Often as Occupational Therapists we see children who are described as ‘picky eaters’ or ‘fussy with food’. There are also many families who don’t realise that a child’s picky eating is a sign they need some extra help to learn this skill.

As parents, it can be extremely frustrating to manage a child who struggles at meal times, to try and get nutritious food into your battling or refusing little one. But the first step is knowing that this is your child’s way of communicating that something about eating is not easy for them!

The first thing that Dr. Toomey stressed when it comes to ‘picky eaters’ or ‘problem feeders’ was that it is not the parents fault, nor is the child being naughty. Because it’s not common knowledge that eating is a very complex task, it’s incredibly hard for parents to see that our children’s challenging behaviours around food is their way of communicating that eating is difficult. But that is exactly what we need to do.

I found Dr. Sundset Ross’ words very poignant when she said;

“We need to recognise why not eating is easier for these kids than to actually eat, or why the feeling of hunger is less painful than the experience of eating”.

They went on to teach us the many, many complex steps involved and skills needed for eating. Again, something most of us don’t think of, because our experience is as simple as sitting down and eating.

What kind of skills are needed to eat?

Eating is an incredibly complex task that requires physical skills from our body. There are two main areas we look at.

The different movements within your mouth: Oral-motor skills

Processing all the sensory information involved in eating: Sensory Processing skills

Eating is a learned activity. It requires our brain to make neural pathways that work like a complex map of crossroads and intersections. Like anything with our brain – ‘use it or loose it’.  This skill building begins before the baby is born, and continues to develop as the baby and young toddler is exposed to new opportunities. For the child who has eating challenges we need to figure out what skill or neural pathway has not yet been learned or developed.

How to help ALL Children do better with eating at home

  • Get their seating right

If you have ever worked with an Occupational Therapist I’m sure you will have heard them talk about the importance of good sitting!  When our feet are not on a flat surface it is incredibly disorientating to our body. As well as that, seating that provides good postural support enables the child to use their body for eating, and allows them to concentrate on eating. The child should be sat with hips, knees and ankles in a 90 degree position 90-90-90!

The Kekaroo chair below is one good option for the dining table.


  • Don’t ask questions
    Questions are distracting so try to use proposing statements more.
    For example, instead of; “Do you want some chicken?” say “Jamie can have some chicken”.
    Rather than asking your child questions during meals, discuss and talk about the food – describe it in all its detail.
  • Let them get messy
    Do not clean your child while they are eating. Allow them to get messy because this is how they are building skills and learning about the food.
  • Don’t get distracted by technology
    Spend meal times interacting with your children and being a good role model of how to eat.
  • Get Creative!
    Young children think in the make-believe world. Help them think about foods differently and create positive relationships with foods through play and being creative. Involve them in food preparation and talk to
    them about the foods.
  • Learning to eat starts by looking
    Remember food doesn’t always have to be about eating it. Have fun with it and find ways for your child to be exposed to foods in other ways then meal times, especially raw fruit and vegetables or foods out of packaging.

**The SOS Approach to Feeding program was developed by Dr. Kay Toomey. For more information on the SOS Approach to Feeding Program please visit http://sosapproach-conferences.com

Written by: Leona Brennan