Watching a baby eat is a delight for the senses – his perhaps. The rest of us can get rather squeamish as he mashes food on his face and into his hair. We wait anxiously for the day that he’ll learn to eat correctly and we won’t have to hose him and his highchair down following every meal. The wait may be longer than you think, but that is not an indication of what your child wants to do – it’s just a reflection of what he knows how to do.
Early eaters are not yet adept at picking up food with two fingers. They use their fist instead and rather than gently placing each morsel into their mouth, they shove it all in. This makes for a mess and often your child will eventually refuse to spoon feed for most items and will insist on feeding himself. You might wonder how much actually gets into his mouth when he eats this way.
After a time, around nine months, the pincher grip develops and your child is able to pick food up one piece at a time. This reduces the mess some, but only if you feed him foods that aren’t messy. Anything that would make a mess on your hands will make a mess on his as well. And that mess will transfer to everything he touches. Finger foods will last for years, but during this time you can begin to introduce silverware. Just realize that using utensils correctly takes a long time to master and will come at the child’s own developmental pace.
Learning to Use Utensils
The two primary utensils toddlers use are the fork and spoon. They have no need for a knife at this age, although you will. Toddlers learning to use utensils must have bites the same size as the familiar finger foods, but now they will be learning to scoop or stab those bites to get them into their mouth.
While the spoon is the safest utensil to use, the fork is the easiest for young ones. With a spoon, you must master a complicated balance from bowl to mouth. With a fork, you just stab something and shove it in. Start your child with both utensils, and praise his efforts regardless of success. At some point he may give up and start grabbing with his fingers and that’s okay. Encourage the fork and spoon, but don’t make meals a battleground. It will take many practices to master the art of utensils.
Make the two utensils available at every meal and remember that toddlers are notoriously fickle about their food. Place the utensils to the side – don’t dirty them by sticking them into food on the plate. Then encourage (don’t command) your child to use his utensils. If he does, praise him. If he only plays with them, acknowledge that this is par for the course and move on with your own lunch.
Toddlers have a strong desire to please you and to be clean – no matter what it may seem like most of the day. They also have a low threshold for frustration. This is why utensils can be such an irritating task for them. They want to use them correctly, but when they don’t work right, you’ll likely see a spoon thrown to the ground or even an entire plate spilled.
Help your child find success by providing easy foods such as yoghurt or pudding to eat with the spoon. Teach them to dunk the spoon in and smile with them when the food (which actually stays on the spoon no matter which way it’s moved) gets into their mouth. This and other small bites of success will encourage more practice until your child has utensils mastered.