Occupational Therapist – knife and fork skills

By September 28, 2018 May 14th, 2023 Occupational Therapy
Children working with Occupational Therapist in Occupational Therapy clinic in Bondi Junction and Mascot learning to use knife and fork

Why is using a knife and fork important?

Parents often ask about teaching their child to use a knife and fork.

Mealtimes are an important aspect of family and social life. Most cultures use food as a part of bringing their communicate together. Its important that children can participate appropriately in these social situations. Not every culture uses cutlery. However, in cultures where cutlery use is expected, it is important that children learn this skills by the correct age.

Learning to eat with a knife and fork is a gross motor, fine motor and social skill. When children eat with a knife and fork they show that they have the gross and fine motor skills for the task. They show that they have learned the social convention of using cutlery. Parents get embarrassed when their children don’t have proper table manners. Kids get teased when they still use their fingers.

Why do some children find it hard?

Learning how to use a knife and fork together is pretty tricky. Some kids need more help and more opportunities to practice learning this skill. Using a knife and fork is quite a complex task that involves co-ordinating both hands to execute a series of movements in smooth and efficient way. Children who have difficulty with cutlery will have trouble I some or all of the following areas:

  • scooping food onto a spoon
  • cutting with a knife and fork
  • lifting the food from the plate to the mouth without it spilling or falling off

Learning to use cutlery can be very tiring for some children. This can lead to tantrums and a complete refusal to use any cutlery.

When you breakdown the steps and give the children lots of practice, often away from mealtimes, the this becomes easier.

Which can result in tantrums and refusal to use cutlery altogether!

When do I start teaching my child to use a knife and fork?

Start introducing cutlery when your child start solids. We suggest the 3 spoon method. Have one spoon for you to feed your child, one spoon for the child to use, and the third spoon replaces the one that inevitably falls on the floor.

Babies show interest in feeding themselves between 6 and 9 months.  They can finger feed themselves with soft food or dissolvable food between the ages of 9 and 13 months.  At 2 years of age, children usually want to feed themselves independently. Between 2 and 3 years they become better at using a spoon, as well as stabbing food with a fork. Most children are 7 years old before they can successfully use cutlery to feed themselves without being too messy.

Things to think about before you start using a knife and fork

To start there are a number of key factors that you can arrange and control that will help your child:

1. Positioning and Seating

Positioning is extremely important. The child needs good support for their body so that they can be actively involved in eating. Their feet should rest firmly on the foot rest when they are in a highchair. If they re in a chair, their feet should be firmly on the floor. The chair should be at the right height for the table. You can use cushions to help children sit at the right height. You can also use rolled up towels to better support children who are in a highchair. When children have the correct seating and positioning they have a stable base to begin to use cutlery.

2. Cutlery and plates

Choose your cutlery carefully. Think about your child’s age and their stage of development when you choose cutlery. Little children need spoons that have small bowls. Knives and fork should be small and have appropriate handles. Use a plate that has a raised edge to stop the food from sliding off.  Place a non-slip mat underneath the plate to prevent it sliding while your child is learning to cut. The EZPZ plates are great! They are a plate on a nonslip mat.

3. Make sure mealtime experiences are positive

When the mealtime is positive children are more likely to have a go at new skills. They are more likely to persist. Comment on the food and what it looks like. You can talk about the different cutlery on the table. Lead by example. Describe what your are doing with your cutlery as you use it.

4. Remove all distractions from the area

Remove all distractions from the dinner table. This includes turning off TV’s and removing iPads. It is important to eliminate any background noises. You want your child to be able to focus on their meal and the cutlery. Any distractions take their focus away from the cutlery.

5. Involvement your child in the mealtime preparation

Get your child to set the table. They can help you prepare some of the food. This gives you an opportunity to talk about what you are doing as you use kitchen utensils to chop and mix food. This helps the child transition to the meal and start to use the cutlery. It is harder for children to go from watching TV to using a spoon – especially if they are having trouble using the spoon.  Don’t forget to get them to help clean up after the meal as well!

7. Choose the food carefully

Some foods are easier to cut up or scoop into a spoon. Sausages, chips, carrots and fish fingers are easier to cut. Rice that has a sauce that holds it together is easier to scoop than plain rice. Cut mushrooms and bananas before you try to cut meat. Choose family foods that will help your child be more successful in their attempts at cutlery use.

8. Practise fine motor activities

Fine motor games and activities help strengthen your child’s hand strength, finger dexterity and coordination. Use play dough, use Lego, cut, colour or draw, and use peg boards.

Practise using cutlery away from mealtimes

There are so many wonderful ways to practise using cutlery away from the actual mealtime:

  • roll play dough into a snake and cut the snake up
  • Scoop uncooked rice from one container to another
  • Cut up toy food and vegetables that are held together with Velcro
  • Have a tea party and cut up food or play dough for the dolls to eat
  • Cut a chocolate block into pieces

Learning to use cutlery doesn’t always have to be at the table.

Practice, practice, practice!

Learning a new skill takes time so give your child lots of opportunities. Praise all attempts – even ones that fail!  Children need to practice this every day. If your child is very hungry cut up some of their food first so they can practice once they have had a bit to eat.

Start with a spoon at the table

Introduce the spoon first at the table, then the fork, and last you introduce the fork with the knife at the table. You follow this general principle in food play too.

Don’t stress about the mess

When children learn to use cutlery there will be mess. They get messy, the chair gets messy, and the floor can be filthy. That’s all ok. Research shows that children who get messy when they first start to eat and use cutlery are less likely to be fussy eaters.

It’s ok to have finger foods and cutlery at the same meal

This is perfectly fine. It gives the children a break from the cutlery but they can still be engaged in eating. Toddlers won’t use cutlery the whole meal. its too tiring!

Lead by example

Cut your own food up into small pieces. Scoop your rice up with a spoon rather than using the fork. Experiment with lots of textures and techniques at mealtimes.

What do I do if my child still can’t use cutlery

The best thing to do is to speak to an Occupational Therapist. They will let you know if what your child is doing is developmentally appropriate. They can book in an assessment if necessary. This will identify why your child isn’t using cutlery, and what needs to happen next.

OneOnOne Children’s Therapy is an Occupational Therapy, Speech Pathology and ESDM cline in Sydney’s Bondi Junction. We can be contacted on (02) 80657837 or you can email us.