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My Toddler Won’t Feed Himself! 5 Expert Strategies You Need!

By Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH | Updated: 27 October 2021

Do you feel like screaming "my toddler won't feed himself and I don't know what to do!" to anyone who will listen?

Are your mealtimes turning into battlegrounds?

Are you worrying about if this phase will ever end?

If yes, then you're in the right place! This article is going to explain and answer all your questions with regard to the stages of independent feeding and give you the 4 STRATEGIES to help your toddler learn to feed themselves to end dinner time battles!

My Toddler Won’t Feed Himself!

Just imagine how great it will be when your toddler will be able to feed themselves with cutlery without your constant nagging!

Well... Here's how you get there!

Help! My Toddler Won't Feed Himself!

Before we being... I want you to know that you are NOT ALONE. 

There are a lot of toddlers out there who do not want to feed themselves and seem uninterested in food.

In fact... I am a parent who has experienced this with my own son!

I found myself saying "Help! My toddler won't feed himself!" throughout his second year and I will be explaining more about what happened and what we did to fix it later on in the article!

So, remember, please don't worry, it will all work out OK.

Why Does My Toddler Refuse to Feed Himself?

So, your toddler will have to go through certain stages in order to reach the point where they can feed themselves with a spoon or fork.

It is expected that most children by the age of 2 should be able to feed themselves independently but if your toddler is not doing so, you need to look at the reasons why.

So, ask yourself:

  • Did you start with infant lead weaning from an early age?
  • Has your toddler ever learnt to finger feed ?
  • Does your toddler mostly eat alone?
  • Have you always fed your toddler up until now?
  • Is your toddler a very fussy eater?
  • Does your toddler not like feeling messy?
  • Are meal times often a battle ground?
13 month old Featured Image

Any or a combination of the above could be the root cause of your toddler refusing to feed themselves. But they're all handled in the same way and I'll explain how with my 5 STRATEGIES to help your toddler feed themselves later in the article.

the 3 Stages of Feeding

First off let’s look at the stages of learning to feed independently. 

If you haven't already gone through this process until now, you might simply need to show your toddler how to feed themselves by going back to basics. 

The three stages of independent feeding are: 

  1. Eating with fingers,
  2. Using a spoon, 
  3. Self-feeding with a fork.

Start by offering your toddler finger foods that they can easily eat independently. Such as vegetable or mozzarella sticks, chopped up fruit and pieces of pasta.

Next, let them hold onto a spoon whilst you are feeding them so that they can have a go if they want to but there is no pressure on them if they don't.

You can then try loading the spoon with food and resting if on the side of the plate for them to feed themselves.

Although this still requires you to do most of the work, it is one step closer to getting your toddler to feed independently. Remember to celebrate enthusiastically everytime they use the spoon.

Once they have got the hang of using the spoon, introduce a fork and follow the same loading process until they are able to do it themselves.

Top Tip

Don’t ban finger feeding if feel your toddler is old enough to use a spoon. 

If they're not feeding themselves, it may be because they feel pressured to use a utensil. Just encourage the use of a spoon but don’t turn it into a battle.

5 STRATEGIES To Help Your Toddler Learn To Feed Himself

If your toddler refuses to feed themselves, here are my top 5 techniques to help get them comfortable with feeding themselves!

It's important to remember that teaching your toddler to use utensils is not an overnight process and you will need to be patient and consistent so stick with your techniques and they'll be eating independently soon enough!

1. Eat Together 

If your toddler eats their meals at different times to you it's very easy to focus on what they're NOT doing. Therefore, eating together may encourage them to eat by themselves.

Toddlers love to copy others so watching others eat and enjoy their food may be all it takes to encourage them to feed themselves!

As I briefly mentioned earlier, at mealtimes, start by loading the spoon or fork with food and leave it resting on the side of your toddler's plate to use if they wish. Then focus on eating your meal yourself. 

If your toddler feels that they are not being forced to feed themselves by having your full attention, then the chances are they will gradually just join in and start feeding independently like everyone else.

2. Don't Make A Big Deal Out Of Their Behaviour

This is a big one. Do not to make a big deal about them NOT eating independently

Get on with your meal and chat about the day, without focusing on whether your toddler is feeding themselves or not. 

Again, if your toddler feels less pressure to eat a certain way, you may be surprised by how easily they will then feed themselves!

3. Be OK with making a mess

The process of learning to feed yourself is a messy one. And it is really important to let your toddler make a mess when they are learning to feed themselves! 

If you have not allowed them to do this, then your little one may find it hard to experiment when feeding themselves.

Remember, the emphasis is on self feeding and NOT how tidily it can be done. (That can come later!)

On the other hand... some toddlers don’t like to be messy. 

And if your toddler falls into this category, then until they are old enough to use a spoon and fork properly, you will probably have to do most of the feeding. 

However, once your little one has the fine motor skills, you should encourage them to feed themselves by loading the spoon or fork first and make sure your toddler has a tissue to wipe their face and hands with to avoid a distressed, messy meltdown.

4. Make food fun!

Another way to encourage your toddler to feed themselves is to make food fun!

  • Cut sandwiches into funny and interesting shapes, 
  • Arrange food on the plate that has a face and then get your toddler to point at the nose and eyes,
  • Make trees with broccoli and flower petals from strawberry slices and ask them to pluck the petals. 

The possibilities are endless! Just let your imagination lead the way!

This way mealtimes become exciting and something your toddler looks forward to. And if they can interact with their food, they are more likely to feed themselves too!

5. Get them involved in the process

As your toddler gets older, encourage them to help prepare the food they are going to eat.

You can start with simple baking and move onto more elaborate meals as they get older. Ask them what they would like to eat but be careful not to offer too many options.

Ask if they would like ham or cheese in a sandwich and which order the sandwich should be layered in or if they would like to help mix up the bolognese sauce you're making for dinner.

By participating in the making of the food your toddler will be more likely to want to eat it.

5 Top Strategies To Help Your Toddler Learn To Feed Themselves (1)

Fussy eater or Food Aversion?

Another reason your toddler may not be feeding themselves is that they are just not that interested in food or have an aversion to food.

While all toddlers can be picky about certain foods, some are particularly fussy or may even have a food aversion.

If this is the case, their desire to eat will be decreased and they may only eat if you are helping them.

Top Tip

It is important to always offer your toddler food in the high chair or at the table.

Don't feed your child in front of the TV or while they are wandering around the room.

During all my years as a nanny I never come across a single child that was any more than the occasionally picky eater... HOWEVER, my own son was a different story!

As I mentioned before, I've been through this exact process with my own son and in the beginning it took me a while to realise that he actually had a food aversion which resulted in him gagging on mushy foods. This made weaning rather difficult!

He refused to eat anything that was mushy such as porridge, mash potato and even banana. He would only eat dry food with my encouragement and support! 

It took a long time to teach him to eat independently and be OK with me not getting the food ready on a utensil for him.

So, here's my advice based off what I did... If your toddler shows signs of not liking certain food textures then don’t force them to eat them.

Offer them healthy foods alternatives that they do like even if that is not a huge variety. As long as they are eating a few foods from across the nutritional food categories you're doing fine. 

The KEY is to take the pressure off your toddler and get them interested in the food they will be eating.

Then once your toddler knows that you're NOT going to give them a 'horrible' food, you can begin to teach them to feed themselves in confidence.

my-toddler-won't-feed-himself-Featured-Image

In Conclusion

I know it can be hard... Especially when your friend's toddler eats anything and everything and your toddler shows no interest in food and will only eat if you feed them. 

I've been there and it's not fun.

But, remember, this is completely normal and can happen to anyone.

So, here's a quick recap on what you can do if your toddler is a reluctant self feeder by age:

12-18 months

If your 1 year old refuses to feed himself then make sure you are offering them lots of opportunities to finger feed.

At this age, your toddler may not be able to use a spoon efficiently and if they are starving, using a spoon will be too slow or frustrating for them.

As they move towards 18 months, let them hold a spoon while you feed them and encourage them to join in too.

By 18 months, you can load the spoon for them and they may be able to put the spoon into their mouth themselves, with you doing some of the work.

2-3 Years

If your 2 or 3 year old won't feed themselves then continue to encourage self feeding by offering plenty of finger foods and continue to load the spoon or fork for them as before.

It is important not to turn mealtimes into a battle ground. It is a battle you will not win.

Take the focus off your toddler's unwillingness to feed themselves and ensure that your toddler has regular mealtimes where they sit at a table and have at least one meal a day with the rest of the family.

Encourage them to copy you and make a game of eating. Make food fun by producing plates of food in interesting shapes and designs to help your toddler engage with what is on their plate!

Top Tip

Remember, this is just a phase.

Remain patient and consistent and the skill will come.

How many adults do you know who cannot feed themselves?

And that's my top tips for helping a toddler to learn to feed themselves!

I hope you found this post about "My toddler won't feed themselves" helpful and will begin implementing one of the 5 STRATEGIES I've outlined starting today!

If you have any other questions about helping your toddler to feed independently or if you have any post topics you'd like me to write about, be sure to to drop me an email at [email protected], I love to hear from you!

So until next time, happy parenting! 

Teething to Tantrums Author

Paula McLaren is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the childcare industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

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Do you feel like screaming “my toddler won’t feed himself and I don’t know what to do!” to anyone who will listen? If yes, then we’re here to help!