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How to Encourage Self-Feeding and Building Independence During Meals

Thanks to Bridget from Montessori in Motion for sharing her wisdom about feeding practices with us!

Many parents start to think about encouraging independent eating a month or two after introducing solids to their child. By this point, we realize how wonderful it would be for our children to feed themselves (and to eat what we give them!) If you are reading this after you have already introduced solids, great! It’s never too late to start incorporating more Montessori practices at mealtimes. If you have a newborn or are pregnant and wondering if you are reading this too early, you’re not! Fostering independence around food can start at birth. 

After birth, when our baby first communicates to us that they are hungry, we show them respect by listening to their hunger cues and never forcing milk or formula past when they indicate that they are full. Feeding on demand helps infants to learn what it feels like to be hungry and full and lets them know that they are in control of feeding themselves, with our help. 

As babies progress to solids, designing a Montessori dining space for them sets up independent eating from the beginning. A small weaning table and chair that allows children to sit with their feet on the floor lets them take a bigger role in their meals. As soon as babies can sit independently, they can start using a weaning table. One of the best parts of a weaning table is that it grows with your child. Babies can let us know that they are hungry by moving to the table independently and even getting into their own chair. When they become toddlers, this small table allows them to set the table, serve themselves, and clean up on their own.

Toddler place setting at weaning table

Many families choose to use both a weaning table and also a high chair at the dining room table to enjoy meals as a family. The high chair should rest at proper table height and ideally should not have a tray attachment. We love this one from Stokke for its flexibility and longevity.

In either case, setting the table with the Monti Kids dining set gives your child perfectly sized dishes and utensils. The place setting placemat helps them learn where to put their dishes down after using them and learn to set the table independently as toddlers!

Baby independently using cup
Dining set included in Monti Kids Level 2 Subscription Box

How the table is set in a Montessori eating space also encourages independence. As soon as a baby is ready to start solid foods, they are ready to use utensils. Set the table with the proper utensils for the food being given with each meal. Since our children have watched us use utensils their whole lives, they don’t need a lesson on how to use them, but they do need to be given a chance to practice.

Start with a spoon by dipping the spoon into a puree or soft food and then holding it out to your child so that the spoon is pointing up toward the ceiling. Then, once your baby grabs it with their fist, they can independently put it into their mouth.

As your baby grows and becomes more coordinated, you can load a spoon or fork and rest it on their dish for them to pick up independently. It is helpful to have two utensils during this stage to have one to load while your child uses the other.

Eventually, your child will start to load their utensils on their own. Some children find it easier to use a fork first since loading it with food requires a simple spearing motion. Learning how to turn the spoon horizontally before dipping is a more complex movement and is often mastered after the fork. In both cases, a dish with a rim allows them to press the food between the utensil and the dish’s rim to load it more successfully.

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Babies and toddlers will still often choose to eat with their hands, and that is ok! Meal times are a wonderful time for your child to work on their pincer grip and coordination. So while it is important to offer utensils and give babies and toddlers the chance to practice using them, we don’t expect them to use them all of the time.

Offer water in a small, open cup that can be held in one hand. Keeping a small amount of water in the glass limits spills while your baby learns to drink from the cup. Keep a small pitcher on hand so that you can refill it as needed. Giving a baby or toddler an open cup is certainly a wet experience, but it is amazing to see how quickly they learn to drink from the cup independently!

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As they grow, your child will likely enjoy helping to prepare meals and snacks. Preparing food together is a way to help spark an interest in eating new foods and is a wonderful practical life activity. More than anything, take time to enjoy preparing and eating meals with your child. Talk about your day, ask questions, and spend time enjoying each other’s company. This mealtime ritual will be a time that you both look forward to each day for years to come.

When children are allowed to do things for themselves, they gain pride in their abilities and build determination and focus, which will carry on into all other aspects of their lives.

By feeding themselves, children learn to listen to what their bodies are telling them, trust their bodies, and know what it feels like to be full. Learning to listen to their bodies is an essential skill that carries over into toilet learning and social-emotional development.

For more detailed information about encouraging independent eating and setting up a Montessori dining space and kitchen, check out A Complete Guide to a Montessori Kitchen: Everything you need to know to set up a Montessori kitchen and dining space, give your toddler independence in the kitchen, and raise a joyful, respectful eater 

Montessori in Motion

Montessori in Motion

Bridget is a Montessori mama and co-author of The Montessori Guide, a month-by-month guide for helping parents use Montessori at home. She shares inspiration for using Montessori at home with young children.

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