Mealtimes are an essential part of family life. You can help your child develop self-feeding skills from an early age. It can be a complex task for some children and its quite common for children to have difficulties with self feeding and cutlery skills.
It can take until 7 years old before a child can efficiently and effectively feed themselves without being too messy.
How to help your child with mealtimes
Think about where your child sits to eat. Make sure they have enough support while seated at the table to allow them to use their hands efficiently The best position is to:
- sit up, with bottom back in the chair
- feet flat on the floor
- the table at about elbow height.
This will ensure your child can safely use their cutlery.
You should also:
- establish a routine for mealtimes
- create a structured environment and minimise distractions
- allow plenty of time
- encourage your child to help prepare the meal
- use visual cues
- give responsibility, for example, setting and clearing the table.
Think about the utensils you use. Children find spoons or forks with thick and/or textured handles much easier to hold. Caring Cutlery for example, has moulded plastic handles with indents to guide where to place index fingers.
Place a non-slip mat underneath the bowl or plate to prevent it sliding when your child learns to use cutlery.
Plates with rims can also help to stop food slipping off the plate.
How to help your child use a knife and fork
It’s a complex skill as each hand does a different action but must coordinate together. Highlight the different actions of each hand. Hold the knife in your ‘writing’ hand and fork in the other hand.
- encourage your child to hold the knife in the hand they use to write, as this will give more control
- hold the knife and fork so that the pointy fingers point down the cutlery
- encourage the child to keep their index fingers straight on the knife / fork for a stable grasp
- show the child how to ‘stab’ the food with the fork
- place the blade of the knife against the back of the fork. Some children find it useful to refer to it as ‘kiss’ as the knife ‘kisses’ the fork
- move the hand that holds the knife back and forth to create a ‘sawing’ motion and maintain constant contact between the knife and fork
- remind the child to verbalise ‘stab’, ‘kiss’ and ‘saw’ to provide an additional verbal and auditory prompt.
You can also encourage play opportunities to practice chopping and cutting skills using playdough or putty. It’s also a good idea to practice on softer food at mealtimes, for example boiled potatoes and bananas.
Adults can also help children by:
- allowing plenty of time during mealtimes
- giving support until you feel your child is making progress
- use the hand over hand approach to physically assist the child
- doing the task alongside your child
- talking through each step of the process
The backward chaining method can also help by breaking down each task into small steps and teaching children the last step first. Once they can do the last step of the task, teach them the second to last step, then the third to last step and so on.
Textures and sensation
Eating is an experience which involves all our senses. We all process sensory information differently and food involves many factors including the look, smell, texture, taste and the noise it makes when we eat it. For some children, it’s necessarily the sensory element that restricts their diet but their dislike of change and preference for sameness.
Things to remember
Children’s dislike for certain foods can come from the consistency of certain foods, for example a certain flavour / brand of crisps will always taste the same. When eating fruits or vegetables, it’s not always consistent in taste due to ripeness or a particular variety of apple for example.