How to teach your toddler to eat independently

After a long period of feeding my son, I noticed him getting more experienced in feeding himself. These signs of independence and readiness to self-feed included grabbing the spoon while I was holding it, reaching for the food plate, and even grabbing other objects, like toys, and bringing them to his mouth.

Once the child starts showing an interest in feeding himself, it’s critical to provide many opportunities for him to practice this skill. The key to mastering self-feeding is to let him keep trying. A good way to begin is by placing a few pieces of food on your baby’s highchair tray. I did so too, and let my son feel his food. He started by playing with it, but that’s how he learnt. Initially, he would grasp the food with a raking motion, using the entire fist to move the food toward his mouth. Eventually, he developed the fine motor skill of grabbing the food with the thumb and forefinger, also known as the pincer grasp. I just kept trying during all meals throughout the day.

The foods I gave my baby to practice self-feeding were soft and mashed like-

  • Small pieces of ripe, soft bananas, avocados, peaches or kiwi
  • Soft cooked sweet potatoes, peas, or carrots
  • Grated or soft-cooked apples and pears
  • Soft cooked whole grain pasta
  • Cubes, strings, or small pieces of cheese
  • Shreds or small diced pieces of cooked chicken, fish
  • I avoided foods that pose a risk of choking.

When my son learnt to eat by himself, I offered him cutlery.
Once he got the hang of dipping the cutlery into the food and bringing it to his mouth, I started giving him his own small bowl. He now sits with his bowl alone to eat, and is always up to some mischief! But I love seeing him having his meals on his own.

My advice would be to take it slow. Don’t rush while training your children, and you’ll be rewarded!

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It’s easy to get so focused on what foods you give your baby and overlook the importance of how your baby eats. That is, of course, until problems arise. Just listen to some of the recent parent concerns from my consulting clients.

My baby stopped taking food from a spoon once he started finger-feeding!

I gave my one year old a cup but he dumped it all over the floor – back to the sippy cup, I guess.

I offer my 15 month old the spoon but he still wants me to do it for him.

She doesn’t want to touch wet or sticky foods and holds her hands up to be wiped a lot.

My toddler doesn’t know how to use a fork because we haven’t let him use one.

One of the three principles of my Fast Track To Solids approach is encouraging self-feeding skills at every meal right from the start. Here’s why it’s so important:

Baby Learns To Grasp

How to teach your toddler to eat independently

Finger-feeding is one of the only safe early opportunities your little one will have to practice their finger coordination with very small objects.

I disagree that a pincer grasp should be a prerequisite for eating Puffs and other dissolvable solids. It is most often through the process of finger feeding that the pincer grasp emerges.

Baby Gains Hand Eye Coordination Skills

Learning to scoop cereal in a spoon, stab a green bean with a fork and steer a loaded utensil to the mouth are all great ways for your baby to practice hand eye coordination skills , or “Visual Motor Skills” as child development nerds like me call them.

Because feeding is so motivating for most kiddos, they tend to work hard and persist in the face of challenging motor tasks.

Baby Refines Sensory Processing Skills

Getting messy at mealtimes doesn’t just make for great photo ops – it’s great for developing tactile (touch) sensory processing skills. Babies learn that feeling sticky, slimy, cold and warm on their hands and face is okay.

Early sensory experiences help babies develop sensory thresholds – learning what inputs feel SAFE and COMFORTABLE (and what feels like TOO MUCH or TOO LITTLE input).

Self-feeding also helps babies develop the kinesthetic or proprioceptive sense. This is the sense that tells you where your body parts are in relation to each other and to the world around you. It’s the sense that allows you to touch your nose with your eyes closed and to button your coat without looking. Babies learn where their mouths are (through some pretty hilarious trial and error!) and gain muscle memory for the arm movements of bringing food and utensils to the mouth.

Babies Gain Independence

As I discuss in my online feeding course for parents, independence is an important aspect of early childhood. By allowing your baby to be an active participant in mealtimes, you help avoid or minimize potential mealtime power struggles and behaviors (including throwing).

Many parents ask me why their baby stopped accepting foods from the spoon once they started finger-feeding. if you’ve been the keeper of the spoon, this is often a simple case of “I want to do it all by myself!”.

You also empower your baby to determine how much food they eat. I think we can all agree that learning to stop eating when you’re full is a lifelong skill for health and wellness!

Babies Learn To Use Their Mouths

Many children today are well into their toddler years before their parents even introduce an open cup. Most parents don’t realize that babies less than a year can learn to take sips from an open cup and a straw cup.

Open cup drinking helps babies refine more skills than straw drinking, especially jaw stability. It also encourages neck control for the appropriate head tilt to sip, encourages two hand use (bilateral coordination), and helps baby refine the kinesthetic/proprioceptive skills to tilt the cup appropriately.

What about sippy cups? Read what the American Speech Language Hearing Association says about how sippy cups aren’t great for babies. I’m a big fan of moderation in parenting, and I don’t judge anyone for using a sippy cup on occasion or for a few months. But I do want parents to realize that there are better alternatives to sippy cups and it’s important for babies to learn to drink from open cups and straws, too.

Teach Baby To Finger Feed Solids

Here are three ways to offer finger foods (you don’t have to move through these in a progression):

you pinch the food and let baby bring your fingers to her mouth

you hold the piece of food and let baby grasp from your fingers – this often elicits a pincer grasp before baby uses this fine motor skill to get food from a flat surface

place a bite or two on a surface in front of baby, for independent attempts

Watch as, over the course of weeks and months, your baby moves from a raking grasp eating food from the middle of her palm to a raking grasp eating food from the palm near her index finger and thumb (as in this video) to using a pincer grasp. Sometimes there is an additional pinch grasp just before a true pincer appears when baby uses her thumb against the side of her index finger – the way you or I would pinch a key to turn it.

Teach Baby To Use A Spoon

Teaching baby to use a spoon can begin at his very first meals. In my online feeding course for parents, Food Before One, I share how to introduce specific spoon skills to your baby and how to minimize the messes of baby-led spoon feeding!

Teach Baby To Use A Fork

Gasp! A fork. You really would be surprised the level of self-feeding skills your kiddo is capable of if you only give them the chance! (click to see video)

Once your baby is showing control with a spoon – steering it accurately to her mouth – you can begin to offer a baby-safe fork loaded with food. Stabbing food with a fork won’t likely emerge until over a year of age but early exposure to a fork and watching you stab food with it are great first steps.

Teach Baby To Drink From An Open Cup

With a small cup with two handles or a tiny cup with no handles, you can allow baby the opportunity to learn to drink from an open cup.

How to teach your toddler to eat independently

Learning how to eat by themselves is a purposeful and essential skill. Most often we do not allow young children to feed themselves with the premise that it will get too messy or that they cannot do it themselves.

Montessori will say otherwise and the following are small tips to do at home to get your child to independently feed.


  1. Have a mess rug under the child’s highchair or small table and chair, depending on her regular eating area.
  2. Have a seat that the child is comfortable with and if possible have their feet touching the ground or base to give them the feeling of stability/confidence.
  3. Have child sized spoon and fork. No need for plastic ones.
  4. Involve the child in family meals and allow them to observe how adults eat with the utensils. Children learn a lot through observation.
  5. If using a high chair you can fold back the table for the children and push them in the table to be involved and be part of the family meal times. They may have just a piece of bread or fruit to chew on when the rest of the family has their dinner.


  1. Start early, when your child has showed interest in taking solids and has the fine motor skills to grasp things( like a drumstick have control of their movement) then during meal times you can introduce to them a spoon. Use a small soft spoon in the beginning while you have one as you feed them at the same time. The child may attempt to put the spoon on their mouths, upside down or the wrong way round at first. You may correct them but not all the time that the activity becomes irritating for both. Try to keep the experience positive.
  2. Expect that even though you have given them the utensils a child may want to eat with their hands. Allow this as this can be precursor of them wanting to feed themselves independently. One can feed the child enough food and if there is food left you can allow the child to feed themselves with their hands or utensils.
  3. As the child is already used to using a spoon next stage later on after a few practices and it may be several days, scoop the food for the child with their own spoon. Thy may take it themselves and try to feed themselves again with a bit of trial and error and mess. You can put a mess rug that you can easily wash under their chair during meal times. If you can serve a meal that sticks to the spoon- won’t easily spill- or something that you can poke with a fork.
  4. Allow the child to practice feeding themselves with biscuits and finger foods if eating alongside them. This also gives the child the opportunity to observe the adults how people eat at a table.
  5. Have everything for the meal prepared so that you do not have to leave your child alone and the mealtime will smooth.
  6. A sippy cup need not be used but a small glass( shot glass) as it is the appropriate size for them to drink form. Like eating, it will take some time and a lot of wet clothes before they perfect it. There is no need to use a plastic or rubber bib to avoid the mess. The mess on their clothes is part of the learning process. If they don’t tip the water properly in their mouths then they get wet. There is a consequence to their action as a reinforcement to their learning.
  7. Give them finger foods as often as you can so they will feel the independence of being able to feed themselves. You will then find that they will try to feed themselves all the time once they have learned that they can do it.

Hope these few steps and guidelines will help your child learn at an early age how to eat independently. Patience is a key and letting go of the mess that happens.

How to teach your toddler to eat independently

When it comes to eating habits, toddlers can be hard to predict. Some days they may not eat much. Other days it may seem they’re eating all day long. They may want one food every day for weeks, and then suddenly not like it. And how much your child eats may be different from how much another child eats. But don’t worry. Your toddler’s strange eating habits are really not strange.

Picky eating is typical behavior for toddlers. This is one area of their lives where they can exert some control. By refusing to eat, your child is practicing his or her independence. Here are some common reactions they can have to food.

  • Refusing a food based on color or texture.
  • Choosing a few foods and eating nothing but those.
  • Being unwilling to try anything new.
  • Losing interest in a food they used to love.
  • Only wanting to feed themselves with a spoon or fork.

Path to improved health

You can’t force your child to eat. However, you can provide nutritious foods, demonstrate healthy eating habits, and set the stage for pleasant mealtimes.

Healthy eating habits

  • Serve the right amount. Offer your child 1 tablespoon of each food for each year of age. For example, if he or she is 3, serve 3 tablespoons of each food. Small portions give him or her the chance to ask for more.
  • Be patient. Offer new foods many times. You may have to offer a food 10 to 15 times before your child will try it.
  • Let your child help. Let him or her choose foods in the grocery store. Then find a way he or she can help prepare the meal or set the table. Participating in the different parts of mealtime may make him or her more likely to eat.
  • Make things fun. Cut food into shapes with cookie cutters. Display the food in a creative way on your child’s plate. Have your child come up with special names for their favorite foods.
  • Offer choices. Instead of serving a vegetable to your toddler, let them choose between two options. “Would you like broccoli or cauliflower for dinner?”
  • Mix new with old. Serve new foods alongside favorites. This may make trying something new easier.
  • Let them dip. Provide healthy dips to encourage your child to try new fruits or vegetables. These could include hummus, yogurt, or low-fat salad dressings.
  • Be a good example. If your child sees you eating a variety of healthy foods, he or she will be more likely to try them.

Make a list of healthy foods your child likes so you can make sure he or she eats a balanced diet. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website offers good information about nutrition for children and adults.

Pleasant mealtimes

  • Give your child a heads up. Ten to 15 minutes before mealtime, tell your child it will be time to eat soon. Sometimes children are so tired or excited from play activities that they don’t want to eat. Telling them mealtime is coming will let them transition from playtime to mealtime.
  • Establish a routine. Children like it when things are the same. Set regular mealtimes. Sit in the same place for every meal.
  • Reserve mealtimes for eating and spending time with family. Don’t let your child play with toys or electronic devices at the table. Don’t let them read a book or watch TV, either. Explain to your child how good it is to eat together. Ask him or her to stay at the table until everyone is done eating.
  • Make mealtimes pleasant. If mealtimes are pleasant, your child is more likely to look forward to eating. Try to avoid arguments or negative talk at the table.
  • Manage your expectations. Don’t expect manners that are too difficult for your child. For example, don’t expect a 3-year-old child to eat with the proper utensil. For many children, a spoon is much easier to handle than a fork.

What about snacks?

Each day, your child should have 3 meals and 2 snacks. Toddlers usually don’t eat enough in one meal to remain full until the next meal. Offer your child small, healthy snacks between meals. Healthy snacks include:

  • Low-fat string cheese.
  • Yogurt.
  • Apple slices or strawberry halves.
  • Slices of lean turkey.
  • Whole-grain crackers with peanut butter.

Only offer a snack if the next meal is several hours away. If the meal will be within the next hour, skip the snack. If your child comes to the table hungry, he or she is more likely to eat.

If your child doesn’t eat at the meal, offer a nutritious snack a few hours later. If your child doesn’t eat the snack, offer food again at the next mealtime. A child will usually eat at the second meal. With this approach, you can help make sure your child won’t have problems with a poor diet.

Things to consider

There are many things you can do to encourage your child to eat. But there are things you should not do, as well.

  • Don’t force your child to clean his or her plate. Once he or she is no longer hungry, your child should be allowed to stop eating. Making them eat when they’re not hungry can interfere with their natural cues that tell them when they’ve full. Allowing them to choose when to stop eating teaches them how to listen to their bodies and make healthy food choices.
  • Don’t negotiate with or bribe your child. Threats, punishments, and rewards aren’t good ideas, either. They can lead to power struggles. Avoid making deals. For example, don’t tell them if they eat 3 more bites, they can have dessert. This teaches them to make deals to get rewards for other things. In addition, making dessert a reward gives it higher value in the child’s mind. This can lead to unhealthy attitudes toward sweets.

If you’re concerned your toddler is refusing to eat, don’t let it show. He or she may be seeking attention, and your disapproval fills that need. That may lead to the same thing happening over and over.

Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about how your child is growing or if you’re concerned that picky eating is slowing your child’s growth.

Toddlers are learning to navigate their world, communicate, and control some parts of their lives. They don’t actually have control over much, but eating is one of the first areas where they will.

Parents can help them enjoy their limited power by giving them some amount of freedom when it comes to choosing foods and eating them.

That’s not to say toddlers are deciding what to have for dinner. Parents have the important job of providing the kinds of foods that an active toddler needs. A parent’s role is to present healthy foods and let a child decide which ones to eat — or whether to eat at all. Parents can steer a toddler toward healthy eating, but might have to do it in a crafty way.

Here’s how to turn common concerns into chances to teach healthy eating habits.

Most Toddlers Are Picky Eaters

Many toddlers express their budding independence through eating — or not eating, as the case may be. So nearly all toddlers could be described as picky eaters. If kids don’t like a food, they won’t eat it — it’s that simple.

Does your toddler want to eat only macaroni and cheese? When a child is stuck on one food, a parent might feel forced to serve that food every day so the child eats something. But eventually the child may tire of that food — and then what?

You choose the foods on your toddler’s plate — and you don’t have to serve macaroni and cheese daily. If you do, you miss a chance to introduce new foods and increase the number of foods your child is willing to eat. Most of these “food jags” won’t last long if parents don’t give in to them.

Kids won’t starve, but they will learn to be more flexible rather than go hungry. Serve a variety of healthy foods — including known favorites and some new foods — to make up the menu. Your toddler may surprise you one day by eating all of them.

Your toddler doesn’t like green beans the first time around? Don’t stop serving them. Kids are naturally slow to accept new tastes and textures, so keep reintroducing the beans. Serve a small portion and encourage your child to try a bite without nagging or forcing.

And be sure you’re setting a good example! Serve nutritious foods that you like or eat something new so your kids see you enjoying what you’re asking them to eat.

Don’t Bargain for Bites

You want your child to eat the spinach you serve; your child drops it on the floor. Your well-meaning impulse may be to start talking up nutritious foods, saying how big and strong spinach will make your child. Or you might start bargaining: “If you eat 3 more bites, I’ll give you a cookie.” The problem is that these tactics don’t work in the long run.

Who hasn’t used the line about spinach making you strong? But this approach may build dislike for the healthy food rather than acceptance. Keep teaching kids about the benefits of healthy foods, but don’t push too much by cheering every bite of spinach your toddler eats or disapproving when they refuse.

For some kids, dinner becomes a negotiation session from the very start, and parents have been using dessert as motivation for decades. But this doesn’t encourage healthy eating. Instead it creates the impression that “treats” are more valuable than mealtime food. Foods like candy and cookies are not essential to a child’s diet.

Threatening a punishment, much like bribing a child with dessert, won’t work in the long run either. It creates a power struggle.

To encourage healthy eating, continue offering your child nutritious choices — and keep the mealtime mood upbeat. Also try these tips:

  • Serve right-sized portions. Parents often overestimate how much food a child should eat. Especially with foods that aren’t yet favorites, a couple of tablespoons is plenty to start with. Small portions are less overwhelming, while bigger portions may encourage overeating.
  • Don’t negotiate. It’s fine to encourage kids to “try a bite” but don’t fall into the negotiating trap. Prepare and serve healthy meals and let them decide what to eat.
  • Have family meals together. Set your toddler’s place at the family table — it’s good for kids of this age to see their parents and siblings eating together and eating healthy foods. Kids eat a more nutritious diet, with more fruits and vegetables, when they regularly have family meals.

Let Kids Feed Themselves

Kids should start finger feeding around 9 months of age and try using utensils by 15–18 months. Provide many opportunities for this, but make sure your toddler eats enough so that it doesn’t lead to frustration.

Jump in to help when necessary, but pay attention to hunger cues and signs that your child is full. You can always offer more if your child still seems hungry, but you can’t take the food back if you overfeed. When you’re controlling the fork or spoon, resist the urge to slip in one more bite. And as your toddler gets the hang of eating, step back and let them take over.

Some parents worry that letting kids feed themselves isn’t the best choice. But it gives kids the control that they should have at this age. They need to decide whether to eat, what they will eat, and how much to eat. That’s how they learn to recognize the internal cues that tell them when they’re hungry and when they’re full. Just as important, toddlers need to learn and practice the steps of feeding themselves.

Listen to Your Child

Be alert to what toddlers say through their actions. A child who is building a tower of crackers or dropping carrots on the floor may be telling you they’re full. Pushing food on a child who’s not hungry may dull the internal cues that help kids know when they’ve eaten enough.

But this doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for kids to eat on-demand all day long. Those who eat all day may not learn what it is like to be hungry or full. That’s why set meals and snack times are important.

Kids can manage their hunger when they come to expect that food will be available during set times of the day. If a child chooses not to eat anything at all, simply offer food again at the next meal or snack time.

Can Kids Skip a Meal?

Many toddlers need to eat often — as much as six times a day, including 3 meals and 2–3 snacks. Keep in mind that a food schedule only sets the times that you will offer food to your toddler. Your child may not eat evry time you do.

Letting kids skip a meal is tough for many parents because they were raised to clean their plates and not waste food. But kids should be allowed to respond to their own hunger cues, a vital skill when it comes to keeping a healthy weight. That means eating when hungry — and sometimes not eating, even if it’s time for Thanksgiving dinner.

Set times for meals and snacks and try to stick to them. A child who skips a meal finds it reassuring to know when to expect the next one. Avoid offering snacks or giving hungry kids cups of milk or juice right before a meal. This can lessen their appetite and make them less willing to try a new food being offered.

Avoid the Junk Food Trap

Toddlers need to eat healthy to get the nutrients their growing bodies need. Candy, potato chips, and other low-nutrient “junk foods” shouldn’t be part of their diet because they can crowd out the healthy foods needed. Also, food likes are set early in life, so don’t miss chances to help your toddler develop a taste for healthy foods.

Even if your child likes candy or chips, don’t feel like you must give in. Kids can’t run to the store to buy them, so just don’t keep them in the house.

If your toddler asks for candy, say, “We don’t have any candy.” Then present two healthy snack options to choose from. Even a child who is sad about the lack of candy will still enjoy the sense of control from deciding which healthy snack to eat.

How to teach your toddler to eat independently

Teaching children to eat alone gives parents more time to carry out everyday tasks. It also means that all family members can eat at the same time.

For this to be possible, you need to be present when your child learns to feed himself.

The most important thing is that you pay special attention to cutting the food into very small pieces to avoid choking. In addition, praising the child’s efforts will encourage him to keep trying.

Certainly, between 12 and 15 months, depending on the evolution of motor skills, children can hold the spoon and take it to their mouths. At that time, it’s possible that the child takes his first giant steps in this transition.

At two years old, normally, children can also start using a fork. We recommend you leave the challenge of cutting the food with a knife until later. Using a knife can be dangerous and must be done under supervision at all times.

5 Tips to Teach Children to Eat Alone

To get the little one to eat alone, it is necessary to follow some strategies. Here are a few tips that we recommend:

1. Offer Foods They Can Eat with Their Hands

The first step for children to learn to feed themselves is through food they can eat with their hands. These should be cut into small pieces that are easy to chew and swallow. They should be foods that can easily dissolve in the mouth.

When the child is older and already knows how to grab things with their hands, it may be the best moment to introduce some silverware. To make it possible, the goal is to cut the food into small pieces and give him a plastic fork.

There are some easy-to-digest foods for the little one. They can be pieces of ripe fruit such as banana, mango or peach, cooked soft vegetables, such as carrots, or pasta and pieces of cheese.

2. Prepare Their Favorite Dish

If you notice that your children have difficulty eating without your help, it may work to prepare their favorite dish. Certainly, it will be much easier for them to feed themselves when they have food in front of them that catches their attention.

Given this situation, the dish will motivate them enough to pick up their fork and eat without the help of parents or other family members.

3. Eat Next to the Little One

The best way for children to learn is through observing adults. Therefore, family meals represent an excellent opportunity for children to learn to feed themselves. In this way, children can repeat and imitate the movements of others while enjoying the company of everyone.

In fact, it’s much more advisable to sit in front of the child and observe him while trying to eat alone. Having a positive attitude will make young children more self-confident and, therefore, learn to eat alone faster.

“Between 12 and 15 months, depending on the evolution of motor skills, children can hold the spoon and take it to their mouths. At two years old, normally, they can also start using a fork.”

4. Involve the Whole Family

From the psychological point of view, for the child to eat without your help, you should make him see that eating is an activity that older siblings and adults do. You’ll see how, in this way, the little one will soon begin to eat alone.

All family members should be involved in this process. Likewise, no one should go back and finish feeding the child.

5. Prepare for Disaster

To teach children to eat alone, you have to prepare for disaster. It’s possible that, while learning, they will dirty the table and end up staining their clothes.

To avoid this, we recommend you put a bib over them, which will minimize the mess. Surely there will be some stains, but putting protective covers and bibs on children will make cleanup a little bit easier.

In short, remember to give your children a lot of encouragement along the way, be patient and praise all of their successes. We recommend creating a pleasant environment around the meals by introducing a simple little routine.

Using utensils take more fine motor control and coordination than most toddlers have. In fact some children will not master the use of cutlery until the age of four. With a little planning, patience and positive attitude parents can successfully introduce and encourage their toddler to use their utensils. Teaching your child to use utensils will increase motor development and aid in progressing their pincer grasp.

Evaluate your child’s readiness. Many children will show an interest in self-feeding from 9-14 months, but it will be a bit longer before they have the coordination to actually feed themselves with a spoon.

Allow your toddler to hold a spoon. While you are spoon-feeding them. Toddlers who wish to spoon feed themselves will wage a power struggle over the spoon you are using. To avoid this, offer your toddler a spoon. Try swapping spoons with your toddler after each bite.

Except the mess. As your toddler begins to learn to self-feed, things will get messy. Try using a floor mate under the high chair, or place your child in a smock or shirt free!

Get the right gear! You will need a toddler sized plate, a spoon and a good bib!

Bib, Spoon and Plate. Bib – with a deep pocket to catch the food that does not quite make it to your toddler’s mouth! Spoon – rubber, shallow rather than deep, with a short handle that will enable your child to grip it better. Plate – a rubber edge plate/bowl that stays in place.

Practice during playtime. Host a tea party and pretend to feed dolls and teddies. Praise your child! ‘aren’t you feeding your friends well!’ Be sure to use spoons that are safe for pretend play.

Stick with semi sticky foods. Oatmeal, sweet potato and other foods that will stay on the spoon will help develop your toddler’s self-feeding skills successfully. Food that easily falls off a spoon will only cause frustration as your child is learning.

Be patient! Learning to use a spoon is a process. As your child grows their coordination and fine motor skills will grow with them.

Model good manners! Your toddler is watching you. Be sure to use your utensils properly. Model the proper way to hold a spoon and the amount of food to put on it.

Praise your child’s efforts. Encourage your child’s progress by praising early attempts at using a spoon. Comments like ‘good job holding your spoon, you’re eating just like mummy!’ will go along way to help build your child’s self-confidence.

At Mummy Cooks we advise giving your baby a soft tip spoon from 6 months so they can learn to feed themselves from an early age.

How to teach your toddler to eat independently

I bet you know what your children ought to eat. It’s no secret that kids should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and lots of variety, and that no one–not even the pickiest person–should subsist on crackers alone. Yes, carrots trump candy. But how do you get a child, whose loyalty to pasta knows no bounds, to even consider eating anything else? That’s the kind of question that trips parents up all the time.

The answer, you may be surprised to learn, is to stop thinking so much about nutrition. Nutrition puts your focus squarely on the food, and that’s not where the problem lies.

You also have to stop looking for the perfect recipe. Trust me, it doesn’t exist. Because even if you could find something your kids would love to eat today, there’s no guarantee that they’ll love–or even eat–it tomorrow. Kids are fickle that way, and that’s the problem.

Picky eating isn’t really about food. It’s about control, or a reluctance to try new things, or sensory sensitivity, a chewing and/or swallowing problem, or some other issue. And that’s good news! It means you can teach your way to healthy eating.

So how do you teach your way to healthy eating? Start by answering this question: What does your child need to learn in order to eat differently? For most kids the answer is some combination of the following lessons. How to:

  • Feel safe tasting new foods
  • Enjoy new flavors
  • Cope with challenging textures
  • Value the goal of eating new foods
  • Develop the habit of eating different foods on different days.

If you’ve never thought about teaching your children these lessons before, don’t worry. Most parents haven’t. Take heart, though. Once you make the mindshift, the path to success becomes much clearer. Here are six steps to get you started.

  1. Talk to your children about your goal. It’s crucial to tell your kids the game plan. Otherwise, how will they get onboard? You don’t need an elaborate explanation, however. Say something simple: “I know you don’t like to eat new foods, but I think this is something that is important for you to learn. Don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to eat anything new. For now, we’re just going to learn how to taste new foods.”
  2. Implement the Rotation Rule using foods your children already enjoy. The Rotation Rule is straightforward: Don’t serve any food (except milk) two days in a row. By mixing up the foods your children already eat you are teaching them the habit of eating different foods on different days. This habit lays the foundation for introducing new foods.
  3. Lower your expectations. Like most parents, you probably tell your children that all you want is for them to taste the chili you prepared for dinner, but deep down, you’re secretly hoping they’ll do more; you’re hoping that they’ll actually eat the chili. That’s a lot of pressure. Celebrate a single, solitary taste.
  4. Take the surprise out of new foods. No one wants to try a food completely blind, without any reliable cues as to what it will taste like. Yet, this is what parents ask their children to do all the time! Practice giving your children lots of information before they taste something new. Say, “This is crunchy.” Or, “This tastes a little like the chicken you ate yesterday because it has the same teriyaki sauce.” Or, “This is squishy like apple sauce.”
  5. Make tastings easy for your children. It’s tempting to steer clear of challenging tastes and textures, but that keeps kids stuck in their rut. Make an effort to introduce changes slowly. Start by using an accepted flavor or texture as a bridge to new foods. For instance, if your children likes chicken nuggets because they’re crunchy, offer a taste of a crunchy fish stick. If they enjoy blueberry yogurt, offer a taste of blueberry vanilla yogurt. If texture is a sticking point, then gradually introduce foods that are lumpier and bumpier.
  6. Offer an alternative to, “I don’t like it.” It’s helpful to remember that young children don’t have what researchers call stable taste preferences. When it comes to liking different foods, their taste preferences are all over the board. Just as importantly, though, “I don’t like it,” boxes kids into an opinion that is hard to change. Resist the urge to ask your kids if they like what they’ve tasted. Ask them to describe what they’ve eaten instead in terms of taste, texture, aroma, appearance and/or temperature.

I know it’s hard to believe that your children will ever like new foods, but it happens. As they grow less fearful of trying new foods, they end up trying even more new foods. And once your kids are used to tasting new foods you can start showing them how to eat new foods, too.

How to teach your toddler to eat independently

Want to learn more? Check out my new book, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating. It’s filled with practical, research-based tips that are guaranteed to help you stop struggling and start succeeding!

Dina Rose, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert. She is the author of It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee). In addition to writing her blog, It’s Not About Nutrition, Dina also writes for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

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How to teach your toddler to eat independently Sahana Charan 6 Mins Read

How to teach your toddler to eat independently Sahana Charan

Written by Sahana Charan and published on 18 November 2021.

Are you hesitant about letting your little one eat on her own? Well, don’t think about the mess. Instead, focus on making her independent. Here are some interesting ways to get children to eat by themselves.

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How to teach your toddler to eat independently

Little Tiana loves to play with her bowl of porridge. That’s natural because she is 11 months old and getting her first streak of independence, so she refuses to be fed. Her parents find it annoying that she makes a mess, and that there is food all over the baby table and on the floor. Tiana’s mother just did not think it was a good idea to allow her to eat on her own and instead decided to spoon-feed her little one.

But Tiana’s mom must understand that such an approach would only delay the learning of an important life skill. So why is it necessary for toddlers to learn to feed themselves? Read on.

Typically, by the time a child is inching towards the first birthday, it is most likely that she will be refusing to be fed and will try to pick up the food from the plate on her own. This is a welcome sign and a cue that it is time to let her try to eat by herself.

But it is easier said than done – in the beginning, toddlers will be able to grasp only bigger pieces with their hands and will slowly graduate to using their fingers to grasp smaller-sized food items such as rice. The majority of young children manage to hold the spoon by the time they are 16-17 months old. Some of them might take time but will reach there eventually.

Parents sometimes find it easier to just feed their little ones. But remember, you are teaching your child an important life skill and a little patience and encouragement will go a long way. Toddlers learn about different colors and textures, holding and coordination skills, and most of all, it is their step towards independence.

“It is important that children are allowed to feed on their own. This way they can feel the food with all their five senses, which is necessary for their development,” says Sugandha Mittal, etiquette expert and founder of Confianza Finishing School, Chennai.

  • Plan a balanced meal for the child and have a fixed mealtime every two to three hours. This way they get the right nutrition.
  • Understand when your child gets hungry and give them food at least 15 minutes before that. If you put the food in front of them a little late, they will already be cranky
  • Have two bowls of food – one with food for spilling and another bowl with which the child should feed independently. Make him sit on the high chair and make it colorful by placing spill mats. It’s okay if there is a mess because that is how he will gradually learn to eat.
  • Don’t be impatient. Read a book or tell a story, while your toddler is eating. It will keep her engaged.
  • Running around while feeding, watching TV or gadgets in a complete no-no while eating.

So how can you get your child to feed herself in a fun and stress-free manner? Follow our cue and you will have her eating out of her own hands in no time.

Get creative for visual appeal

Make trees with broccoli florets and a house with carrots and breadsticks. Arrange cooked peas in a heart shape – this will get them interested in the food. These and many other creative ideas will help when you want to get your little one to eat on her own. Tell her to pick the tree and put it in her mouth.

Or make a flower shape with cut-up strawberries and ask her to pluck the petals. You can sometimes ask her to put it in your mouth. Teach her to make different shapes with noodles or pasta. It will be like a game and your child will love the fact that she can pick the food with her hands. This is a good way to get a young child excited to try a variety of food items.

Introduce interesting finger foods

Very young children are generally not open to new foods and may initially refuse unfamiliar ingredients. That does not mean you cannot give them variety. They will eventually start liking at least some of the food that you put in front of them. Go bright and colorful – steamed beets and peas, carrot and boiled eggs cut in long strips, mashed potatoes, broccoli florets boiled till they are soft, breadsticks, raisins, and soft steamed fish. It is always better to cut back on the sugar and salt in baby’s food but there is no harm in adding some herbs and spice to make it interesting – add a little nutmeg to mashed potatoes or some ginger powder or cinnamon to the steamed apples.

Let him play with his food

Do not be petrified about this. What is a little mess, when your child is learning an important skill? Allowing children to touch and feel the texture of the food they eat, make funny shapes with it, and so on will help them immensely while feeding themselves. Show her how to do it in the beginning. Take her hand and put it in the bowl, and slowly bring the cereal or veggie up to your mouth.

Picking food of different shapes and sizes will also help the little one strengthen her hold. So if there is a little stuff on their clothes, face, and floor, don’t fret and just ignore the mess. Watching your child grasp and feel the food is quite a joy, especially when the little one finally gets a morsel into her mouth.

Play a game

Put a variety of fruits and vegetables in front of your toddler at mealtime and teach him to name all of them. Start with the more familiar ones such as cereal and apples and then go to the new foods that you have introduced, such as beetroot or melon. Then play a game, wherein you ask, ‘Where is the beetroot?’ and he picks it up and repeats the word. This exciting activity will not only teach the child to put a name to the different foods but also make him familiar with them. When he knows what it is, it is more likely that the child will pick up the food and put it in his mouth.

Get your toddler to mimic at the dining table

One of the best ways to teach a child to eat by herself is to let her watch others do it. This will encourage her to do it on her own. Make this activity more interesting and fun by sitting her down in the high chair with the family at mealtime and watch the fun. Encourage her to mimic you or her siblings. For example – pick up a noodle and put it in your mouth, and watch her do the same. While taking a spoonful from your own plate, encourage her to do the same. Make it an elaborate process and she is sure to enjoy eating by herself at the dining table.

Getting children to eat by themselves can be a slow process and needs a lot of time and attention from the parent. But once they learn how to do it, you will be happy to see how easily they put the food in their mouth.

Your child is learning a lot about food and how to eat and drink. At first, you may be helping your child to eat. After children are about 12 months old, they will quickly get better at using spoons, forks, and cups.


Use a spoon to feed cereal or other foods.

Never give your child cereal or other foods from a bottle. When feeding cereals or pureed or mashed foods to your child, use a spoon.

Your child will start to use fingers to pick up food. This helps your baby develop fine motor skills. Offer your baby finger foods that are small enough to pick up and soft enough to chew. Here are some examples:

  • Small cooked noodles.
  • Small pieces of bread.
  • Small pieces of soft, ripe peeled fruit or soft cooked vegetables.
  • Small slices of mild cheese or crackers.

By the time children are 12 months old, they should be able to easily feed themselves with their fingers.

How to teach your toddler to eat independently

Spoons and Forks

At first, babies learn how to swallow solid foods such as pureed or mashed foods you feed them from a spoon.

  • Most babies can swallow a spoonful of pureed foods without choking when they are around 6 months old.
  • Babies can start to use a spoon by themselves at around 10 to 12 months old.
  • Your child will continue to get better at using tools like spoons and forks. Give your child a chance to use spoons and forks—even if it is messy.

How to teach your toddler to eat independently

Did You Know?

Your child will learn new skills as they grow.

Children can start learning how to use a cup without a lid when they are 9 months old.

How to teach your toddler to eat independently

From the joy of their first smile to the terror of watching them ride a bike alone for the first time, being a parent is sure a roller coaster ride. In between those huge moments, you’ll often find yourself wondering if your kid is all right. Should they be talking, walking or jumping by now? Should they be potty trained already? When should they be able to eat by themselves?

How to teach your toddler to eat independently


The last question is actually a common one that I get frequently asked. I have to confess that I was pretty motivated to teach my kids self-feeding because that meant I could also sit and enjoy my own meal again. Our journey to self-feeding began with the introduction of finger foods and gradually progressed to using toddler cutlery. Some parents hesitate to introduce utensils to their toddler’s feeding process because they can be a recipe for a mess. However, there are ways you can minimize the mess as you help your child master the skills of self-feeding.

Before You Introduce Cutlery

It’s important to understand that children develop skills at their own pace. There is no set time or age your toddler should be introduced to a spoon. Your child’s motor skills will determine the right time as well as other factors including how long they have been eating solid foods and how interested they are in eating independently.

If you’ve been feeding your child soft or puree foods but haven’t introduced finger foods yet, you may want to wait a while before introducing them to cutlery. Start offering foods like cooked vegetables, so that your child can learn the process of moving food into their mouth. Once they are able to handle chunkier pieces of vegetables, fruits and pasta, you can start challenging your child with baby cutlery.

How to teach your toddler to eat independently


Picking the Right Cutlery

Using utensils that are properly sized and shaped for toddlers’ hands can make the process a lot easier. If you decide to buy toddler cutlery, look for ones with chubby handles and blunted fork tips. Bright colours can encourage your little one to use the cutlery more often. Make sure to read the product label closely to ensure that it is free from BPA.

Start with a spoon, and then when your little one gets used to it, introduce a fork. Show your child the poking action of the fork and let them try it themselves. Eventually, your kid will get the hang of it, even if it takes a while.

Teaching Your Child to Self-Feed with Cuttlery

Most new parents are wondering when babies can use cluttery? It’s different for everyone, however, most toddlers should be feeding themselves with a spoon completely independently by the age of 2. However, many kids master this skill much younger if they are given the opportunity. By the time they turn one, toddlers can proficiently and messily feed themselves.

How to teach your toddler to eat independently


The most important thing you can do at the beginning of your teaching process is to let your child try. This means giving them their own cutlery while feeding them. This will help your little one associate the spoon with eating while allowing them to work on their fine motor skills a little as well. Once they start to put the spoon in their mouth, put your hand on top of theirs and dip it together in the food – put just a little bit to try. Do this a few times during the meal until they start getting the hang of it themselves. Ideal foods for a spoon include cottage cheese, chunky applesauce, mashed carrots and peas, mashed potatoes, oatmeal, pudding, scrambled eggs and thick yogurt.

Once they have the spoon under control, it’s time to give them a fork. Again, kids should be capable of using a fork by the age of 2, though some will prefer using their fingers, which is fine. Start by placing a child-safe fork on their plate of high chair tray with something really easy to pierce like cheese or a chicken nugget. Fruit and noodles are soft but they tend to slip and may fall apart. In the beginning, you will want to keep their frustration level down and give them a real chance at being successful. If your child has trouble getting the food onto the fork, give then a hand help until they get the hang of it. Foods to try with a fork include cooked potato chunks, green beans, toast squares with peanut butter, pieces of soft fruit, pasta shells, melon chunks and chunks of tinned fruit.

You can introduce them to knives when they’re 4-5 years old. This age is best because using a blunt knife for safety can be very frustrating for children as they don’t cut the food effectively. I started by allowing the kids to help in the kitchen by slicing and dicing tomatoes and cucumber. You can also offer your child a blunt knife during play to slice playdough. This will give them the opportunity to practice the skill using only the knife, making it easier when they have to use the knife together with other cutlery when eating.

How to teach your toddler to eat independently

The best way to teach kids about eating right is to get them into the kitchen to prepare healthy meals together. Cooking is a valuable life skill that teaches children about nutrition and food safety, as well as building math, science, literacy and fine motor skills.

Encourage your child’s interest and excitement in healthy foods by teaching them how to cook safely with this guide of age-appropriate kitchen activities.

Food Safety Basics

Before you enter the kitchen, cover the ground rules with children first:

    in warm, soapy water before and after handling food.
  • Pull back long hair, off the shoulders.
  • Keep counter tops and working surfaces clean.
  • Teach children to wait until food is cooked before tasting. Don’t let them lick their fingers or put their hands in their mouths, especially when working with raw foods such as cookie dough and raw meat or poultry.
  • Avoid double dipping or putting spoons back into food after using them for tasting.
  • Remember, young cooks need supervision.
  • Follow the four simple steps:
    • Wash hands, surfaces and kitchen utensils.
    • Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from cooked and other ready-to-eat foods.
    • Cook to proper temperatures.
    • Refrigerate promptly to 40°F or lower.

    These basics are helpful guidelines for children and adults of all ages.

    3-5 year olds

    Young children love helping out, but need very close adult supervision since their motor skills are still developing. Teach these youngsters the importance of washing produce and using clean appliances and utensils.

    • Wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Make it a game by singing the “Happy Birthday” song together twice as you wash your hands.
    • Wash fruits and vegetables in the sink with cool tap water.
    • Wipe up tabletops.
    • Mix ingredients like easy-to-mix batters.
    • Brush (or “paint”) cooking oil with a clean pastry or basting brush on bread, asparagus or other foods.
    • Cut cookies with fun shaped cookie cutters (but don’t eat the raw dough!).

    6-7 year olds

    Most 6-7 year olds have developed fine motor skills, so they can handle more detailed work, but they will still need food safety reminders.

    • Use a peeler to peel raw potatoes, ginger, mangoes and other washed fruits and vegetables.
    • Break eggs into a bowl and remember to wash hands afterwards.
    • Scoop out avocados after sliced in half by an adult.
    • Deseed tomatoes and cooled, roasted peppers with a spoon.
    • Snap green beans.
    • Load the dishwasher.
    • Shuck corn and rinse before cooking.
    • Rinse and cut parsley or green onions with clean, blunt kitchen scissors.

    8-9 year olds

    There is a wide range of skills in this age group, so tailor your tasks to each individual’s maturity level. Teach the importance of wiping down all surfaces and refrigerating perishables, such as eggs and milk, right away.

    • Open cans with a can opener.
    • Put leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate within two hours (one hour if it’s warmer than ninety degrees).
    • Pound chicken on a cutting board. Note: Always use a separate cutting board for ready-to-eat and raw foods, and be sure to wash hands with warm, soapy water after handling raw meats and chicken.
    • Beat eggs.
    • Check the temperature of meat with a food thermometer – it’s like a science experiment!
    • Juice a lemon or orange.

    10-12 year olds

    For the most part, kids ages 10 -12 can work independently in the kitchen, but should still have adult supervision. Before letting these kids do grown-up tasks on their own, assess whether they can follow basic kitchen rules such as adjusting pan handles over counters to avoid bumping into them, unplugging electrical appliances, using knives and safely using the oven or microwave.

    Appropriate Tasks (with adult supervision):

    • Boil pasta.
    • Microwave foods.
    • Follow a recipe, including reading each step in order and measuring ingredients accurately.
    • Bake foods in the oven.
    • Simmer ingredients on the stove.
    • Slice or chop vegetables.

    Cooking together can be a fun way to teach your child valuable skills, promote good nutrition and make long-lasting memories in the process.

    How to teach your toddler to eat independently

    Learning to self-feed is a very important development stage for your baby. It’s a time when your baby learns to eat independently and to develop life skills like co-ordination and motor skills by grabbing, holding and (eventually) using utensils and cups. Self-feeding involves lots of experimenting like touching, playing with and even throwing food around – yes it’s going to be messy!

    Self-feeding will also be a time for your baby to start expressing his or her self. Every baby will have a different personality with different likes and dislikes, and this will of course involve food. Self-feeding encourages your baby to judge it’s own needs and to prevent over feeding; he or she can start deciding how much they want to eat and when they are full.

    What to expect when children are learning to feed themselves?

    By the time your baby is ready to start self-feeding he or she should be able to sit up independently and be showing an interest in eating solids Once your baby is comfortable eating a variety of solid foods, you can begin to teach your baby self-feeding skills by introducing finger foods which they can hold themselves. These can be small pieces of soft fruit or cooked veggies like sweet potato or pumpkin. Even grabbing and getting food to the mouth will be a great start to your baby’s hand-to-eye co-ordination!

    Starting with finger food, then progressing to cups and utensils will take time for your baby to get the hang of, and there will be a lot of mess. You will need to have patience, and remember to capture the memories. Teaching your baby to feed independently is going to be time consuming, but the rewards of watching your baby develop through this crucial stage will be priceless.

    How to handle mess and food play

    If this is your first child, and you’re anything like me, then the mess of teaching your baby to self-feed can be quite daunting. Playing with food is a natural way for your baby to learn about different textures and flavours, and they are going to dig there hands in and smear food over themselves, your furniture and the floor. The first rule is to stay calm and not get upset or excited. Your baby is just playing, which is their way of learning. Maybe you can put a plastic sheet under the high chair or some newspaper to limit the mess. Use a bib and keep a damp cloth handy.

    The average age when your baby will become self-sufficient is between 18 and 24 months, but remember every baby develops at a different pace.

    Independent eating assistance tools

    As with all things baby there are a number of tools to use to assist self-feeding. After finger foods its normal to try and progress to spoons and then forks. Try our Universal Food Pouch Spoons which can be used with any major brand food pouches to get your baby getting used to grabbing and putting the spoon in his or her mouth.

    Our Cherub Baby Fresh Food Feeder is an ideal tool to start your baby with independent feeding with limited mess and fuss. You just simply fill the mesh with fresh cut fruit, vegetables or ice and let baby begin to taste & chew whole foods without the risk of choking on large pieces of food.


    Remember to always supervise your baby when he or she is learning to self-feed as choking can be a real hazard. Avoid hard foods like nuts and raw carrots. But most of all ignore the mess and have fun!

    In the second part of this series, registered dietician and nutritionist Katherine Zavodni answers even more questions (including ones about picky eaters) from our Facebook group, Small Plates: For Parents Who Cook. Check out Part One right here.

    I often struggle with questions about the right way to feed my kids. So I reached out to registered dietician Katherine Zavodni, a nutritionist who specializes in child- and family-feeding concerns, including non-diet, intuitive-eating nutrition therapy and eating-disorder treatments. Zavodni, who has had a private practice for over 10 years, works with kids and families every day not only on nutrition issues but also on the emotional and social factors that so frequently overlap with food. Read: she's the kind of nutritionist who isn't just focused on grams of fiber and phytonutrients—she delves into family attitudes about food, too.

    In this second round of questions from the Epicurious Facebook group, Small Plates: For Parents Who Cook, Zavodni had plenty of insights to share about picky eaters, appetite levels, control issues, and more.

    Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

    Is it okay to keep feeding my four-year-old? Because if we do, he eats great. If we don't, he just doesn't eat. [NOTE: By "feeding," she means actually putting food on a fork or spoon and feeding it to him.]

    The actual development of self-feeding skills is as important as the actual physical nutrition that they're consuming. At four years old, they should have some self-feeding skills to the extent that they don't need to be literally spoon-fed. I'm actually not in favor of spoon-feeding infants, necessarily.

    Yeah. I think they can do it.

    Yes, if you can facilitate them learning to use a spoon for things like yogurt and whatnot. Fine motor skills and appropriate meal behavior can really be built by giving them opportunities to self-feed. If this child is kind of behind on some of those skills because of this pattern of being spoon-fed for so long, then he's maybe got some catching up to do. In terms of whether or not enough nutrition gets in him, it comes back to this idea that you can trust your child to eat enough for his or her body.

    Now there may be a lag period if the child is used to be spoon-fed at every meal. But you can have family meals with him, and give lots of finger foods that he can grab, keeping in mind safety from choking, then sit down and have that eating experience where you're feeding yourself, he sees what you're doing, and he picks it up. Assuming he's verbal and doesn't have any other communication challenges, we can communicate that this is how we eat now and we use our fingers and our thumbs. But if it's clear that he can't grasp a spoon or put small pieces of food in his mouth, then you would need probably an OT [Occupational Therapy] evaluation.

    Playing with your food isn’t all fun and games—kids learn stuff, too.

    Photo by Chelsie Craig, Prop Styling by Beatrice Chastka, Food Styling by Dana Bonagura

    Right. What if it's not physical but more like he has no problem using a spoon or a fork, it's just that when he's sitting at the table, he just is not interested in the food and he's just not eating? Can you talk a little bit more about what you meant by trusting the child?

    So more than likely, this is a habitual behavior situation. It's not that he's just not interested in the food. It's more that this is just how he's used to experiencing food. Our bodies ask us for food every day, several times a day. If she were to stop that behavior of spoon-feeding him, he might have a few times that he just doesn't want to eat anything because maybe there's some rebellion there or he's not comfortable with the new plan. But at some point, unless there's some other kind of sensory challenge, the child will start to feed himself, because our bodies drive us toward doing that.

    If mom stops with the spoon and he literally just wasn't eating, I would be really, really surprised, but at that point they would need to reach out to a dietician or a physician to assess what that issue is. But in terms of getting enough food, a lot of times we limit our children inadvertently by assuming that they won't try new foods. You'll hear from parents "oh, you don't like that" or "I'm not going to get that, you don't like that." When you think about it, you might not have offered that food in two years because you didn't think your child likes it, right? We make assumptions about these limitations that they have, when really we're just not giving them opportunities to develop those skills.

    A lot of times we limit our children inadvertently by assuming that they won't try new foods. We make assumptions about their limitations, when really we're just not giving them opportunities to develop those skills.

    In terms of also just trusting them to know how much food they need, can you talk a little bit about what you meant by that?

    Sure. At that age, they may not need a whole lot of food. Another trap that parents fall into is assuming that their toddler/young child should be eating a certain amount of food. In reality, they might need just a few bites of something. Their needs don't necessarily match our expectations of their needs. If we approach feeding from a trust perspective, then we do sometimes have to sit with our discomfort. Like what if this isn't enough, what if this is too much, what if this is the wrong amount? What if this is not how this is supposed to go?

    Eating a meal can be particularly challenging for children who have disabilities. A lack of fine motor skills (like finding it hard to hold a fork), sensory restrictions (like being paralysed or unable to see) and co-ordination difficulties are some of the many reasons that may delay the learning process. This can be frustrating for you and your child.

    Author Deborah French has four children, two of whom have special needs. Her eldest daughter, Amariah, has Down’s syndrome and her son, Henry, has autism spectrum disorder. “Socialising with others generally includes eating together,” she says. “So learning how to eat neatly is crucial to helping our children to integrate.”

    Deborah, who also runs cookery classes for children with special needs, came to realise that nagging her children about their table manners wasn’t working. Instead, she developed practical solutions to help them learn, with rapid results.

    Deborah’s top tips for happy mealtimes

    1. Be patient

    “When stress or frustration controls your reactions while trying to teach your child, they will reflect your mood and act accordingly. They will fear your reaction to their mistakes, and as a result will not be able to give their best efforts. Give instructions calmly, with positive reinforcement.”

    2. Invest in a funky child-sized apron

    “As your child gets older, even though it may still be necessary for them to wear a bib to protect their clothing, this can also be demoralising and embarrassing in front of other family members or peers. An apron is more discreet and will help eliminate any negative feelings your child may harbour before mealtime has even begun.”

    3. Encourage your child to help lay the table

    “Irrespective of the nature of your child’s disability, take the time to involve them in preparing the table for dinner. Even watching you collect cutlery, cups and napkins helps your child to feel they have participated. During this process, talk your child through what you are doing and why. For example: ‘We use a fork to pick up pieces of food on our plate instead of our fingers. That way, the fork gets dirty and not our fingers’.”

    4. Use heavy cutlery and solid crockery

    “As parents, we instinctively opt for plastic or disposable utensils to avoid breakage and to make cleaning up easier. But for a child who has either low or high muscle tone or difficulty with their fine motor skills, a plastic fork simply feels like air. These children need to be able to feel the cutlery they are holding. The same is true for plastic plates and cups, which are unstable and easily knocked over. Solid cutlery and crockery will make it easier to teach your child how to eat.”

    5. Take the time to eat with your child

    “If you eat your evening meal later than your child, compromise by ensuring that during your child’s mealtime, you too are seated at the table. Even if you enjoy your coffee or a smaller version of what your child is eating, they will be encouraged by your presence. You can then talk about your food and how you eat with your cutlery. Take note of how quickly your child imitates your actions.”

    6. Keep a standalone mirror and wet cloth handy

    “The most effective way of teaching self-awareness to a child is to let them view themselves. Even as adults, how often after enjoying a meal with friends have we been unaware that a chunk of food, usually green in colour, has become wedged between our front teeth?

    “Apply this theory when helping your child to understand food residue on their face after eating. Before they leave the table, place the mirror in front of them and encourage them to look at their reflection and clean themselves using the wet cloth.”

    7. Encourage your child to clear their place

    “Again, irrespective of your child’s disability, teach them how to participate in the cleaning up process after eating according to their ability. This may involve them handing their plate to you or taking it to the side to be washed; alternatively wiping their place clean as best they can. Any level of participation helps to develop their self-awareness and obligations at mealtimes.

    “It’s important to remember that everyone likes to feel valued and needed. When you give your child responsibilities, they feel important to you and the family. This in turn boosts their self-confidence and speeds up the learning process.”

    Read our interview with Deborah about parenting children with special needs.

    Specialist eating and drinking equipment

    To help your child learn good eating skills, you may find that specialist eating or drinking equipment will make a real difference. The Caroline Walker Trust, a food charity, recommends a number of helpful aids to eating that parents of children with learning disabilities may find useful for their child.

    • Different shaped cups, with one or two handles, of different weights, materials, transparencies and designs. The cups should be designed not to shatter or break if they are bitten.
    • A transparent cup can be helpful when helping someone to drink, because you can see how much liquid they’re taking.
    • Cutlery of differing shapes, sizes, depths and materials. Again, the cutlery shouldn’t shatter if it is bitten. Solid plastic cutlery or plastic-coated metal might be better for people who have a bite reflex when cutlery is placed in their mouth. Shorter-handled cutlery is easier to manage, and hand grips or irregularly shaped handles may help someone in using a utensil.
    • Plates and bowls that do not slip, have higher sides to prevent spillage, or are angled to make access to food easier.
    • Insulated crockery that keeps food hot if mealtimes are lengthy.
    • Non-slip mats that support crockery.
    • Straws, which can help those with a weaker suck and can have different widths.
    • Feeding systems that deliver food to the diner’s mouth through, for example, a rotating plate and a mechanical or electronically controlled spoon. Some systems are powered, others are hand- or foot-operated.

    For more information and details of suppliers, visit the Living Made Easy website.

    How to teach your toddler to eat independently

    Teaching your toddler about shapes and colors is an important step in their early development, because it helps them to define and organize much of the world they see around them. Whether your child is looking at a rectangular building, a circular plate, a green tree or a blue sky, being able to recognize shapes and colors is a vital component of their cognitive development, and it will establish a strong foundation for subsequent educational concepts such as math and logic. Although no one doubts the importance of teaching colors and shapes, many parents have questions regarding when and how to introduce these concepts. Below are some tips and ideas regarding which time frames and methods are most useful for teaching your toddler about colors and shapes.

    Teaching Colors: When and How
    It is important to remember that each child is different, so there’s really no one specific developmental timeline that will work for all children. Generally speaking, 18 months is a great time to begin teaching your child about colors, but it’s not uncommon for children between 2 to 3 years old to be in the beginning stages of learning these concepts. Regardless of when you start, it is important for you to review colors with your child on a regular basis, even up to kindergarten age. Here are some simple activities you can try to help reinforce concepts of color:

    * Name that color: Colors are everywhere, so this game is very easy to play. Simply point to an object, name what color the object is, and then ask your child to find something else that has that same color. For example, you might say, “I see a red truck over there. Can you find something else that’s red?” Or, if you’re walking through a crowded parking lot, ask your child, “Which car on this row is blue?”

    * Any experiments with food coloring are always a smash hit. You can take some recyclable water bottles, fill them with water and then ask your child to add a few drops of a particular food coloring to the bottle. Experiment with color mixing as well – e.g., allow your child to make green water by combining drops of yellow and blue food coloring in a bottle.

    * Kirstylee Moody, author of the popular early childhood educational blog Moms Have Questions Too, has put together an excellent (and exhaustive!) resource for teaching colors to your child at this link.

    Teaching Shapes: When and How
    The most prevalent age for teaching kids shapes is around 2 years old. By the time your child is 2 1/2 or 3 years old, they should be able to identify the majority of basic shapes (e.g., circle, square, triangle, and rectangle). From there, you can move on to more advanced shapes (e.g., diamond, heart, star, oval, etc.). Here are some simple yet highly effective activities you can use to help your child learn shapes:

    * Shape sorting games: You can transform simple household items into learning tools by allowing your child to sort them into various groups based on their shape. Start out with a pile of objects on the floor, and then encourage your child to sort them into separate piles based on shape (e.g., round, rectangular, square, etc.).

    * Help your child draw shapes using finger paint, or by drawing in sand. Guide his/her hand as they draw the shape, making sure to emphasize the name of the shape over and over again as he/she completes the drawing. You can also draw the same shape in different sizes, so that you can help your child differentiate between a “big” circle and “small” circle, for example.

    * Go for a shape walk around your neighborhood, or at a local park. Bring a small cardboard cutout of each shape, so that your child can compare it to what they see around them. They might notice that the triangular rooftops of some of the houses match their triangle cutout, or that the manhole cover on the street matches their circle cutout. Whenever your child finds a new shape, make a tally mark on the respective cardboard cutout to keep track of his/her discoveries.

    Your child will interact with shapes and colors all throughout their life. Keep the above ideas and tips in mind to help them get a good head start on these fundamental concepts!

    How to teach your toddler to eat independently

    At some stage, your toddler will start showing signs that she’s interested in feeding herself with a spoon. For example, she may pick up the spoon, hold it, and even try to use it to feed herself.

    Teaching your toddler to use a spoon can be very messy to begin with. This is just part of the learning process. Your toddler probably won't understand what's wrong with making a mess yet, so let her freely explore her food if you can. Investing in a wipe-clean mat to go under her highchair can make clearing up quicker and easier. But don't worry, it won't be messy forever!

    Bear in mind that your toddler experiences something new each day. She may have taken her first steps or said her first words. And she’s probably getting her fingers into everything she can find!

    Using a spoon is just another thing to explore. There’s no need to rush things or to try to encourage her to feed herself before she’s ready.

    Your toddler will need to be able to pick up the spoon before she can use it. This will be much easier for her if she's mastered the pincer grasp. This is when she can pick up small toys and items with her thumb and forefingers, rather than gripping them in the palm of her hand.

    If she’s not yet able to do this, don’t worry too much about encouraging her to use a spoon. Let her carry on eating finger foods until her pincer grasp improves. You could try the following:

    • lightly cooked green beans or carrots
    • sticks of cucumber
    • cubes of cheese
    • slices of banana or soft pear
    • fingers of toast
    • breadsticks with hummus
    • cooked pasta shapes

    Choose plastic spoons with soft tips that are gentle on her gums. Some spoons will bend into position and straighten as required. You can even buy spoons that change colour to warn you when your toddler’s food is too hot.

    By 15 months, your toddler may be able to bring the spoon towards her mouth and lick it. However, it’s unlikely that she’ll be able to prevent it from turning over in her mouth.

    Your child may be well into toddlerhood before she has enough fine motor control to put a spoonful of food into her mouth. The bones in her wrist won’t harden until she's about 18 months. Until then, it’ll be difficult for her to eat accurately without help.

    Even when she can get the spoon to her mouth safely, she’ll still play with her food. Let her have fun with what she's eating and make a mess if she wants to. Show her how you eat with a spoon so she can see how it's done, and encourage her to have a go when you think she's ready.

    If you're thinking about self-feeding, you may also like to learn how to encourage your toddler to drink from a cup.

    How to teach your toddler to eat independentlyMealtimes are an important aspect of family life. Children begin to develop self-feeding skills from birth. Self-feeding is a very complex task and it is common for children to have difficulty using cutlery to feed themselves. It usually takes until a child is 7 years old before they can successfully use cutlery to feed themselves without being too messy.

    Babies are usually keen to get involved with feeding between 6 and 9 months. Between 9 and 13 months they can finger feed with soft foods or those that melt quickly in the mouth. By 24 months children are usually keen to feed themselves and be independent. Between 2 and 3 years children further develop their spoon feeding skills as well as learning to use a fork to stab. By 5 years a child is learning to spread and cut with a knife. It is often not until they are around 7 years of age that a child can use a knife and fork together to cut up food and are truly independent with self-feeding.

    Hints and Tips

    • It is important that your child is well supported when they are learning any new skill. Whenever possible ensure that your child is sitting at a table.
    • It is important that their feet and back are supported so that they can use their hands freely. You could use a sturdy box under their feet and cushions on the chair to make sure they are well supported.
    • Always set the dishes and utensils out in the same way to develop a routine and help your child locate items at each meal.
    • Think about the utensils you are using. Knives and forks with thick and/or textured handles are easier to hold. Knives and forks with short handles are easier to control. Use a plate with a raised edge to prevent the food from sliding off the plate. Place a non-slip mat underneath the plate to prevent it sliding when your child is learning to cut.

    How to teach your toddler to eat independently

    • How to teach your toddler to eat independentlyEncourage a good cutlery grasp right from the start; your child’s index finger should point down the back of the knife and fork towards the blade and prongs.
    • It is usually easier to use the fork in your non-dominant hand and your knife in your dominant hand but allow your child to experiment and find out what works best for them.
    • Start off with cutting soft foods and move to firmer foods. For example practice cutting mushrooms and bananas before moving onto meat.
    • How to teach your toddler to eat independentlyTake your time and be consistent. Learning a new skill takes time so persevere with giving support until you feel that the child is making progress.
    • Practice, practice, practice! Give your child opportunities to practice every day. You may want to vary the time of day when you practice so practice at snack time. If your child is exceptionally hungry you may want to cut up some of their food so they can practice once they have satisfied their initial hunger.

    A good way to teach your child a new skills, is to break down each task into small steps and teach them one step at a time (chaining). Teach then the first step and then teach the second step and so on until your child has mastered all of the steps. For cutting with a knife and fork the following steps may be appropriate. Use these steps along with the different helping techniques below.

    • Get your child to stab the food and keep it still while you cut with the knife.
    • Get your child to stab the food and saw with the knife.

    Children learn in different ways so you might need to vary your approach. There are a number of ways in which you can help;

    • Physically assist your child (see below for more details).
    • Show your child – do the task alongside your child.
    • Tell your child – talk your child through each step of the process.

    You can use each of these ways individually or any combination depending on what suits your child. Please be aware that some children cannot look and listen at the same time so limit the amount of information you giving.

    How to teach your toddler to eat independentlyby NDFAdmin, 21 st Jan 2015

    Parents should know they must be creative in order to help children to master the art of good table manners.

    C an I really expect my child to learn good table manners? What can I teach him? What’s the best way to tackle these lessons? What should I do when my kid misbehaves at the table? What are some good rules? How can I get my child to behave in restaurants?

    Have you ever asked yourself such questions? If you have, maybe you should know that you must be creative in order to help your children to master the art of good table manners. Otherwise, they may not accept new table rules so easily. Prepare them their favourite meal, use some interesting plates, perhaps with pictures of cartoon heroes to serve the food, in order to encourage them to start eating.

    How to teach your toddler to eat independently

    The following manners are fundamental to all meals. Share them with your kids and discuss why they are important. Practice them together as a family:

    • Make them come to the table with clean hands and face. No one wants to look at a dirt-covered face while eating
    • Serve small portions on small plates and small cups. Let the child regulate his or her own intake. Serving large portions and insisting on a clean plate can lead to overeating and the loss of self-regulation. Let them know they can get more if they are still hungry. Make sure you sit next to kids all the time while they are eating. Remove their plate when you see they don’t feel hungry anymore.
    • During the meals, teach them not to talk with their mouth full
    • Teach them to say “please” and “thank you”
    • When your children can eat independently, teach them how to use spoon and fork. At the beginning, use the plastic ones.
    • Teach them how to use a napkin. First, show your kid how to place it in his lap when he sits. Next, show him how to wipe his mouth and replace it on his lap.
    • As they grow older, they should learn to start eating only when everyone at the table has been served. Furthermore, they should not make bad comments about the food like “Yuck!” Someone has spent time and effort to make the meal and negative comments can only hurt feelings. In addition, they should ask to be excused when finished with eating.
    • You can teach your schoolers more good table manners. Show them how to sit up straight. Teach them to take small amounts of food and chew with their mouth closed. They should not to make rude noises like slurping while eating a soup. They should use a napkin to wipe food off their face or fingers. They should learn how to use a fork and knife properly. By now, kids have developed the fine motor skills necessary to cut their own food. Show them how to gently slice back and forth, rather than stabbing at the chicken. When they say they have finished, allow them to take their plate to the sink.
    • Praise and even reward their good behaviour at the table. In the same time, don’t let them finish their dinner if they won’t cooperate and follow your rules at the table. Take their plates away and end the meal, without being emotional and angry and pushy. Thus they will understand the concept of punishment.

    They should always sit in the same chair at the dinner table. This will help them gain confidence and a sense of belonging.

    Eating out with children

    Before going to a restaurant, choose something nice to wear for your kids. Talk about table manners and tell them how they should behave in a restaurant. For instance, no shouting and running around in the restaurant, as this is considered rude. Avoid restaurants when your children are very tired, poorly or really hungry as tantrums are more likely. At the restaurant, first order food for the kids and do it quickly to prevent they get hyperactive or bored. In addition, you will need to shorten the time spent there. If your children still get nervous, take them outside for a short walk.