8 tips to encourage your toddler to self feed

Toddler boys eating spaghetti with a fork

Letting your toddler feed themselves without any assistance (self feeding) can be a messy business when starting out! It can be frustrating spending time clearing up their constant mess. 

However it’s important to encourage your toddler to self feed in order to help develop their fine motor skills, develop their independence and allow them to learn to self regulate their appetite. 

In this blog, you’ll find my 8 top tips to help your little one on their way to becoming an independent feeder!

Why toddlers prefer to feed themselves with their hands rather than cutlery

When babies first learn to feed themselves, it’s with their hands. At first, it’s the easiest way for them to get food to their mouths. 

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As they get older and they learn to use their fingers to pinch food, also known as the ‘pincer grip’, they become very proficient at this skill, which allows them to pick up small pieces of food like peas. 

Using their hands is quicker and easier for little ones and cutlery may slow them down, which can be a frustrating experience for them. 

Why some toddlers prefer you to spoon feed them rather than them feed themselves

It’s much easier for toddlers to revert to what’s easiest and that may be letting their parent spoon feed them rather than them doing it themselves. And as parents, we want to make sure our little one eats well, so it can be tempting to follow their lead, load the spoon up and feed them directly (1).

Why is self-feeding important? 

Having a self feeding toddler is so important for many reasons; 

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  1. Self feeding is important for developing their fine motor skills. This includes learning to pick food up with their hands, fingers and utensils, which actually requires quite complex movements and muscles need to develop over time. They also learn how to pick up and hold various sizes of food and objects (2).

  2. Self feeding builds independence and confidence in doing it themselves (3).

  3. This can create very messy mealtimes as toddlers exert their independence and decide what they want to eat or what ends up on the floor! However it also means they get to explore food with their senses
    and experience new smells, tastes, textures, thicknesses and temperatures. Believe it or not, this is how children learn to like new foods.

  4. Self feeding is important so toddlers can learn to understand their own internal cues for hunger and fullness. If you let them eat intuitively they will only eat as much as they need, toddlers are actually amazingly good at this its often us as parents who take over and teach them otherwise. Putting that trust in your child is hard but it is likely to pay off as they are less likely to overeat.

When should toddlers be able to self-feed? 

  • Between 12 – 15 months toddlers should be able to get the spoon to their mouths. It may still be very messy at this stage but messy eating is important for sensory play and acceptance of different foods. 

  • From 15 months toddlers should be able to self feed pretty well with a spoon and get most food into their mouths. Once they have mastered using a spoon toddlers can start to learn to use a fork typically from around 12 – 15 months (4).

  • From 2 years It is expected that most toddlers should be able to self feed completely independently with a spoon and fork. They should also be pretty good at it too (4).

How can I teach my child to self-feed?

  1. Invest in the essentials these include chunky cutlery, high chair, easy to clean floor mat and bibs.

  2. Introduce an Appetite Schedule This will help to establish a set routine
    and your child will know what to expect each day. If you establish a schedule of meals and snacks and allow enough time (2.5 – 3hrs) between these so they have an appetite at both meal and snack times. 

  3. Eat together – family mealtimes are so important to set a good example to your child, but also for their learning of how to use utensils as they do this by watching how you eat with yours. 

  4. Perseverance and exposure There will be times that they choose to throw food on the floor and this can be quite disheartening. It’s often a developmental phase and will pass. Just persevere with mealtimes, state calmly and firmly ‘food stays on the table’ and ignore when it continues to hit the floor. 

  5. Patience– It takes time for children to learn to self feed and some will learn faster than others. It’s important to keep offering a variety of food with different tastes, flavours and textures. 

  6. Embrace the mess It can be really frustrating when there seems to be more food on the floor than has been eaten but allowing your toddler to get messy is great for sensory development and will allow them to try more foods.  

  7. Sit opposite and role model – You can demonstrate to your toddler how you use a spoon or fork by scooping up some pasta with a spoon for example or stabbing broccoli with a fork and moving it up to your mouth. Do big exaggerated movements and then ask your toddler to take their turn (4).

  8. Hand over hand is a good way to teach your child if they are really struggling to copy you. This works by placing your hand over theirs holding the cutlery and gently guiding them from scooping up the food to taking it to their mouth. 

My child is a fussy eater, how can I teach them to self feed?

If your child is fussy or picky then it’s easy to want to take control of their feeding. We can get so wrapped up and concerned about if they are eating a good healthy diet that inadvertently we can make their fussiness worse with unintentional pressure. 

Pressure to eat can be in the form of bribery, coaxing, rewarding, restriction or punishment. This may get them to eat what you want them to in the short term but it doesn’t actually help the child like the food or build a good relationship with food. 

Examples of these pressure situations are:

Bribery – You can have an extra story at bedtime if you eat your chicken.

Coaxing – meatballs make you big and strong.

Rewarding – Yay! Here’s a sticker on your chart for clearing your plate.

Restriction – if you don’t eat your peas you can’t have dessert.

Punishment – If you leave your broccoli we won’t be going to granny’s house this afternoon.

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Here’s what to do instead 

The preferred method is called the Division of Responsibility
in feeding by Dietitian, Ellyn Satter. 

This works by separating ‘who-does-what’ during feeding between the child and parent. 

The parent has responsibility for providing the meals, so ‘what’ the child has to eat, ‘where’ they eat and ‘when’ they’ll eat or the routine/schedule. 

The child’s responsibility is to decide if they want to eat what’s provided and how much. 

Often when families implement the Division Of Responsibility and learn to trust their child’s appetite, picky or fussy eating goes away.

Part of being in charge of how much to eat can be done by serving food at the table ‘family style’
. This allows your toddler to take as much or as little as they want rather than being given a pre-plated portion and potentially being overwhelmed by what’s on the plate.

Some children will make a mess, spill food, need help with the heavy lifting and take too much, and that’s fine, they are learning after all. If you are concerned about food waste, you can present food in small portions on the centre of the table to teach your child what ‘one of’ looks like.

If they are not interested in some of the food on offer, that’s fine too, just being exposed to the food ensures some sensory exposure including visual and smell simply by them being on the table. 

For some children, a learning plate is a good option to get used to new foods. This is simply a separate side plate where you can introduce just a thumbnail sized amount of a new food onto their learning plate to see if they want to explore this food with their hands or utensils.

What will happen if I don’t let them self feed?

If you don’t encourage your toddler to self feed then they are not going to learn cutlery skills, but more worryingly they aren’t in charge of how much they are eating and so won’t learn to self regulate their food intake and master their appetite. 

Long term this may have issues in terms of not being able to recognise hunger and fullness signals and overeating. 

Self feeding food ideas 

Depending on the age of your toddler, there are a few things to think about when preparing foods. From 12 months, they will hopefully be eating family style meals but use unsalted or low salt and low sugar options.  

For younger toddlers who are still learning to use a spoon, foods that are thicker in consistency will be easier to stick to a spoon and make it easier to self feed. Here are some suggestions for breakfast lunch and dinner (5).

Breakfast

  • Unsweetened porridge made with whole milk and chopped fruit

  • Low salt and low sugar breakfast cereal such as whole wheat biscuit cereal with whole milk and fruit. 

  • Wholemeal toast fingers with boiled egg, hummus or nut butter (unsalted & unsweetened version)

Lunch

  • Jacket potatoes with fillings like beans, cheese or tuna

  • Finger sandwiches

  • Thick soups such as lentil soup or potato and leek

  • Macaroni cheese with cauliflower or broccoli

  • Pasta with pesto and vegetables

Dinner

  • Mild curry with rice

  • Fish cakes made with tinned or fresh fish, potatoes and sweetcorn

  • Mini burgers made with chicken or beans in a bread roll. Served with some seasonal vegetables.

  • Shepherds pie (made with minced beef or lamb, tomatoes and topped with mashed potato).

Finger foods
are also great for encouraging self feeding as long as they are not a choking hazard. 

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When should I introduce cutlery? 

When your baby starts showing an interest in feeding themselves with a spoon, typically around 7-8 months then give them a spoon, if they don’t grab yours first! 

You may need a few of spoons, one (or two) for your baby and one for yourself, to help guide them until they get more proficient at this. 

The best baby spoon for self feeding is one which is typically soft, plastic and has a shallow bowl. They are different to the spoons used for toddlers and adults. 

When would you expect a toddler to be able to use a spoon, fork and knife?

From around 8 months your child should be able to hold a spoon and try to feed themselves without spilling food (6).
However it will be very messy to begin with and I wouldn’t expect them to get all the food in their mouths. By the time they are 18 months – 2 years old they should be able to feed themselves well with a spoon without spilling food. 

You would expect your toddler to be ready to use a fork around 12 – 14 months and then have mastered this by the time they are 15 – 18 months. 

As for a knife, you can expect them to be ready at about 2 years of age and can introduce it then. However, using a knife proficiently won’t be mastered until at least 7 years. 

Here are some suggestions on which foods you could start to make it easier for them to self feed with utensils
.

When to seek additional support 

Your child should be able to use a spoon and fork by the time they are 2 years of age but some may take a little longer. If after this time you think your child is struggling and not interested in using utensils or wanting to self feed then you could seek additional support from your health visitor.

If your child gets to school age and still won’t self feed, it may be worth seeking professional support for an occupational therapist. Your GP can refer you.

With thanks to Seanin Smith and Penelope Henderson for their help writing this blog.

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Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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