of foods but will eat at least 30 types of foods.
  • Will eat the same peanut butter or Vegemite sandwich every day for months, then go off it and refuse to eat it- however a few weeks later they will happily eat it again.
  • Can tolerate new foods on their plate, touch new foods, may even (after lots of encouragement) taste a new food even if it’s not swallowed.
  • Will eat foods from all the different food texture groups (e.g. crunchy, soft, hard).
  • During mealtimes, will be happy to sit with family as long as they are eating a food/meal they like. This will most likely be different to the rest of the family’s meal but may include some components of the family meal (e.g. will eat corn or a meatball with no sauce).
  • With lots of repetition, encouragement and positive reinforcement from parents may slowly add new foods to their limited diet.

Typically, a Problem Feeder…

  • Eats less than 20 types of foods
  • Will fixate on a particular food every day for months on end (like a peanut butter or Vegemite sandwich), then tire of it and refuse to eat it again, even months later.
  • Will have a meltdown if a new food is placed on their plate; some children will refuse to sit at the table if certain foods are present – even if it’s only on another family member’s plate.
  • Will refuse to taste new food no matter how much encouragement they receive.
  • Will completely omit certain textures from their diet.
  • Will refuse to eat all components of the family’s meal and demand a completely different meal to the family the majority of the time.

I always try to manage family expectations around what relative “success” looks like at mealtimes. For one child, increasing from one to two vegetables per day is a huge success and for another child, eating a meatball in sauce would be considered a big achievement.

Ideally, it’s important to work towards including a wide range of nutritious foods such as vegetables, slow-release carbohydrates, iron-rich protein and healthy fats into both fussy eater and problem feeder’s diets.

Here are 10 popular family recipes that have an extensive track record for winning over fussy little eaters.


1. Mac n Cheese.

Gluten-free, Egg-free, Nut-free and Vegetarian friendly (recipe on page 59 of my book).

Macaroni cheese is often a meal that even the fussiest of little ones will eat. Through a few simple nutritious swaps and including quality ingredients like preservative-free cheese, whole grain pasta, vegetables and chia seeds, turns this dinner staple into a nutritious family meal – great for lunchboxes too.

2. Chicken Nuggets with Cauliflower.

Gluten-free and Dairy-free (recipe on page 117 of my book).

This is one of my most popular recipes and is an excellent alternative to store-bought versions, with an added nutritional boost from the cauliflower. These are a firm favourite in my home and among the fussiest of my clients- delicious served with a homemade tomato sauce or yoghurt dip. For a school-friendly version, you could replace the almond meal with shredded coconut.

3. Supercharged Bolognaise.

Image: Supplied.

Gluten-free, Dairy-free, Nut-free and Egg-free.

Spaghetti Bolognaise... a popular meal with most families - even those with picky eaters. To increase the nutrients we've added spinach, sweet potato and butternut pumpkin, combined with dried apricots and cinnamon to charm even the fussiest of eater’s taste-buds. You could also try to experiment with different pasta options too - like rice spirals, buckwheat soba noodles or wholemeal spelt spaghetti.

4. Sweet Potato Pizza.

Image: Supplied.

Vegetarian, Nut-free, Egg-free and easily made Gluten-free (recipe on page 131 of my book).

Most kids love pizza - but they don't always go for vegetable toppings. This delicious recipe has veggies in the base - and it works brilliantly with sweet potato. A meal that generally goes down a treat with fussy eaters and makes great leftovers for lunchboxes the next day, too. Easily be made gluten-free by replacing the wholemeal spelt flour with the Wholesome Child gluten-free flour mix on page 32 of my book. Also see our Cheesy Cauliflower Pizza Base recipe.

5. Hamburger Patties.

Gluten-free, Dairy-free and Nut-free (recipe on page 159 of my book).

Hese scrumptious patties are packed with nutritious protein and delicious sweet potato. They're rich in zinc, iron, vitamin B12 and beta-carotene - an ideal and simple meal choice for the whole family - easily made in advance and stored in the freezer for those manic mid-week dinners. Given that these are school-friendly, they also make a regular lunchbox appearance in our home (I'm a big fan of leftovers in the lunchbox). Their versatility means that they can be eaten on their own with salad or veggies, in a wrap, a bun or even on a bed of wholegrain rice or mash.

6. Ricotta Pikelets.

Image: Supplied.

Nut-free, Vegetarian Friendly and easily made Gluten-free, (recipe on page 247 of my book).

Pikelets are often popular with even fussier eaters - and these are made using either wholemeal spelt flour or buckwheat flour, are high in fibre and free from processed sugars and preservatives. Ricotta, a low-sodium white cheese, contains generous amounts of phosphorous, riboflavin, vitamin A, zinc and vitamin B12 which are all great supports to healthy immune systems and general growth and development.

7. Fish Fingers.

Image: Supplied.

Gluten-free and Dairy-free (recipe on page 57 of my book).

I tried for some time to create homemade fish fingers that could wean even the fussiest of eaters off the store-bought versions.... and in my son's words.... this one is "a winner". So many of my clients with fussy eaters have had success with this recipe. Gluten-free and dairy-free, this is a great option for those with intolerances or allergies and for a lunch-box friendly version, you could replace the almond flour with coconut flour. We love using salmon and flathead for these however feel free to vary the fish that you use.


8. Beetroot and Spinach Bliss Balls.

Gluten-free and Vegan.

This is one of my most popular recipes- even amongst fussier eaters. These quick and easy bliss balls are simple and quick to make and are a perfect snack for little fingers. Beetroot is a rich source of vitamin C, fibre and phytonutrients, making it a healthy snack option. If your child doesn't like shredded coconut, you could roll the balls in carob powder, quinoa or rice puffs.For a school-friendly option, you could swap the almond meal for ground pumpkin seeds.

9. Rich Chocolate Black Bean Brownies.

Image: Supplied.

Gluten-free, Nut-free, Dairy-free and Vegetarian friendly.

Rich Chocolate Black Bean Brownies - easily one of my most popular sweet snacks amongst the fussy eating brigade. They're also a protein-packed addition made from black beans - high in folate and a good source of iron and fibre. Delicious served with coconut cream and fresh strawberries.

10 - Sausage Rolls.

Image: Supplied.

Gluten-free and Nut-free (recipe is on page 161 of my book).

These are incredibly popular... and lunchbox friendly, too.

They're a great option to help boost protein for little ones who aren't the biggest fans of meat. Packed with veggies and made using a simple wholegrain pastry recipe, you can rest assured that your family is getting an impressive dose of nutrition and flavour.

If pastry isn't your thing, then by simply using this nutrient rich filling in your regular store-bought pastry (look for one without additives), you're already substantially boosting the nutrient intake- free from many of the nasties that packaged sausage rolls can contain. These go beautifully with my simple homemade tomato sauce recipe.

*It’s important to note that each family will experience very unique situations and concerns.

On average a child will need to be exposed to a new taste 10-15 times before they will accept it. Patience, resilience as well as recognising and praising small steps is immensely important.

Visit the Wholesome Child website to learn more about Mandy Sacher. Her book “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” is available to purchase online and through iTunes. There is currently a special 15% off Easter promotion running (use code 18Easter at checkout *exclusive to books purchased through Wholesome Child website online, limited to one use per customer and offer expires 4/4/18) Connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.