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One of the aims when weaning your baby is to teach them how to self-feed. But often, they prefer to eat with their hands rather than use cutlery… it’s easier after-all!
They do however have to learn how to use a spoon, fork and knife and in this blog I’m going to guide you through how best to teach them, and which ones will make the job easier for them (and you)!
When should you introduce cutlery for toddlers?
Babies will often try to start feeding themselves with a spoon at around 8 months of age (1). So, this is an ideal time to offer them their own spoon.
It’s a good idea to have 2 or 3 spoons at the meal, one for Mum or Dad and one for each of your baby’s hands.
If your toddler hasn’t attempted feeding themselves just yet, it’s never too late to offer them their own spoon and they will be on their way!
When will my baby be able to use cutlery proficiently without making a mess?
Learning to self-feed is a complex set of skills for toddlers to master and co-ordinate and because of this, believe it or not, it can take until your child is 7 years old before they are successfully using a knife, fork and spoon to feed themselves without mess (2).
Keep this in mind, as it may well start to put things in perspective for you and adjust your expectations.
Mastering spoon feeding
By 15 months, most babies have the skills to be able to spoon feed themselves fairly proficiently without spilling lots of food.
Mastering using a fork
Once your baby has mastered the spoon, you can introduce a fork. Around 12-14 months of age is typically when babies are keen to do this and they tend to be proficient by around 15-18 months or so.
Spearing food with a fork is actually an easier task for babies to master providing you give them the right textures.
Cubes of cheese, muffin omelettes and even foods such as fish fingers and pieces of chicken are ideal for stabbing with a fork. I suggest using foods like this to begin with, to keep their frustration levels low.
Once your baby has mastered picking up these foods, you can move on to more tricky foods to eat with a fork like spaghetti, slippery pieces of fruit or mashed potato.
When to introduce a knife?
You can introduce a children’s knife at around age 2 but please don’t expect your child to be able to use a knife and fork together (like we do) much before their 7th birthday.
Knives can be used for practicing spreading softened butter on bread or runnier consistencies such as mayonnaise or ketchup. And at around 3-5 years of age many children will be able to do this.
The knife should be in their dominant hand to be successful.
Knives can also be used for cutting soft foods such as well cooked carrots, soft fruits like banana or avocado or boiled potatoes. This takes a lot of practice, particularly when holding the food steady with a fork too. Don’t expect them to be great at this until around age 4 or 5.
Harder foods like pieces of meat will be really tricky for most young children to cut and you’ll need to continue cutting these for them for a while.
How to encourage toddlers to eat with cutlery and not fingers
It’s much easier to eat with your hands and toddlers will always gravitate towards what’s easiest when they are tired, so please don’t have great expectations for cutlery use at dinnertime.
If you want them to eat well, make dinner a meal consisting of easy foods that they can self-feed and keep cutlery practice for breakfast and lunch.
Teaching your toddler to self-feed with cutlery
If your toddler is struggling, here’s what you can do.
Pick a time early in the day (but not just before a nap is due) when they are alert and in a playful mood.
Sit opposite your toddler with their cutlery and the soft food you are practicing with.
Have the same food and a cutlery set for yourself.
Say “watch mummy’ and then show them how to scoop up food with a spoon or spear food with the fork, or hold the food steady with the fork while cutting with the knife. Pick just one to work on today. Remember the knife skills are tricky so your toddler may have more success with the spoon and fork.
Next say “your turn” and ask your toddler to have a go, copying you.
If they seem to be struggling and are not yet frustrated, you can practice ‘hand-over-hand’ where you guide your toddler’s hand holding the cutlery to help them scoop, stab or cut.
Be very patient, ignore the mess and give lots of positive praise when they manage the task.
Practice at least 3 meals per week during the toddler years.
Eat together with different members of the family too, as often as possible so your toddler can watch others using cutlery too.
If your toddler seems to be struggling
It’s quite alright to help your little one with hand-over-hand guidance, essentially showing them how to collect the food and bring it up to their mouth. Let go once the food touches their lips as your little one needs to remain in charge of self-feeding.
Likewise, you can use hand-over-hand techniques when they are learning to spread or cut with a children’s knife.
Practice self-feeding outside of mealtimes
Play Doh is a perfect soft and squishy material to practice your knife and fork skills on. Likewise, dried pasta shapes or dried rice is perfect for scooping with a spoon. Tea parties with your little one’s favourite teddy bears or dolls often help young children role play what they are learning in real life.
What age should I worry if my toddler isn’t showing any interest in self-feeding?
It’s fair to say that some children need a bit of extra support just to get the basics in place. Keep the age of 2 in your mind (3), if they are struggling with a spoon and fork at age 2, or if they are totally disinterested in self feeding and demand you spoon feed them, it may be that they need a bit of extra support from a paediatric Occupational Therapist (OT). Your GP can make a referral to an OT at your local hospital.
How to choose best toddler utensils for self-feeding
The correct cutlery can make or break your little one’s self-feeding.
Adult sized metal knives, forks and spoons are too long and heavy for young children to manage and metal cutlery can be cold and harsh on young gums.
Babies should have soft plastic weaning spoons that are kind and gentle on their gums, weaning spoons have a shallow ‘bowl’ which makes it easy for babies to get the food off the spoon.
From the age of 1, you can introduce metal cutlery, but I’d strongly recommend looking for those with plastic chunky handles.
You want cutlery that is child friendly with short, sturdy handles and a good grip so your baby can hold it with ease.
The top selling toddler utensils in 2021
These are the top selling toddler utensils in 2021 and my views of them. Some links are affiliate links.
This is actually my favourite toddler utensil set. They are designed so that each of the utensils fit your baby’s hand, making it easy for them to hold and move around the plate or bowl appropriately. The handles are short and smooth making them comfortable, and the knife is designed to sit in the palm of your baby’s hand making it perfect for cutting practice.
I absolutely love these for young babies or toddlers just starting to get to grips with using cutlery for self-feeding. This set contains a knife and fork. They are designed for your baby to hold using a vertical hand grasp, the same way they pick up their toys. They also feature a ‘choke protection barrier’, in my opinion this is incorrect, the barrier helps minimise gagging by not allowing your baby to put the cutlery too far into their mouth.
This set consists of a metal knife, fork and spoon with plastic chunky handles. Longer than the Doddl and Grabease and ideal for toddlers 12 months plus. What I like about these is that they are closer to what traditional cutlery actually looks and feels like. Great for helping your toddler learn how to use utensils properly.
Made from stainless steel with no plastic handles, these are great value for money. However what I would say is that these are best for toddlers who have already mastered the basics of self-feeding, so from age 2 up.
Designed by a school teacher who noticed children needed lots of help eating their school dinners, the Nana’s Manners range includes a fork and spoon set with a short chunky handle designed so children can use the palmer grasp whilst supporting the development of pincer grip movement. Confusing labelled as stage 2 which means suitable from 12 months plus (don’t get mixed up with weaning stages). There is a stage 3 cutlery set aimed at school aged children.
Similar to the Tommee Tippee Explora but with a much flatter handle. Best for an older toddler, 18 months plus.
These come in a plastic carry case for eating when out and about, which I love in this day and age of Covid. There’s also a clever flat spot on each handle, preventing the fork and spoon from rolling off the table. Chunky, the soft grip handles are good for toddlers to grab but they are a bit heavier than most, so best suited to older toddlers.
If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned here then I’d like to introduce you to the Happy Healthy Eaters Club. This is a members-only club where you’ll learn how to raise a child who skips to the table (without you having to ask 50 times first), sits down, and happily munches away.
The club will teach you all about food and parenting techniques so that you can nip fussy eating in the bud (or prevent it before it begins) and make you’ll feel safe in the knowledge your child has eaten their nutrients, that they’ll sleep well, grow healthy bones and brains, and not pick up all those bugs.
Your parenting around food means that your little one will learn to be excited to try new foods, family mealtimes are a breeze and there’s not a reward, bribe, or iPad insight and you haven’t spent hours in the kitchen cooking up different meals for everyone either. And I promise you… you’ll no longer be scraping rejected food from the floor! Here’s the link to learn more: https://www.thechildrensnutritionist.com/hhec-open