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Tamariki are developing quickly around this age and many toddlers want to do many more things independently. Feeding themselves may be one of them.

Independence and skills

Tamariki this age are becoming aware that they’re separate from their parents, and they want to decide things for themselves. Their fine motor skills are improving, and they can pick up food and put it in their mouth without help.

Strenthening small muscle skills | Tākai

Whakatipu booklet Te Pihingā 3 (page 6) says ‘We've started to give finger foods and they're loving the chance to feed themselves.’

Making up their own mind about eating

Their appetite may decrease as their growth slows a little. With their increasing sense of independence, they may sometimes resist eating or refuse food, which can be hard for parents. Encourage whānau to avoid turning meal times into a battle, with mum or dad using threats or treats to get their toddler to eat.

It's important that tamariki learn to recognise when they’ve had enough – this helps them develop a healthy attitude towards food and to understand what it’s like to feel full.

And just like adults, tamariki will prefer some foods over others.

Offer only healthy food choices

The parent's job is to offer their toddler a range of healthy foods to eat. If only healthy food is offered to a child, that’s what they’ll eat.

A toddler’s job is to choose which food to eat and how much. When they stop eating or are throwing food on the floor intentionally, that’s a sign they’ve probably had enough and parents can remove that food and offer something else. If that’s rejected, the child has probably eaten enough and parents can calmly remove their child’s plate and could even say, ‘You look like you’ve had enough’, giving them the clear message that meal time is over.

Strategies to cope with the mess

Toddlers who are learning to feed themselves will make a mess, which can be hard for some parents. Help whānau feel better about it by seeing it as part of a milestone they should celebrate.

To make the clean-up easier, whānau could spread an old sheet or some newsletter underneath the spot where their toddler is eating to protect the floor. Afterwards, the sheet can be shaken outside or washed, or the newspaper can be thrown out.

Sharing mealtimes together

Mealtimes are a chance for the whānau to be together. When everyone eats the same thing at the same time, it helps a toddler learn that eating is a family-focused routine, rather than something that happens ‘to them’.

Some tamariki may want to use a spoon but they might still need some help. If the parent has a spoon too, they can make sure the child gets enough to eat while they're happily learning to manage their own spoon.

When children approach 2 years old, parents can offer a range of finger foods, a little at a time, until their child shows they’ve had enough. Leftover food can be covered and stored in a container in the fridge, and offered again later.

Hungry? Or something else?

Understanding their child’s hunger cues can help parents determine if their child needs food, or instead may need something else, like comfort or a sleep.

Understanding baby's cues | Tākai

Because New Zealand's childhood obesity rates are increasing, it’s important that parents don’t get into the habit of offering food as a way to distract or comfort their child. Their time and attention is much better for kids than second helpings or treats.

Other resources

Eating for healthy babies and toddlers | HealthEd(external link)

Well Child Tamariki Ora: My health book | HealthEd(external link)

Fussy or picky eating | Ministry of Health(external link)

Feeding | Plunket Whānau Āwhina(external link)