What is the best way to get my toddler to use cutlery? The answer depends on how old they are, what you are trying to achieve, and your child’s skills.
Many different strategies can work, but it is important for parents not to give up if their first strategy doesn’t work.
Introducing a spoon or fork probably won’t mean the end of spaghetti up the walls, but get started now, and your baby will soon get the hang of using cutlery.
Whether you decide to wean your baby with purees or go down the baby-led route, they’ll come a time when you’ll want to introduce cutlery.
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Mealtimes are an essential 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 seven years old to use cutlery to feed themselves without being too messy successfully.
Babies are usually keen to get involved with feeding between 6 and 9 months.
They will hold and mouth food from this age and will often be keen to help feed and play with a spoon by banging it and mouthing both ends.
Between 9 and 13 months, they can finger feed with soft foods or those that melt quickly in the mouth.
By 14 months, children can usually dip a spoon into food and move the spoon to their mouths (this is very messy and involves lots of spills).
Children then learn to scoop with a spoon to feed themselves. By 24 months, children are usually keen to provide for themselves and be independent.
Between 2 and 3 years, children further develop their spoon-feeding skills and learn to use a fork to stab.
By five years, a child is learning to spread and cut with a knife.
It is often not until they are around seven years of age that a child can use a knife and fork together to cut up food and are truly independent with self-feeding.
When Can Babies Use Utensils?
Most experts recommend introducing utensils between 10 and 12 months, as your almost-toddler starts to show signs that she’s interested.
A spoon should be first on your tot’s tray since it’s easier to use. She’ll have more success with a fork as her fine motor skills get a little sharper, starting around 15 months.
But you don’t necessarily have to wait until close to your cutie’s first birthday. If you’re making a baby-led weaning approach to introducing solids, you could start to offer a silicone spoon (sometimes called pre-spoons) for thick, scoopable foods like yogurt or oatmeal even sooner — between 6 and 9 months.
With a silicone spoon, you preload the spoon for your baby and give it to her so she can try putting it in her mouth herself.
(Though if she’s eager to practice scooping herself — and you’ve got some patience — let her at it!)
When you start, don’t expect your mini muncher to go from finger foodie to pro utensil user overnight.
It’s usually not until between 18 and 24 months when your toddler will (slowly) master the ability to grasp a spoon or a fork independently, use the utensil to scoop up food and deliver the knife to her mouth with or without the food still on it.
Of course, her odds of completing each step successfully improve the more practice and guidance she gets.
So the more often you offer a utensil — and provide demonstrations and assistance as needed — the quicker she’s likely to get the hang of it.
Keep in mind that your 1- to 2-year old probably won’t be interested in using her utensils every time. Sometimes she might still prefer to eat with her fingers or make a mess.
(When the latter happens, it’s OK to firmly tell her no, and end the meal if she’s more interested in throwing or painting than eating.)
But if your toddler hasn’t shown interest in even trying to use a spoon by the time she’s 15 months, bring it up with her pediatrician.
How to Teach Your Child to Use Utensils?
As a frazzled parent, you are probably pretty motivated to teach your child to feed him or herself—if for no other reason than to give you a chance to enjoy your meal again. But the motivation goes beyond having a nice, relaxing dinner.
Utensil use is a practical way to help your child develop early fine motor skills. Using utensils to eat can even help prepare your child to write.
Mastering the Grasp
Children need to acquire finger dexterity and strength along with hand-eye coordination. Mastering that all-important pincer grasp, where they isolate their finger and thumb, is essential groundwork for many other skills they will use continually.
The pincer grasp represents the coordination of the brain and muscles necessary to help them gain increasing independence.
Utensil use doesn’t necessarily require a mature pincer grasp (at least not in the initial stages of holding a utensil). However, it is a skill that is still very important for self-feeding and more advanced grasping.
This may sound daunting, but kids will pick up most of these skills by repeating daily activities. And, they will have a chance to practice at every meal.
Get Food to Mouth
To master the idea of utensil use, your child has first to understand the concept of moving food from the table to their mouth.
Kids will usually start feeding themselves by using a raking motion to scoop food toward them, curling their fingers toward their palm.
In these early stages, you can help them develop their pincer grasp when you start their meal by giving them a few individual pieces of food—like a puff or slice of banana—on their tray.
Or hold one piece at a time out to them and don’t let go until they grasp it with their index finger and thumb.
They should pick this skill up relatively quickly over several days, but it’s best to only practice it for a few minutes at the beginning of a meal.
You don’t want them to get too frustrated while they are learning.
One fun way to help your child with the utensil to mouth concept early on is to playfully touch around your child’s face and mouth (like cheeks or nose) with a spoonful of food.
Often, your kid will turn toward the spoon and reach up to help grab it and then, they will try to bring the spoon into their mouth.
Bringing a spoon to their mouth requires a child to develop the same skills as bringing toys to their mouth, so it is appropriate (and beneficial) for young children to get toys, hands, feet (pretty much everything) to their mouths. If a child isn’t “mouthing” items, it can be a red flag for underlying developmental and sensory delays. If you are worried about your child mastering this step, bringing it up with the child’s doctor and early intervention service would be appropriate.
Try Out a Spoon
The next step is introducing a spoon. At first, you can give them their scoop to hold while feeding them to start associating a spoon with eating.
Foods that will stick to the spoon are great to learn with.
Think mashed sweet potatoes or oatmeal. They may even try to put the spoon to their mouth, so give them lots of praise if they try this on their own.
You can give them their bowl with a bit of food in it and see if they will try using it independently.
You can use two bowls for a while, giving them more and more food to eat independently and feeding them less and less.
Eventually, you can move to having only their bowl and helping them occasionally.
Most kids will start to pick this up themselves, but if your child seems especially frustrated with self-feeding, you could help by putting your hand on top of their hand and moving food into their mouth together.
Be sure to let them try on their own too, and keep it positive and fun.
If your child is not excited or interested in self-feeding (and they are at an age where it is expected), you can try a variety of spoons or other utensils.
Sometimes the grip of a specific spoon isn’t comfortable for your child, so trying different utensils could help. You can get creative too.
You could try supervising your child with toothpicks, popsicle sticks, straws, or even different foods as utensils, for example, string cheese or crackers.
Sometimes simply switching up the utensil your child is using can make a world of difference.
Move on to a Fork
Once they have spoon-feeding down, you can introduce a safe toddler fork. The best toddler forks have soft, wide gripped handles with flat-tipped, metal tines to allow for stabbing.
Place the fork on their tray with a few pieces of easy-to-poke food, like a chicken nugget or cube of soft cheese.
If spearing gets frustrating, you can help them for a while as you did with the spoon.
Don’t feel like you need to step in too quickly to help with these new skills. Instead, your child needs some time to learn at their own pace.
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Embrace a Messy Situation
Things are going to get grimy, and you will have to be OK with that for a while.
Otherwise, you’ll be playing a never-ending, crazy-making cleaning game. To make the inevitable mess more manageable, try using a floor mat under their chair and opt for a bib with a deep pocket to catch the food that escapes their spoon.
Another trick is to only give them a small amount of food in their bowl at a time.
And, suction bowls that stick to the table can help you avoid most of the predictable bowl-throwing incidents.
Keep in mind that playing with food and making a mess is all part of the process.
If you get overly anxious about messes—and over vigilant about wiping your child’s face—you could inadvertently cause (or add to) tactile defensiveness and food aversions.
The tactile stimulation your child gets from playing in messy textures gives them important feedback they can process and develop more sophisticated responses to.
Your toddler will actively seek out these experiences as part of curiosity, discovery, and exploration.
And, keeping mealtime positive will go a long way.
If you are constantly fighting to keep your kid from grabbing the spoon or trying to pin them down to wipe their face after each bite, mealtime might not feel very positive to your child.
To reprieve from the mess that won’t inhibit sensory experiences, you could practice with imaginary food during playtime to help your child understand the concept.
Try pretending to feed dolls or animals and give your child a lot of praise when they start mastering the spoon-to-mouth idea.
The good news is that the messy stage is usually pretty short-lived.
Start With a Spoon
Introducing a spoon to your little one as early as possible will help him understand that cutlery is a part of mealtime. Do this by offering your baby a spoon to hold right from the start of weaning – usually six months.
Encouraging your baby to use cutlery is usually a three-stage process. First, you introduce a spoon, then a spoon and fork, then finally a fork and knife.
As your baby moves onto lumpier foods and has mastered independent (if somewhat messy) feeding – usually somewhere between 10-14 months – introduce a fork and spoon together.
Don’t Stress About Mess.
First off, don’t worry about the mess – there will be lots when your little one is learning to use cutlery.
Remember, moving from fingers to forks is a gradual process, so don’t worry too much if your toddler is still scooping up food with his hands as well as a spoon.
Get the Right Kit
Bright colours or even favourite characters can encourage your little one to use cutlery. Plastic, special-shaped cutlery that he can grip easily is a good idea.
And make sure he’s comfy. Buy a child’s booster seat that keeps him strapped in as he’ll be fidgety if he’s uncomfortable or too low; this can put them off trying to manage his cutlery.
Practice During Playtime
Host a tea party and pretend to feed dolls and teddy bears. You could use dry pasta or rice to ‘feed’ his toys as it’s suitable for developing hand-eye coordination.
You could also get lumps of Play-Doh and encourage your toddler to cut them up using plastic cutlery.
Accept a Mix of Fingers and Forks
And if he prefers fingers, don’t worry. The important thing is he tries a variety of foods rather than having fantastic table manners so early on.
Get Your Toddler Involved
Encourage your toddler to set the table with you so they become used to cutlery being part of mealtimes.
Talk about what each item is used for – the knife is for cutting, the spoon is for puddings, breakfast or soups – as even very young children will quickly pick up the concept of cutlery.
Lead by Example
Slice up your child’s food into bite-size chunks and show him how to spear a piece on his fork.
Make sure you sit down to eat with your baby so he can watch you eating with your knife and fork.
Your baby will love copying what you do. Experiment with lots of textures and techniques. Mashed potato is excellent for practising cutting and scooping.
Introducing a Knife
As your little one grows into a toddler (around two years old) and starts eating meals that are more or less the same as yours, you can introduce a knife.
He may not hold the knife and fork together or in the right hands, but let him work it out his way, and he’ll soon be using them correctly.
The general idea is that by the time he’s starting school, he should be able to use a fork all the time and a knife at least some of the time.
Best Foods for Introducing Utensils
The best first foods for utensils are ones that can be quickly scooped or stabbed. Learning to use utensils can be challenging, and food that’s hard to get onto the spoon or fork in the first place can make the process frustrating instead of fun.
When it comes to spooning success, opt for menu items that are on the thicker side. Good options that are easy for new eaters to scoop up (and won’t slide off the spoon) include:
- Yogurt (especially Greek)
- Infant cereal or oatmeal
- Ricotta cheese
- Mashed potatoes
- Mashed sweet potatoes
- Thick puréed soups
Fork-friendly foods are options that you can cut into small cubes or pieces for easy aiming and a gentle-firm texture that’s easy to stab. Try pieces of:
- Soft fruit like banana or melon
- Pasta shells
- Baked tofu cubes
Whole grain toast squares or pancakes spread with a thin layer of smooth peanut butter.
Mastering utensils is a major mealtime milestone for your mini muncher, but it won’t happen overnight.
So give your gobbler plenty of opportunities to practice — and plenty of encouragement to keep trying. Before long, the days of spoon-feeding and finger foods will be a hazy memory.
How to Choose the Right Spoon or Fork for Your Baby?
Are you intimated by the seemingly endless number of baby- and toddler-friendly spoons and forks?
There are a lot of options to choose from, and finding the perfect fit for your foodie might take a few tries.
Pre-spoons for baby-led weaners in the 6- to the 9-month range should be small, lightweight and easy for your baby to grip.
The best ones are small, lightweight and easy for your baby to grip.
BPA-free silicone models are a better bet than metal or plastic ones since the soft material won’t bother your baby’s mouth if she decides she’d rather chew on the spoon than eat from it.
When you’re ready to upgrade to a toddler spoon and fork, again, look for models that are light enough for your little one to lift quickly and small enough to fit comfortably in her hand.
Metal utensils are fine, but options with a BPA-free plastic or silicone handle might be easier to grip. (If you’re going for a set that’s all plastic, it should also be BPA-free.)
Check, too, that the fork tines are blunt to protect your cutie’s face in case she accidentally misses a mouthful.
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