Have you noticed your toddler eyeing your plate at mealtimes or showing signs that they want to feed themselves? If so, they may be ready to eat what the rest of the family eats, as well as use a spoon, and sit at the table with others.

Every child is different, but typically around 12-months old babies are ready to eat meals with the rest of the family. Anywhere between 12-months and 2-years old your baby can learn to use a spoon—a fork and knife skill will come much later.

Toddlers learn a great deal about eating and mealtimes through watching others. When possible, place your child at the table with the rest of the family for meals.

Remember that eating meals together is about much more than eating. A characteristic most strong families have is that they share meals together. Why would this be the case? Mealtime is about connecting, reconnecting, and building strong bonds with each other. When parents strive to make meals fun and enjoyable, children are more likely to develop life long good eating habits. They are more likely to try a new taste in the positive, encouraging tone the parents set for meal time, and parent’s expectations play a big part in this. Knowing that it typically takes around eight tries for a child to enjoy a new food, and that something they like today may become abhorrent to them tomorrow is all part of the process of growing.

Your child is also learning about your family’s culture and traditions through the meals and variety of foods you serve. They are experiencing a sense of belonging when you share your traditional diet or special foods for holidays. From green mashed potatoes on St. Patrick’s day to potato latkes for Hanukkah, your child is becoming a part of your culture.

Preparing for mealtime

It can be helpful for toddlers to have a daily mealtime routine, including three meals and a morning and afternoon snack. Limiting snacking and drinks other than water throughout the day will set up your toddler for successful meals. During routine snacks and meals, you can introduce new foods to your toddler to increase the variety of foods they eat.

There are other ways to make mealtime a success:

  • Have everything ready, including food and plates, before you sit your child in their high chair or booster seat.
  • Serve small portions, offering more as your child asks for it. This helps them tune into their internal feelings of hunger and fullness, and learn to follow their body’s signals.
  • Offer finger foods that can easily be picked up with your toddlers’ hands.  This will help them to feel successful because they can feed themselves. These foods include:
    • Avocados, mashed (for dipping other foods in) or in small pieces
    • Ripe Banana or other fruits
    • Cooked soft broccoli
    • Soft, cooked protein like turkey or whatever your family prefers, cut in small bits
    • Bite size pieces of cheese
    • Bread or toast squares

Encouraging independent eating

In addition to offering finger foods, you can also encourage your child to feed themselves by letting them use a toddler-safe spoon.

Once your child is ready to use a spoon, remember to praise them when they successfully get the food to their mouth. They may need to hold the spoon in their fist at first, rather than how you might hold the spoon. This is okay; as their fine motor skills develop, they will learn to hold the spoon “properly.” At first you might have to help your toddler put food on the spoon and move it from the plate to their mouth. It is common for a toddler to use their fingers to put food on the spoon. Expect that it will take some time to learn this skill, and  always remember to praise when your child is successful. This will take several tries before they become an expert on getting food on the spoon to in their mouth. Expect plenty of spills and a lot of messes. If your toddler is getting frustrated using a spoon, make sure they know that using their hands is still a way to feed themselves. Also, continue to feed them, and show them how you feed yourself with a spoon; this helps their brain to make connections and see how a spoon works. Practicing the motion of holding a spoon and bringing it up to their lips will help your baby learn this skill.

Since your toddler will be trying new foods for the first time, fad foods might become a common thing in your home. A fad food is something that your toddler wants every time they sit down for a meal. If it seems that your toddler only wants to eat one food item for every meal just know that this will not always be the case and things will change. Toddlers can be fussy eaters and they just might like their one meal, but this is common and typically short lived. As long as you set the tone of excitement and fun, and you encourage your toddler to try a variety of healthy foods, the fad food will eventually fade.

It is helpful to remember that our job as parents is to offer and encourage a variety of healthy foods, and it is your toddler’s job to decide what and how much they eat. This will set them up for developing healthy eating habits.

Mealtime is an enjoyable time to socialize and reconnect. This is a time for families to slow down, enjoy what you are eating, and spend time together with the family. Mealtime for toddlers is very busy and sometimes even chaotic but slowing down and taking your time to eat and spend time together, even if your dining room and kitchen are a mess at the end, will be well worth it.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis, and Kalina Glover-Moresi. Parenting Now offers parenting groups and drop-in programs for families with children 0-8, and is passionate about fostering happy, healthy families. 

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