Before your child can start eating on their own, they’ll have to learn how to use a spoon, fork, knife, and cup.
A child who is learning to feed themself starts by using their fingers to pick up food and bring it to their mouth. As they develop their coordination and fine motor skills, they’ll learn to drink from a cup and eat with a spoon. Later, they’ll learn how to use a fork, and eventually they’ll be able to use a knife as well.
If your child is less than 1 year old, see our fact sheet on Learning to eat and drink independently (in French).
Skills a child needs to feed themself
To successfully drink from a cup and use utensils, a child needs to be able to pick these objects up and hold them securely. Next, they need to learn how to properly handle them so they can use them to eat and drink.
To be able to eat and drink like a grown-up, a child must develop the following skills:
- Coordinate their actions to drink from a cup and pick up food in order to bring it to their mouth
- Control their movements while using a fork or spoon or drinking from a cup (to avoid making a mess)
- Know how much food to pick up with their fork or spoon (so that it will fit in their mouth)
- Accurately perceive how much space they have when pouring liquid into a cup
Even if they make a mess when eating or drinking alone, it’s important to let your child practise so they can develop the skills they need. Through trial and error, they’ll gradually learn how to use utensils and drink from a cup properly.
At what age should a child be able to drink on their own?
Around 1 to 2 years old, a child can learn to hold a cup and drink by themself. To make it easier for them, it’s best to choose a small, narrow cup that fits their small hands and mouth. The smaller the opening, the better the chances are that whatever liquid is in the cup will get into their mouth without dripping everywhere.
Asking a young child to drink from a regular glass or mug is sort of like asking an adult to drink from a bucket—it’s just too big!
Cups the size of a shot glass work well for toddlers, as do mugs with two handles. As your child grows, they can start using larger cups.
When you start introducing liquids other than breast milk after 6 months of age, Health Canada recommends using an open mug or cup rather than a receptacle with a spout or spillproof lid. Drinking from a cup is safe and easy to learn, and should be encouraged as of the age of 6 months. When a child is that young, and for many months after that, an adult will obviously need to hold the cup for them.
Cups and mugs without lids allow your child to practise tilting them to drink without spilling, unlike sippy cups, which won’t spill even if they’re turned upside down. If their cup is at least three-quarters full, they’ll be able to drink just by tilting it slightly. On the other hand, if there’s only a small amount of liquid in the cup, they’ll have to tilt it more and are more likely to make a mess.
Try not to give them sippy cups and mugs, since they will delay the process. Also, with sippy cups, kids wind up holding liquids in their mouths for longer, which increases the risk of cavities when you give them anything other than water.
Around the age of 4, children should be able to pour milk or water from a small pitcher, provided it’s not too heavy or too full.
At what age should a child be able to use utensils?
Eating with a spoon is difficult and requires good amount of coordination. A child has to put the food on the spoon and then bring it to their mouth without dropping it. They also have to be able to successfully put the spoon and its contents in their mouth.
A child who is learning to eat according to the principles of self-feeding will start developing hand-mouth coordination around the age of 6 months. Other children can also practise bringing food to their mouth around this age. By developing this skill with their hands first, children will find it easier to handle a spoon.
The first few times a child attempts to do this, it’s normal for the spoon to be almost empty by the time it reaches their mouth. More often than not, they’ll make a mess. Using a spoon takes practice. Little by little, their hand-eye coordination will improve, and around age 2, they’ll be able to feed themself without making too much of a mess.
A toddler learns a lot by observing and imitating the people who eat with them. To help them learn how to eat with a spoon, you can show them what to do step by step, in slow motion.
A child is usually ready to use a fork by the time they’re around 3 years old. At this age, a toddler learns to pick at food and crush soft food.
They should be able to eat all their meals on their own, without making a mess, around age 4. They’ll also be able to cut certain soft foods with their fork.
Show your little one how to cut play dough with a dull knife so they can learn how to use this utensil.
Once they’ve learned how to eat with a fork, they’ll probably want to use a knife, too. You can start by letting them use a knife to spread something on a slice of bread. Eventually, they can use a knife to cut softer foods, such as cooked vegetables. By age 6, children are typically able to cut tougher foods, like meat.
What should you do if your child still prefers to eat with their fingers? Touching food allows a child to learn more about it and discover different textures. It’s important to let them do this. That said, if your child refuses to use a spoon for anything at all, try giving them foods that are hard to eat without one, such as oatmeal, soup, or shepherd’s pie. Encourage and praise them when they use utensils, while respecting their choice to use their fingers, especially if they’re under the age of three. You can still teach them to eat without making a mess and throwing food on the floor or getting it in their hair. To encourage them, have them “spoon-feed” their stuffed animals. This will help them practise, and they might even start to like it!
Things to keep in mind
Children learn by watching their parents. Imitating their actions enables them develop new skills.
Your child might make messes while learning to eat by themself, but it’s important to encourage them and let them practise.
Using cups and utensils that fit your child’s small hands will help them learn and keep messes to a minimum.
Scientific review: Stéphanie Côté, M.Sc., nutritionist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir Team
Updated: September 2021
Photo: 123rf.com/Pavla Zakova