Fingers. One day, when my son was just a bit over 12 months, I gave him some Cheerios on his high chair tray. But this time, instead of grabbing a fistful and trying to eat the Cheerios clinging to his sticky hand, I saw him do something different. He started picking up the Cheerios very carefully, one at a time, between his thumb and forefinger. One by one, he carefully chose a single Cheerio and successfully steered it to his mouth. That's when I realized it was time to start teaching him how to use a spoon himself.
Spoons. When my baby started on solid food, he didn’t have a clue about how to eat it. I become very adept at spooning up the mush from jars and pouches and directing it as neatly as possible into his mouth. I was slightly horrified the first time my baby stuck a chubby fist into his bowl, grabbed a messy handful of whatever was in there, and even more messily tried to navigate it to his mouth. More food undoubtedly was deposited on his cheeks, in his hair, and on his clothing.
But I tried not to protest too much, because that’s when I realized he was taking his first steps towards eating independently. It takes time for babies to develop good hand-eye coordination, and those first fistfuls of food are part of the process. While I was feeding my baby, I showed him the spoon, made sure he watched how I used it to feed him, and let him hold it in between bites. This made him comfortable with the utensil long before he was actually able to feed himself.
That doesn't mean messy mealtimes were over. Far from it. In fact, my kid didn’t really have the coordination to hold a spoon, fill it with food, and get it in his mouth neatly until he was around 18 months old. But that mess is part of the learning process.
Forks. Finessing a fork comes a little bit later for several reasons. Babies don't start out eating food that can be speared with a fork right away. I was also sure not to give my little one a fork too early since there was the potential that he may injure himself. When I decided to offer my child a fork, I was sure to choose one specially made for toddlers, with short, dull tines.
These early mealtimes are labor intensive for both of you, but soon enough your toddler will be able to feed himself well enough that the whole family will be able to enjoy eating together.
Beth Weinhouse is an award-winning journalist who specializes in writing about parenting issues and women's health. She's been an editor at Ladies' Home Journal and Parenting magazines, and her work has appeared in dozens of consumer magazines and websites.
Parenting advice is given as a suggestion only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider.