How Children Become Competent Eaters

By the time your child is 8 to 15 months old, the goal is to have her sitting up to your family table and finger-feeding herself soft table food. As she becomes a toddler, preschooler, school-aged child, and adolescent, she will gradually learn to enjoy more and more of the foods you enjoy and manage the mechanics of eating in more and more grownup ways. It takes time - years in fact - but gradually your child will become a competent eater. She will enjoy a variety of food, and she will know how to learn to like new food. She will eat the right amount of food to grow in the way that nature intended. She will know how to behave at the table so others enjoy having her there.

However, your child's ways with food can fool you into thinking she is becoming anything but a competent eater. Often she won't eat much - a few tastes, swallows, finger-fulls, or bites. Other times, she will eat more than you can imagine. She is unlikely to eat some of everything on the table, but will eat only 1 or 2 foods. What she eats one day, she ignores another. She is unlikely to eat an unfamiliar food. Instead, she watches you eat it, looks at it, smears it, puts it in her mouth and takes it out again. She drops food, gets it all over her face, and makes her place at the table look like a disaster area.

Courage. Eat with her, and let her eat with other adults who are friendly and supportive and who enjoy a variety of food. Keep giving her opportunities to learn and don't get pushy, or it will slow down her learning rather than speed it up:

  • Give her experience with a variety of food. Don't limit the menu to foods she readily accepts.
  • Understand that her watching, looking, smearing and in-and-outing are her ways of getting used to new food and getting ready to eat it.
  • Let her eat as little or as much as she wants, even if she only wants one or two foods.
  • Show her how to behave at the table - and how not to.

For more about competent eating for adults and for children (and for research backing up this advice), see Ellyn Satter's Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook, Kelcy Press, 2008. Also see to purchase books and to review comprehensive educational materials that teach stage-related feeding and solve feeding problems.

Join Ellyn Satter on Facebook

Sign up for the ESI mailing list

Say thanks for this great information by making a donation to ESI!

©2016 by Ellyn Satter published at You may reproduce this article if you don't charge for it or change it in any way and if you do include the for more about and copyright statements.