I’m embarrassed to admit it, but even just the mention of “self-feeding” makes me shudder. Given my background in child development and expertise in infant and toddler feeding, it’s scandalous to say so, but it’s true!
I’m also a neat freak and my desire for cleanliness and order barely override what I know to be true: self-feeding is a powerful opportunity for children to build skills critical to their physical, social, and emotional development.
So, as much as I loathe the mess, I hand over the spoon. And you should, too. Here’s why:
For Kids 6- to 24-Months
Early on, self-feeding provides a fun and easy way to practice manual dexterity (picking things up) and hand-eye (or hand-mouth) coordination. By around 10 months, your child will start showing physical improvement, moving from the palmer grasp (using all of your fingers to pull items into your palm the way you might while wearing a mitten) to the more coordinated pincer grasp (using your pointer finger and thumb to pick things up in a more exact way).
By around 12 months, your child will start to use her spoon for its real purpose, though you may still have to fill it with food and help guide it to her mouth. Your child may not show truly professional self-feeding skills until she is 18- to 24-months-old, but the sense of independence she’ll get from trying is invaluable! Plus, self-feeding is the best way to avoid force-feeding and to know that your child is getting exactly how much her body needs.
For Kids 2-Years & Up
Though your child will likely have mastered self-feeding by 2-years-old, the fun doesn’t end there! Kids 2-years-old and up are constantly looking for opportunities to exercise control and independence and mealtime is a perfect chance for them to do so safely. Allowing your child to associate positive feelings of empowerment with mealtime is great for her developing relationship with food.
There still need to be rules in place, of course, but the dinner table offers a wide-open space for fair negotiation. Eating your vegetables may not be negotiable, for example, but giving kiddo an empty bowl and allowing her to choose a vegetable from a variety of options can be a great approach!
Other than steeling yourself for a bit of a mess, self-feeding is as simple as serving healthy foods, knowing what texture or bite size is safest for your child, and letting her go to town. Try making soft veggie pancakes, balling leftover rice or pastina (cover in breadcrumbs, spray with oil and bake for yummy rice balls that freeze well), cubing fruits and veggies, or handing over meatballs.
For snack time, consider making big batches of lower sugar treats that freeze well. This also allows you to control the size and texture, ensuring that their snack foods are safe at any age. I keep homemade cheese crackers and mini muffins—like these Zucchini Muffins or Sweet Potato Muffins—in my freezer at all times.
When you know that the foods you’re offering are wholesome and healthy, it’s easier to let go of a little bit of control and allow your little one to self feed, which just might cut down mealtime meltdowns. That’s worth any mess.
Looking for more recipes and ideas? Overwhelmed by starting solids? Join the “Starting Solids 101” program for expectant moms and moms to babies up to 12-months-old. Participants get exclusive 6-month access to my private Starting Solids 101 group where they have me “on call” to answer questions, share the latest research on infant feeding, and cut through the heaps of information and opinions on how to feed baby safely. We also have one hour-long Q&A call a month so that you can get in-depth answers. It’s like having a family feeding expert on speed dial, plus a new community of moms who care as much about starting baby on a healthy eating adventure as you.
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