Feeding Friday – Giving Your Child Independence

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Cindy Hooks Morrison, M.S., CCC-SLP, CLC

Parents give children independence during play because we know that children learn about the world and how they interact with it through playing.  When it comes to mealtimes, more often than not parents naturally fall into a role of caretaker preparing the meals, serving the meals and cleaning up from the meals to keep the flow of their family schedule on track.  Parents control a lot around mealtime.  We control what the family is going to eat, we control the time of day that they are going to eat each meal and if you are a busy, scheduled family you even control how much time you can allot for actual eating before you need to get out the door for your children’s or families activities.

When children hear, “it’s time to eat” it usually signals to them that the fun needs to be placed on hold and they have work to do at the table.  Allowing some independence can decrease resistance.

Independence is when your child wants to feed themselves even when they may not have the skills to do so.  Just as children want more independence and control over their environment is other ways, feeding is no exception.  Independence is an important part of growing up and overall development.  If your child is not allowed to practice their independent feeding skills, power struggles can develop between parent and child and lead to frustrating mealtimes for the whole family.

It is not uncommon for me to hear in the clinical setting that it’s hard to give children independence because there just isn’t enough time.  Here are some fast, easy and practical ways to give your children independence during mealtimes that do not take a lot of time, but still involve them in the process.  Handing over small bits of control during mealtimes not only helps your child to be a more active part of mealtime, but it helps them to learn about mealtime tools, routines and foods. Most importantly, it creates an easier transition for them when they come into the kitchen or to the table from playing independently.

Give your child “controlled” choices at EVERY mealtime.  Controlled choices means you give a choice knowing that the answer is going to be fine with you no matter what they choose and you let them control the outcome.  For example, “Do you want to use the red spoon or the blue spoon?” or “Do you want to eat a piece of broccoli or meat next?”  In both examples, you are giving your child small amounts of control during mealtime and their choice doesn’t affect the ultimate goal of feeding your family.  A controlled choice allows you to give them some control around mealtime without letting them take over completely.

Ways To Encourage Independence Around Mealtimes:

  • Let your child choose which spoon, fork, bib, bowl or plate they want to use during mealtime.  Most times you can’t offer the choice of what food to eat, so picking these other items can help with cooperation around foods presented at mealtimes.
  • Practice Turn-taking with your child at mealtimes.  Make your mealtime more fun by taking turns watching each others bite choices (i.e. “I think you are going to eat the small piece of chicken next” followed by “Wow, you did!” or “Wow, you surprised me when you chose that carrot instead, great choosing!”  With smaller children, you can take turns feeding each other.  This is a thrill for little ones that are use to you doing the feeding.  Turning the tables makes feeding more fun!
  • Use a suction bowl or plate to allow your children to scoop up food on their own.  A plate or bowl with raised sides is so important, especially when introducing utensils.
  • Let your child help the family get ready to eat by giving out kitchen helper jobs, such as opening containers, stirring, pouring, setting the table or handing out napkins.  Find more kitchen helper jobs here.
  • Let your child get messy and let them eat with their hands and fingers.  Allowing sensory exploration of foods is a crucial part of development and helps your children learn to be open to new foods as they grow.  Learn more about sensory exploration of foods and how you can encourage it here.
  • Even when children are young they still like to participate with you during mealtimes. It’s important to let them have their own spoon to play with while you feed them with another one.  Sets you up as working together as a team during mealtimes from the very start!  Note: Be sure to safe guard them and prevent them from pushing the spoon back too far into their oral cavity.  

Happy Healthy Eating!

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