How And When To Encourage Utensil Use for Meals

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How And When To Encourage Utensil Use for Meals

By Annika Zalleck MOT OTR/L TEIS Occupational Therapist

Children are always ready to grow up faster than their parents want them to and this is true when it comes to wanting to feed themselves during meals! Older babies and toddlers want to become more independent and are usually grabbing at spoons while they are being fed by their parents from an early age.  When it is appropriate to start giving your child utensils? At as young as 6 months, babies start to hold larger food items to gnaw on.  They also enjoy playing with spoons and mouthing them.  By 9-13 months, children enjoy finger feeding and use a variety of grasps to perform feeding.  Once a child is around 1 year, she can start by dipping a spoon into food and bringing it to her mouth, although she may not actually get much into her mouth! Kid’s fine motor skills will continue to develop and at around 15-18 months, they should be able to perform more scooping with the spoon to pick up smaller pieces of food.  And finally around 24-30 months it is a good time to introduce a fork to stab at and poke large pieces of food.

A good way to help your child practice his utensil skills is through play!

  • Set up a bin of beans, rice, cotton balls, etc and have your child practice scooping! Make sure he is holding the spoon with his thumb on the bottom so he can learn and practice the correct forearm movement.
  • Roll pieces of Play Doh into small balls or tear off small pieces and let your child practice “spearing” them with a fork.
  • Any activities that involve fine motor use and hand-eye coordination including puzzles, shape sorters, building block towers will help build the foundational skills needed for utensil use!

Some helpful tips for making your child more successful with utensil use at mealtime:

  • Start off with thicker foods that will stick to the spoon such as oatmeal, yogurt, pudding so they can dip the spoon in and foods won’t fall off the spoon
  • Place a non-slip mat under bowls and plates for increased stability.
  • Make sure your child has good support when sitting, feet resting on a surface, hips and knees at approximately 90 degrees, sitting straight up and not leaning on one side. This will give the rest of their body the support it needs so they can focus on using their fine motor skills to use utensils.
  • Wear an art smock for meals and place an old table cloth under the high chair to make clean up easier.

There will be many, many messy meals as your child learns to use utensils to feed himself so be prepared but know he is learning to become a more independent feeder!