Self feeding can be a difficult skill to master as it requires good postural control, fine motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination. Some children may have difficulty using cutlery neatly. With regular practice most children will get the hang of using cutlery by the age of 7. Many others need more practice and specific help in order to gain these skills.
Have a look at our advice sheet about using a knife and fork for further information.
Some children may benefit from additional equipment to make meal times easier, these may include cutlery with chunkier handles to improve grasp and control such as Caring Cutlery, or even a Dycem Non Slip Mat to help stabilise their plate or bowl. These can be especially useful when they are learning to load a spoon or cut with a knife.
Learning to use a combination of cutlery can be difficult, and before they are ready to use a knife and fork children need to follow a developmental sequence and acquire the following skills:
Positioning: It is important that the child is seated on a suitable chair, ideally at a height where their feet can reach the floor. You could place a box or a step if this is not possible. Ensuring a stable seating position will make it easier for the child to use their hands to use cutlery.
Finger feeding: Offer small bite sized pieces on a plate or in a bowl, this can help develop hand eye coordination skills.
Using a spoon: Provide opportunities to use a spoon away from mealtimes e.g. scooping up sand or water in the bath, drumming with pots and pans, scooping up dried food. Once they are ready to use a spoon at mealtimes, be prepared for a mess! Start by loading the spoon yourself, and when the child is ready to load themselves choose food that will stick to the spoon e.g. yogurt or mashed potato. A bowl with higher sides may also help with scooping and loading. Try taking turns with the scooping so that the child doesn't become frustrated, especially if they're hungry. Hand over hand guidance can help perfect skills and allow plenty of time to practice.
Using a fork: Allow the child to practice stabbing food with the fork, try using a bowl before progressing to a plate. Hand over hand guidance might help.
Learning to use a knife: Start using a plastic knife away from mealtimes e.g. to cut plastic food, or to cut play dough. Once they have mastered pushing the knife down, let them have a go on soft foods such as a banana. You can then progress to teaching the sawing motion required to cut through tougher food such as meat. Try not to let the child put the cutlery down, if their hands are free they're more likely to revert to picking the food up! Again, hand over hand guidance can help them feel the sawing motion.
Using a knife and fork together requires the child to use their hands together in a co-ordinated manner, something many children find difficult. The following activities use some of the same skills necessary for using cutlery. They will give the child the opportunity to practice these skills away from mealtimes.
Online videos to help with using cutlery:
How to use the Caring Cutlery