Using a star chart with your fussy eater

Praise and encouragement can help your child through a picky phase, so here’s our guide to reward charts and how to use them

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Young children love nothing more than praise (and presents!) so if you’re trying to cure a fussy eater, a reward chart can be a great way to encourage him to try new foods. It gives your child visual proof that you’re pleased with him and an incentive to work towards – and can also reassure you that he’s actually making progress.

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When to try a reward chart

There’s little point trying to use a star chart for a child under three years old, as he’s unlikely to understand the concept. Instead, immediate praise like a sticker and an over-the-top ‘well done!’ will teach him that you like his behaviour.

Once your child is around three years old, a reward chart can be a good way to encourage the behaviour that you want. But keep it simple and realistic – if there are too many steps on the chart, or the goals are too hard, your child is likely to lose interest.

Here are a few more tips to help beat fussy eating.

What sort of chart should you use?

There are a number of reward charts on the market, but it’s easy to make your own, and tailor it to your child’s needs. You could draw up a chart where he has to earn one sticker every day of the week, or break each day down into manageable chunks – such as morning, lunchtime and teatime. A visual chart, such as a ladder where your child moves a sticker up the rungs, or a caterpillar with a sticker for each segment of body, is often appealing for young children.

Deciding on goals

You’re the best judge of what is realistic for your fussy eater. You might decide to give him a different goal every day – for example:

  • Monday: eat all your breakfast
  • Tuesday: try one bite of broccoli
  • Wednesday: eat two pieces of fruit

Alternatively, you might decide to set the same goal every day, for example, eating five mouthfuls of his dinner.

Make sure the goals feel achievable for your toddler. If he never eats a full meal, expecting him to clear his plate three times a day will lead to frustration and disappointment for both of you. And don’t expect 100 per cent success; you might decide that to qualify for his reward, he needs to eat all his dinner on five days out of seven, rather than every single day.

Putting it into practice

The key to reward chart success is to break it down into small steps, giving a small reward every time your child meets one of his goals, which then contribute to a bigger treat. Typically, this would mean giving him a sticker for his chart every time he eats his meal or tries a new food, for example, and then at the end of the week, if he has collected a pre-determined number of stickers, giving him a better treat, such as a small toy, a comic or a special outing.

To make the treat more desirable for your child, let him be involved in choosing it. Avoid food-based treats such as sweets or crisps, as this reinforces the idea that some foods are ‘naughty but nice’ whereas others are to be endured.

Don’t forget that reward charts aren’t a substitute for praise and encouragement; he’ll also relish a big hug, a high five or some enthusiastic cheering when he reaches a goal. Be positive even if things aren’t going well, too; if you come down too hard on him, he’s likely to feel defeated and give up, so try to stay calm and cheerful, and tell him he can try again next time.

Moving on

Once your fussy eater has completed his star chart, you can repeat it again, either with the same goal if you feel it needs more work, or with a different one. This teaches your child that eating healthily should be a long-term change, not a one-off experiment.

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The time it takes for your child to move out of his fussy phase will vary. Some will only need a week or two of rewards, whereas others may take months. Just remember to be patient and stay calm; it might seem like he’ll never eat normally, but with your praise and encouragement, you can leave the faddy stage behind.

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