From the beginning stages of a baby learning to pick up a piece of puffed cereal and feed itself, to an older child cutting vegetables to help prepare food, there are a variety of fine motor skills that are used and needed during meal times. In fact, self feeding is a great way to work on developing fine motor skills because eating is often very motivating.
A baby first initiates trying to pick up some food off of their tray by raking at the food with their fingers, and making contact, and maybe succeeding in getting a hold of the food in a precarious grasp with the food positioned between the palm of the hand and the fingers. As the child develops and practices, the raking of the food moves towards the index finger, and eventually becomes a pincer grasp (once it has gone through the scissor grasp, lateral grasp, etc.).
A great way to work on developing and fine tuning the pincer grasp is by putting finger foods into a muffin tin so that the fingers must be used to get the food out of the tin.
Finger feeding helps develop those fine motor skills, and then using a utensil adds an extra dimension to the movements. When using a spoon or fork, it begins with a gross grasp and then over time refines into more of a tripod type of grasp. Forearm and wrist movement are also important during utensil use as you have to be able to make the movements and adjustments to keep from dumping your food in your lap. I love practicing scooping play food and feeding the Munchy Ball.
When learning to use a knife, it is often a challenge separating the two movements of cutting food and spreading food. Cutting seems to come more naturally as you push down with the edge of the knife. To spread, the knife has to twist so the flat surface is down. Many kids attempt a strange choppy spreading/hacking motion when they are new to learning to spread, and will need guidance for how to position the knife. using a knife includes some small in-hand manipulation movements to get the knife in the proper position to to its job.
Some good ways to work on the fine motor skills used at mealtimes include food and toys together.
Activities to develop the pincer grasp for finger feeding:
- Cheerios or finger foods in a muffing tin
- cheerios stuck to the surface with sticky food like pudding, marshmallow fluff, etc.
- String cheerios or fruit loops onto pipe cleaners or skinny straws or coffee stirrers.
- Drop puffs into holes in an empty Parmesan cheese container.
Eating with a spoon:
- Start with sticky food that won’t fall off of the spoon, such as pudding, yogurt, oatmeal, etc.
- Scoop for the child initially and put the spoon in the bowl so that the child has to reach out and grab the spoon to bring it to his mouth.
- Use reverse chaining for both scooping and stabbing with a fork
- Play scooping with beans, rice, sand, toys, etc, and feed the Munchy Ball (or just scoop into another container).
Using a Knife:
- Start with practicing cutting soft foods such as eggs, pancakes, waffles (built in lines to cut on), potatoes, sandwich, etc.
- Do some spreading crafts.
Looking for more information about Meal Time in childhood? Stop by to see what the other Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapists in the Focus on Function series have written.
Fine Motor Skills For Mealtimes | Therapy Fun Zone
Postural Control, Gross Motor Development and Mealtime |Your Therapy Source
Attention, Behavior, and Meal Time Problems | Sugar Aunts
4 Ways to Modify Meal Times for Fussy Eaters | Your Kids OT
Mealtime Skills, Rituals & Play – Nurturing a Love for Food | Kids Play Space
15 Tips for Picky Eaters | The Inspired Treehouse
Visual Perceptual Skills Needed for Independent Feeding | Growing Hands-On Kids