My Child Hardly Eats Anything

May 19, 2024

Does it feel like your child barely eats? Can you count on one hand how many foods your child eats? Does it feel like no matter what you try, they just refuse to try anything new?


I can help! Let me answer your biggest concerns about your child hardly eating and give you a couple tools to get started.

In this blog:

  •  Are all kids picky?
  •  When should I be concerned?
  •  Will it always be this way?
  •  I don’t know where to start
  •  My child just refuses when I try to introduce new foods
  •  They used to eat everything, what’s the deal?
  •  How do I respond to onlookers comments?


Just so you know, this is based on my personal experience, opinions, and research I’ve done as a pediatric occupational therapist. None of the below is medical, occupational therapy, or feeding therapy advice. When you buy through links on this page, we may earn a commission. Learn more about affiliate links


Are all kids picky?


Somewhere along the way you’ve probably been told that “all kids are picky.” But many of the parents I’ve worked with feel like it’s more than just pickiness (yes, that’s a thing as you’ll see below). It’s true that all kids have to learn to eat new foods. We aren’t born knowing what a zucchini is. We learn by interacting, exploring, and tasting it. The more we practice it, and have good experiences with it, the more comfortable our brain becomes eating it. So of course, children are going to be more hesitant around new and challenging foods - like vegetables. But no, not all kids struggle with true eating challenges. In fact, some research has shown that only 20-30% of kids will struggle with an eating challenge or “picky eating”in the early years. And about 50% of those continue into the later years (1).


When should I be concerned?


This is a difficult question. Since I’m not a dietician or pediatrician, I can’t give you exact answers on how much a child needs to or should eat. Likely, they wouldn’t be able to give you a general answer online either. Every child is very different, and has different nutritional needs. If you’re here on this page, it would probably be beneficial to discuss your concerns with your medical team. If your child is losing weight, or you’re concerned they’re not eating enough calories, or experiencing any other medical issues like constipation/diarrhea, reach out to your pediatrician ASAP.


In the feeding world, there are 2 levels of pediatric feeding challenges. We call these picky eaters and problem feeders (the something more). I recommend ignoring the names on these. Your child is amazing and perfect just as they are -  the titles mean nothing, except that it helps distinguish the severity. I share them here because you may hear them when speaking with medical professionals.




If you’re noticing that your child falls wither into that picky eater or problem feeder range, a feeding therapy evaluation can be immensely helpful for ruling out causes, and figuring out exactly how to support your personal child. If you’re dreading mealtime, and struggling day-in-and day out, it can be a total game changer to have that unbiased third party who specializes in feeding. The SOS Approach to Feeding has an awesome database to find feeding therapists in your area. 


Will it always be this way?


The short answer is every child will progress at their own rates. But, as a parent how we respond to our child at the table does influence their progress with food (2,3,4). There is SO much you can do to help a child who isn’t eating a variety of foods. So it doesn’t have to stay this way. Of course, as we mentioned above, 1:1 feeding therapy is great for working with your child. But since you are the one feeding your child day in and day out, it’s equally as important that you as the parent know how to and feel confident supporting your child at the table. To do this, you need to not only understand your child’s sensory & food preferences, but also how to strategically use this information to introduce & explore new foods.


I don’t know where to start


When your child is struggling with eating, it can feel SO overwhelming. You’re constantly bombarded with unsolicited advice, unhelpful comments, and tons of information online. How do you know where to even start?

One of the easiest ways to get started is just to add a bit of variety to your child’s diet by introducing foods that are similar to ones they already know and love. Children who struggle with food variety often prefer to food jag. Food jagging is when a child eats the same exact thing, the same exact way, every single day. This is because it’s predictable, and they know they like it. Unfortunately, as humans we tend to get bored of eating the same thing everyday, and it can lead to burning out and dropping foods in the long run. Adding subtle variety, can help keep it interesting for the brain!

For example, say your child loves cheerios - what other “o” shaped cereals can you try? You could try another brand of “o” cereal. Or, you could try different flavors of cheerios - like strawberry or honey nut. Or, maybe they eat peanut butter and jelly everyday. Could you start to explore a different jelly? How about a different bread? Can you cut it a different way?



⚠️ Important tip: Whenever we change a food, it is no longer consider a “safe food.” It immediately becomes a new food, so a helpful strategy can be to include a safe food your child will predictably eat on the side to decrease the pressure.  


My child just refuses when I try to introduce new foods


You may be sitting here thinking - “yeah, I tried that - it didn’t work.” My first question for you is - how many times did you try it? I almost never expect a child who struggles to eat to enjoy, or even try a food the 1st time I offer it. Remember, this is challenging for them. It will likely take a lot of practice and re-introductions for them to feel comfortable enough to try, or to enjoy a food. For some kids, you may need to only introduce a food once. For others, they may need to see a food 50 times before they're ready to try it, and 50 more times before they actually start to enjoy it. Research shows that in general, parents offer a food 3-5x before giving up on it (5). But if your child is only introduced to a food 3-5x, how will they learn to eat it? Don't give up! Continue to introduce it in fun & new ways.


One of my favorite super easy ways to make introducing new foods fun is with these adorable Dabbldoo food picks! Get 10% off with code: DrSamGoldman 😊


My child used to eat everything, what’s the deal?


“When he/she was a baby he/she ate everything! Sound familiar? You are definitely not alone in this. Here's a couple reasons this can happen:

  1. Natural development: As children age, they begin to have more opinions about food. They’re exposed to lots of new options, and can decipher which ones they like the most. 

  2. Harder foods: With babies, we often offer foods in easier to consume ways, like purees or super soft foods, since their oral motor skills haven’t fully developed. As kids get older, we begin to offer harder foods, but their oral motor skills might still be developing, or their sensory system may have a hard time handling this change.

  3. Pressure: When our children our babies, they are getting a lot of their nutrition from formula or breastmilk. When we introduce foods, we do it in a very gentle way for exposure and play. We usually make this a lot of fun and very positive for them. As kids age, and the formula & breastmilk phases out, as parents we tend to get anxious about how much nutrition our child is getting. So we expect them to perform a certain way at meals and may be placing pressure on them that actually drives them to eat less, not more.

  4. Past experiences: Every experience we have with a food is stored in our brain - whether we logically remember it or not. This informs how we interact with food in the future. If your child has had negative experiences with a certain food, they may be more likely to refuse it in the future.

  5. Medical issues: Some children develop GI concerns, allergies, etc as they age. Make sure to chat with your medical team to rule out any possible causes. 


How do I respond to onlookers comments?


When your child struggles to eat you become the recipient of oh so many unsolicited, unwarranted, and honestly quite unhelpful comments like…

  •  “They’ll eat when they’re hungry”
  •  “You’re the parent you tell them what to do”
  •  “You just need to discipline them more”
  •  “When you were a child I…”


The truth is, it’s extremely easy to judge someone’s situation from the outside. Most of the time, the people who are saying these comments have never raised or worked with a child with feeding challenges. Although some techniques may have worked for them, that doesn’t mean they’ll work for your child. So the first step is to realize that they’ve never walked in your shoes, and that no one understands your child like you do.

Everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to responding to friends and family members. Something that can be helpful is to realize that most of the time the intent behind the comments is to be helpful, even when it isn’t. They’re trying to offer some kind of suggestion because they can see you and your child struggling and just want to help. 

You have a couple of options if you’d prefer to avoid the commentary:

  1. Simply smile & acknowledge it - just because they offer it, doesn’t mean you need to do it. You can smile and say something like “I’m glad that worked for you” and then just move on with the conversation.  If they persist, go to #3!

  2. Thank them for the advice, but be confident in your plan - Again, you know your child best. I most often find myself saying something like “thank you so much, but I actually……..and I feel really good with that plan.” You don’t owe anyone an explanation, however, I personally find that when you are confident in your plan (and of course doing your research & working with a provider who can help you identify your child’s personal needs), people are less likely to continue the conversation.

  3. Be direct, and steer away from the conversation - If you’re not comfortable talking about your child’s eating habits, it’s ok to be direct about that. You can say something like “thank you so much for the support, we’re working on it, but I’m not comfortable speaking about it, especially in front of him/her. So, tell me about….”


Setting boundaries is HARD. But it also lets you enjoy your time with your friends and loved ones. Again, most of the time, they’re just trying to be helpful. 

If eating is a continued struggle, I'm here for you. My online parent courses are designed to help you not only understand what's going on inside your child's body when it comes to the sensory system, but also how to use this information to better support them at the table. Check them out here! 


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