Children’s growing independence means they want to do things for themselves. Learning to feed themselves is messy but parents can make it a positive experience.

Children are becoming more independent at this age. They realise they’re a separate person from their parents and capable of doing many things by themselves. This is part of normal, healthy toddler development.

In the Whakatipu booklet Te Pihinga 3 (page 15), pēpi says: ‘I like to do things myself, just like Māui Tikitiki.’

If it’s appropriate, read the pakiwaitara (legend) called ‘Te-ika-a-Māui’ in Te Pihinga 3 (page 28).

Māui is the youngest brother and has a mind of his own. Because his brothers won’t let him go on their fishing trips, he secretly makes a fish hook and creeps onto their waka. Māui then fishes up the North Island (Te-Ika-a-Māui).

Like Māui, toddlers watch their whānau and will try copying what they’re doing – like feeding themselves.

Ask whānau:

  • What behaviours have you been noticing in your toddler lately?
  • Are you seeing signs that they have ideas about what they can do by and for themselves?
  • What are those signs?
  • Does your child want to feed themselves yet?
  • Yes – Do they use their fingers, fork or spoon?
  • No – Are you keen for them to start?
  • Why?

Self-feeding challenges

Often toddlers make a mess when they’re learning to feed themselves (especially with kai that’s soft and drippy), and this puts parents off.

Also, it can be hard to tell how much has actually been eaten, especially when you see how much has missed their mouth. But feeding yourself is another important skill that all humans need to learn sooner or later. However, how it’s done differs from home to home. Some families only use their hands to eat, others use knives and forks, others use chopsticks, and so on.

  • What does your family use to eat with?
  • How will your toddler learn to eat and with what?
  • How might you:
    • let them practise getting food into their mouth by themselves?
    • make sure they get enough to eat?
    • make cleaning up easier afterwards?

Learning to feed themselves

Here’s some things for parents to consider when their toddler is learning to feed themselves:

  • Food offers opportunities for experimentation, so expect some mess and take precautions to protect the floor, furniture and clothing.
  • Provide food they can pick up with their fingers or poke a little fork into.
  • If they’re scooping from a bowl, parents can have a spoon for the child and one for themselves or provide finger food for them while parents use the spoon.
  • Practice makes progress, so the more practice they get, the faster they’ll learn and the sooner mess will decrease.
  • Avoid battles over food and mealtimes – you can’t force a toddler to eat.
  • Beware of using food as a reward or letting battles over food escalate as that can set up unhealthy eating patterns, which may last a lifetime.
  • Appreciate that this is a great way for them to learn hand–eye co-ordination, and feeding themselves will help them to feel good about their achievements – just like Māui did about his!

Helpful resources for whānau