Encouraging independent eating

As your toddler enters the ‘me do it’ stage, here’s how to capitalise on that independent streak and encourage him to feed himself

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Your toddler’s independence is growing every day: he’s on the move and communicating, and nowhere is this newfound wilful streak more evident than at the dinner table. Mealtimes are a common occasion for toddlers to assert themselves, and ‘no’ often becomes the standard response to everything you dish up: even old favourites.

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If mealtime becomes a battlefield, there can be only one winner, and it’s not you – so try to stay calm. If your toddler is resisting being fed, then let him feed himself with finger foods or cutlery. Foods he can easily handle himself often become firm favourites, so look for toddler-friendly finger foods that pack a nutritional punch.

Don’t panic if your toddler prefers you to feed him still; each child develops at his own pace. But do give him opportunities to practise feeding himself, for example by giving him finger food snacks between meals.

Fantastic finger foods

Toddlers love to do things themselves, and to get messy, so finger foods tick all the right boxes. By now, he’s likely to be an accomplished enough eater to cope with a finger food meal, so try serving up:

  • Small sandwiches – cheese, jam, cheese spread 
  • Cocktail sausages
  • Hummous and vegetable dips – carrot, cucumber
  • Cubes of cheese
  • Slices of hard-boiled egg
  • Mixed berries – the brighter the better
  • Sliced grapes

Toddlers also enjoy snacking on the go as it gives them a sense of control and keeps their energy levels topped up, so keep a stash of child-friendly nibbles in your bag, such as raisins, unsalted breadsticks, rice cakes and pouches of fruit puree that your tot can slurp himself.

Remember to keep portions manageable: a toddler’s portion is roughly a quarter of an adult’s. Cut food into bite-sized chunks so he can help himself more easily.

Mastering cutlery

As your child becomes more dexterous, encourage him to use his own tableware. There are plenty of options on the market, but buying products that feature a favourite character or colour helps to give him a sense of ownership and will encourage him to enjoy the whole process of mealtimes.

Don’t get frustrated if your child is the only one of his peers who doesn’t seem to be using a spoon. Toddlers develop at different paces, and most children don’t master cutlery properly until they’re around four years old, but practice makes perfect. If he’s reluctant to use a spoon but happy to let you feed him with one, try a few games, such as swapping spoons throughout a meal so he can choose which one to use.

It’s important to give plenty of praise: babies and toddlers respond well to encouragement and love to please. A round of applause every time he manages to spoon a pea into his mouth works wonders.

Eating together

Make mealtimes a family occasion that your toddler can be part of. Pull the high chair up to the table and let him help himself to something from your plate. Toddlers love being with other children and will pick up good eating habits from watching siblings or friends feeding themselves.

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Try not to worry about mess. Stick a big plastic mat under the high chair, buy wipe-clean bibs and just do a big tidy-up when it’s all over. And remember, pick your battles. If cutlery is becoming an issue, let him use his hands. What’s more important at this stage: a healthy, happy child who enjoys his meals, or perfect table manners?

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