10 Tips for Mealtime Success with a Problem Eater

LLA Therapy’s Feeding Specialist, Mallory Hawley M.A., CCC-SLP, gives 10 tips for “Problem Eaters”


Problem eaters are individuals who have less than 30 foods in their repertoire. They often experience food jags, where they continuously eat the same food daily (i.e., Cheetos) and then suddenly don’t want to eat it again (often times never adding this food back into their repertoire.) Families involving a problem eater often experience a great deal of stress around meals. Here are 10 tips for creating a more successful environment.

1. Each meal/snack offered to the individual should include 1 protein, 1 starch and 1 fruit/vegetable. An example of an acceptable snack could include: cheese and crackers with apple slices.

2. Stop being a short order chef. It often seems less stressful to make the child what they want for dinner to eliminate a battle. You aren’t doing you or your child any favors. They don’t get to explore new foods when they are always presented with what they prefer and you are creating more work for yourself. Make one meal for the entire family to share.

3. That being said ALWAYS offer at least one preferred food. Offer enough of it to sustain them if that is all they choose to eat. Yes, that may mean that they only eat bread for dinner some nights. 

4.  Invite your children into the process of creating a meal. Not only is it beneficial to see what ingredients are included in a dish it also provides a wonderful time for language and sensory development as well.
5.  Begin each meal with a preparatory activity (i.e., setting table, washing hands, etc.) as it can help them organize themselves for the next step.

6.  Strive to sit down around the table with no other distractions for meals. Eating has always been a social activity and a great time for family togetherness. It also provides another opportunity for your child to see what others in your family enjoy eating. 

7.  Serve each meal family style (i.e., passing plates around the table.) Use a “no thank you plate” where each member of the family may put a small amount of food that they don’t wish to eat.  Each person is expected to take a spoonful of everything and either put it on their plate or on the “no thank you plate.” Passing foods offers ample amounts of sensory information including the smell of foods, the temperature, interacting with food by spooning some out, etc.

8.  Don’t use dessert as a reward for completing a meal! When you do this the message you are sending a child is that dessert is the best thing in existence and their meal is now the most evil thing because it is between them and the desired reward of dessert.

9.  Limit high calorie drinks between meals as it promotes a feeling of fullness and decreases what they will consume during a meal. Water is the best option for drinks between meals. Don’t allow your child to participate in grazing-type of snacking as it interrupts the hunger-satiation cycle.

10.  Get messy!! Allow your child to explore foods in whatever way they prefer. Make edible play-doh with different spices (i.e., gingerbread), colored noodles to explore, or edible finger-paint.