Little Tiana loves to play with her bowl of porridge. That’s natural because she is 11 months old and getting her first streak of independence, so she refuses to be fed. Her parents find it annoying that she makes a mess, and that there is food all over the baby table and on the floor. Tiana’s mother just did not think it was a good idea to allow her to eat on her own and instead decided to spoon-feed her little one. She needs to understand that such an approach would only delay the learning of an important life skill. So why is it necessary for toddlers to learn to feed themselves? Read on.
Typically, by the time a child is inching towards the first birthday, it is most likely that she will be refusing to be fed and will try to pick up the food from the plate on her own. This is a welcome sign and a cue that it is time to let her try to eat by herself.
Well, it is easier said than done -- in the beginning, toddlers will be able to grasp only bigger pieces with their hands and will slowly graduate to using their fingers to grasp smaller-sized food such as rice. Majority of toddlers manage to hold the spoon by the time they are 16-17 months old. Some of them might take time but will reach there eventually.
Parents sometimes find it easier to just feed the toddler. But remember, you are teaching your child an important life skill and a little patience and encouragement will go a long way. Toddlers learn about different colours and textures, holding and coordination skills and most of all, it is their step towards independence.
“It is important that children are allowed to feed on their own. This way they can feel the food with all their five senses, which is necessary for their development,” says Sugandha Mittal, etiquette expert and founder of Confianza Finishing School, Chennai.
Here are some pointers Sugandha gives to parents for encouraging their little ones to eat on their own --
- Plan a balanced meal for the child and have a fixed mealtime every two to three hours. This way they get the right nutrition.
- Understand when your child gets hungry and give them food at least 15 minutes before that. If you put the food in front of them a little late, they will already be cranky
- Have two bowls of food -- one with food for spilling and another bowl with which the child should feed independently. Make him sit on the high chair and make it colourful by placing spill mats. It’s okay if there is a mess because that is how he will gradually learn to eat.
- Don’t be impatient. Read a book or tell a story, while your toddler is eating. It will keep her engaged.
- Running around while feeding, watching TV or gadgets in a complete no-no while eating.
So how can you get your child to feed herself in a fun and stress-free manner? Follow our cue and you will have her eating out of her own hands in no time --
Get creative for visual appeal
Make trees with broccoli florets and a house with carrot and breadsticks. Arrange cooked peas in a heart-shape -- this will to get them interested in the food. These and many other creative ideas will help when you want to get your little one to eat on her own. Tell her to pick the tree and put it in her mouth. Or make a flower shape with cut up strawberries and ask her to pluck the petals. You can sometimes ask her to put it in your mouth. Teach her to make different shapes with noodles or pasta. It will be like a game and your child will love the fact that she can pick the food with her hands. This is a good way to get a toddler excited to try a variety of food items.
Introduce interesting finger foods
Small children are generally not very open to new foods and may initially refuse unfamiliar ingredients. That does not mean you cannot give them variety. They will eventually start liking at least some of the food that you put in front of them. Go bright and colourful -- steamed beets and peas, carrot and boiled eggs cut in long strips, mashed potatoes, broccoli florets boiled till they are soft, breadsticks, raisins and soft steamed fish. It is always better to cut back on the sugar and salt in baby’s food but there is no harm in adding some herbs and spice to make it interesting -- add a little nutmeg into mashed potatoes or some ginger powder or cinnamon into the steamed apples.
Let him play with his food
Do not be petrified about this. What is a little mess, when your child is learning an important skill? Allowing children to touch and feel the texture of the food, make funny shapes with it and so on will help them immensely while feeding themselves. Show her how to do it in the beginning. Take her hand and put in the bowl, bringing the cereal or veggie up to your mouth. Picking food of different shapes and sizes will also help the little one strengthen her hold. So if there is a little stuff on their clothes, face and floor, don’t fret and just ignore the mess. Watching your toddler grasp and feel the food is really a joy to watch, especially when the little one finally gets a morsel into her mouth.
Play a game
Put a variety of fruits and vegetables in front of your toddler at mealtime and teach him to name all of them. Start with the more familiar ones such as cereal and apples and then go to the new foods that you have introduced, such as beetroot or melon. Then play a game, wherein you ask, “where is beetroot?” and he picks it up and repeats the word. This exciting activity will not only teach the child to put a name to the different foods but also make him familiar with it. When he knows what it is, it is more likely that the child will pick up the food and put it in his mouth.
Get your toddler to mimic at the dining table
One of the best ways to teach a child to eat by herself is to let her watch others do it. This will encourage her to do it on her own. Make this activity more interesting and fun by sitting her down in the high chair with the family at mealtime and watch the fun. Encourage her to mimic you or her siblings. For example - pick up a noodle and put it in your mouth, and watch her do the same. While taking a spoonful from your own plate, encourage her to do the same. Make it an elaborate process and she is sure to enjoy eating by herself on the dining table.
Getting children to eat by themselves can be a slow process and needs a lot of time and attention from the parent. But once they learn how to do it, you will be happy seeing how easily they put the food in their mouth.
Also read our article on table manners: