Let Them Play With Food

Who doesn’t melt at the sight of a sauce-covered toddler working hard to feed herself? Me. That’s who. At least when the blood bath happens on my turf. At someone else’s table? ADORABLE!

There you have it. Even my background in developmental psychology, thoughtfully researched knowledge of infant and toddler feeding and passion for spreading food love from the youngest age barely override my deep desire for cleanliness and order. I don’t care how many to-die-for photos I can get from the deal, pasta sauce on my ceiling is NOT cute.

BUT (you knew that was coming, right?), I get over it. And hope you do to. Because self-feeding offers a wonderful opportunity for your child to build skills critical to her physical and social-emotional development. It’s also the best way to avoid force-feeding and know that your child is eating exactly how much she wants. So hand over the spoon!

6-24 Months

Early on, self-feeding provides a fun and easy way to practice manual dexterity (picking things up) and hand-eye (or hand-mouth!) coordination. By around 10 months, your child will start showing some physical improvement, moving from the palmer grasp to the more coordinated pincer grasp. And by around 12 months, your child will start to use their spoon for its real purpose (though you may have to fill it with food and help guide it to her mouth). Your child may not show truly professional finger- and self-feeding skills until she is 18-24 months, but the sense of independence she’ll get from trying in the meantime is invaluable!

2 Years & Up

The fun doesn’t end with mastery. (Oh joy.) As any parent of a little one knows, it’s a challenge to find safe opportunities to let your child exercise the control and independence she desperately craves. Meal time is the perfect chance! And—bonus—she’ll associate positive feelings of empowerment with meal time, which is great for her developing relationship with food. Here’s a great example of how self-feeding can completely change the tenor at mealtime:

Once, when my older son was 2-years-old, I warmed up some veg curry (his favorite at the time). He pushed the bowl away and insisted, “No curry!” When he refuses a meal, I usually offer a quick nutritious alternative like hummus and veggies or fruit with peanut butter. And if that’s a no go, dinner’s over. I refuse to make multiple meals. But, this time, I was taken aback and found myself whipping up a quick fried brown rice with frozen veggies.



NO! No rice!

Just as I was about to declare dinner over, my son said, “I wanna cook.” I gave him both bowls–one with curry, the other with fried rice–and the “cooking” began. In between mixing and spooning the meals together, my son ate a seriously healthy and sizable meal. Disaster averted by handing over the spoon.

What To Make

So, are you with me? If yes, the good news is that you don’t have to change the way you cook to encourage self feeding. It’s simply a matter of knowing what bite size is right for your child and being willing to clean up the mess. Roll up purees, ball leftover rice or pastina (cover in breadcrumbs, sprinkle with oil, and bake for yummy rice balls that freeze well), cube fruits and veggies, or hand over those meatballs or chicken drumsticks.

As for snack time, I continue to be disappointed in the healthy, organic, low sugar options available at the store. So, when I can find the time, I like to make my own finger foods and freeze them. The dough for these homemade cheese crackers is a great example–the dough freezes beautifully. Plus they’re yummier and healthier than the cheddar animals sold in stores. An instant favorite family classic.

Brooke’s Homemade Cheese Crackers

(can be served to kids 8 mos)

1/2 cup organic butter

1/2 lb organic sharp cheddar cheese, grated (the sharper, the better)

1 1/2 cup organic flour

1/2 tsp salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Cream together butter and cheese.

3. Mix flour and salt. Then add flour mixture into cheese and butter mixture. Mix well.

4. Roll dough into 1 inch balls and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten and prick top with a fork.

5. Bake for 12-15 minutes.

–Stacie Billis One Hungry Mama

Kids change the way we cook, but they don’t have to change how well we eat.