Getting Toddlers to Feed Themselves

Parent Q&A

  • Toddler self-feeding tips

    (9 replies)

    Hi! I've been struggling with changing my approach to feeding my 18-month old for various reasons. Actually, he eats well because 1) we have a more authoritarian style of feeding (i.e. his grandparents or I feed him), and 2) we tend to feed him throughout the day (so even if he doesn't eat much for meal, he will get lots of snacks). However, I have been getting signals that this needs to change for various reasons, like establishing better boundaries for eating in general and encouraging him to self-feed. I should note that our son happily obliges with the authoritarian style of being fed because he is a very busybody with his toys and books... not sure if this is truly a problem? Open to thoughts. My other questions to folks are:

    • How do you prioritize wanting him to self-feed and therefore preparing a menu where he can do that (i.e. diced carrots and chicken pieces) but also cultivating his taste for your food? Ideally we want him to eat what we eat, but what we eat (rice, noodles, stews, etc.) often requires utensils where he would clearly need some help managing. When he sees us eating those things, he doesn't want his carrots and chicken anymore. That is a big reason why we still feed him because we are feeding him 'our food'.
    • Related to above - Do you all eat together, and if not, when does that start? I find if he eats by himself, he more readily self-feeds because he only sees his own food. But if we all eat together, it's actually more work because I have to make sure dinner is prepared for everyone at the same time and can't just open up a Tupperware of diced chicken to feed one tiny stomach, plus we end up feeding him because our food is less manageable with little hands. However, I don't like when he has meals that are separate from us - both in timing and in substance. So either we eat together (and we feed him our food), or he eats alone and feeds himself his own food - is the current situation...
    • How/when do you also teach not wasting food? I have never forced our toddler to finish anything, but eventually I want to teach him the value of food and how one should endeavor not to waste it.

    Thanks in advance!

    RE: Toddler self-feeding tips ()

    You are obviously a caring parent. I think your instincts are right on this. Your child is ready to eat with the family. Take advantage of this interest and let him join regular family meals. Don't worry if it is messy. Tidiness only comes with practice which has to start some time. Give him a spoon and let him try a small bowl of soup. Learning to eat 3 regular meals plus one snack is important too. If you constantly feed him he won't learn to listen to hunger cues of his own body. Please don't talk about food wastage. It is MUCH more important that he grows up listening to when he is hungry or full and to not force food on him just because it is on his plate and you don't want to waste it. To combat waste, have two plates, one family style plate that you dish small portions on to his plate. When he is done he can ask for more. 

    RE: Toddler self-feeding tips ()

    I’m no expert, but as a parent of an almost-two-year-old whose eating habits change and develop constantly, as I’m sure your toddler’s does/will too, my primary response to your question is: Stop overthinking it. Sit down to eat together and give your kid whatever the rest of you are eating, served in smaller chunks. If your “adult” food is truly non-kid-friendly, e.g., way spicy or too many unfamiliar ingredients, let him try it if he wants to, and, if he objects, give him his diced chicken instead. Let him feed himself with his utensils. Let him feed himself with his hands. Let him get messy. Whatever works for him. This stage of eating is as much about learning and playing as it is about actual eating. If he wants help getting the food to his mouth, he’ll let you know. If he’s distracted with his toys and books, periodically offer him a spoonful while he plays. And unless he’s trained early to stop paying attention to his own body’s signals around food, he’ll eat as much as he actually needs and then stop, food waste be damned—so if you’re concerned about food waste, try serving him a bit at a time and then give him more if he finishes the first serving.

    RE: Toddler self-feeding tips ()

    An 18 month old should be able to use utensils. So just put some of your food on his plate (cut up if necessary) and give him a toddler spoon or fork and let him have at it. And of course at that age meals should be together. And you limit food waste by only putting an amount on their plate that they will eat and make sure they know they can have seconds (and thirds). Great way of slowly teaching them to only take as much as you will it.

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18 month old still needs to be spoon fed- help!

Sept 2012

My daughter just turned 18 mos and we are struggling tremendously with getting her to self feed, eat any table or finger foods and stopping mashed or chunky purees. She breastfed very well for 14 mos and moved easily to stage 2 purees, but when we attempted stage 3 foods around 8 mos old, she would start to gag and spit it out. Anything with even a little bit of texture would cause her to gag/choke and then refuse any further attempts. We tried all the ''normal'' 1st finger foods but she showed no interest in them, would not even pick them up, would push them away, etc. So we kept going with the stage 2 purees.

We slowly worked on adding small textures and now she no longer gags, but she still can not eat whole bits of food, so everything still needs to be soft, mashed or diced and mixed with a puree - and spoon fed! She can self feed only a very few limited things: crackers, raspberries, spoonfuls of peanut butter but is getting better at using a spoon which we assist with by holding her arm lightly and guiding her. She will not touch or pick up most foods with her fingers and shows no interest in this - in fact she cries, pushes it away, throws it, etc. Needless to say mealtimes are not enjoyable for any of us.

She is happy, healthy and normal developmentally in every other way, though she has been on the later end of some milestones (i.e. crawling @11 mos, walking @16). Her pincer grasp is fine, she puts EVERYTHING else in her mouth, she drinks milk just fine, holds her own sippy cups. She is very smiley, talkative (has over 60 words), interactive, affectionate, curious, etc.

While researching this I read a bit about possible sensory integration disorders but we see no other symptoms except the food issues. She weighs 26 pounds (50th percentile) and has always been ''perfect on the growth curve''. With some urging from us our ped did finally agree to send us for an eval with an OT at Children's. Unfortunately, it was not very helpful, no formal diagnosis and we were just encouraged us to continue adding new foods, praising efforts, etc.

Has anyone else gone through this (limited self feeding, still spoon feeding at 18 months, almost no table foods, very limited diet) and have any words of advice for us? Do you think this is just another milestone she is slower on or is there something more going on? Looking for support and wisdom from others who have gone through this! What helped your children? I know she won't go to college still being spoon fed, but I really want her to be a bit more independent and interested in food. I worry about her going to preschool around age 2 and not being able to self- feed or eat like the other children. HELP! Samantha

Yes, I'm afraid this is one of those milestones that you just have to wait out. It doesn't matter much what you want in this situation, you have a child whose reality is different than yours and there's nothing you can do but get used to the idea and keep trying. If the OT did not have specific suggestions and the baby is gaining and growing, just keep offering healthy foods and model enjoying eating a variety of foods, and she will eventually learn how to deal with textures. She sounds like a lovely person all around.

14 Month Old Not Self Feeding

Oct 2006

Help! My 14mo does not have interest in self feeding.

He picks up the cherrios and shows them to me, and for a few days I was able to guide his own hand to his mouth. But now he resists and crys until I hand feed him the cheerios. I don't want to create weird eating/power issues so I give in, hoping that he will take an interest, but sheeze he's 14mo. Is that normal?

He is a great little spoon-fed eater, and seems to really enjoy it, complete with ''mmmmm'' sounds, from yogurt with flax seed oil and pears, to sweet potatoes, squash, avocado, and chard to peas, rice and chicken. So he is eating well rounded meals, but he just waves his spoons around, drums on the tray, etc.

We load his spoons and try to guide his hands to his mouth, but no dice. We try to load his spoons and let him naturally find his mouth, no dice. We leave a puddle or a bowl so he can explore and scoop, no dice.

What is frustrating is that I can show him some new feature on a toy and he totally gets it within minutes, and remembers days later, so I don't think it is lack of understanding or ability to comprehend.

He still does not have teeth so we were slow to introduce finger foods, but now I wonder if we waited too long. How can we encourage him to self-feed without a power struggle, we are doing the principle of Ellen Satler (sp?) - Parents provide the food and the child determines how much to eat, and in our case he totally eats like crazy --but only if we feed him. How do we get him to feed himself?

We practice attachment parenting, so don't want to do anything to violate his trust but how do we do this?

Spoon-feeding Mom

The variability in children's development is so wide. Think of all the other things your son has learned to do in the past 14 months. Big deal if he likes it when you feed him- I'm sure in a few months or less he'll be shoving everything in his mouth and making a huge mess. Enjoy the time now when you have control! I'd advise you to keep feeding him yourself and always put some food on his tray so that he can play with it, hold it up for you to comment on, or stick in his mouth. He'll pick it up eventually. At least that's what I keep telling myself- my daughter has been potty-training for a year! Anon

I almost laughed out loud when I read your post, as I wish my daughter were a little LESS interested in self-feeding! I'm kidding, really, it's just that it's SOOOO MESSY when she feeds herself, I prefer when she lets me do it!

I say, don't worry about it, it'll happen when he's ready. He's not going to go to college (or high-school or elementary school) needing you to feed him. He'll probably be feeding himself before he's two, certainly before he's three! You're doing jsut fine, and so is he Alesia

My son similarly was not self-feeding at this age. It was heartbreaking to have his first birthday party and not get to see him stuff cake in his mouth. BUT he was also late crawling, walking, and talking, too. Turns out he had a global developmental delay. Now he's a sassy 7-year-old who's reading but has sloppy handwriting and isn't exactly a star on the playground. My advice would be to ask the Regional Center to assess your child. If there is a delay, you can enroll in one of the many excellent local early intervention programs --Sarah in Oakland

Teaching 15 month old to feed himself

July 2003

I have a 15 month old son who has not learn to feed himself and basically will not try. How should I get him to master this and when should he? Bobbie

Anytime I want my son to do anything eating-related (i.e. try a new food), I've put him in his chair -- perhaps given him his milk or something very ordinary to eat (not his favorite food), and eaten the new thing myself -- expressing pleasure (but not in an overdone way). Pretty soon he is begging for whatever it is. I am wondering if something like this would work for you.

Do you eat your meals where he can see you? Do you use spoons and forks where he can watch, or eat the kind of finger foods he could eat in his presence? If not now, then pretty soon, imitation is going to become his favorite thing to do, so maybe this would do it. Karen