How to Hold a Spoon and Fork

How to hold a fork and spoon

Teaching a child how to hold a spoon and scoop food requires several motor skills that must be developed before a toddler can use utensils themselves. Even older children struggle with holding a spoon and scooping food to feed themselves. Here, we’re covering sensory motor skills needed to hold a spoon, fork, knife, and other utensils. You’ll also find some creative activities and play ideas to develop the underlying skills that play into using utensils.

How to hold a fork and spoon
How to hold a fork and spoon with efficient grasp patterns.

Note that these strategies and skill areas are needed across the lifespan when it comes to self-feeding. Older children and even adults who may have had a physical or cognitive impairment can benefit from addressing the underlying skill areas needed for using utensils. No matter the age, noting how an individual holds a spoon and fork is part of a comprehensive feeding evaluation.

how to hold spoon and fork

Before we get to the skills in play when holding a spoon or using a fork, let’s cover the specifics on how to hold these utensils. Why? Because often, we see older children who hold a spoon with a gross grasp or hold a fork with the whole hand. These grasp patterns can impact functional performance, but can also be a cause of concern for parents.

Note that the way an individual holds a spoon or holds a fork can differ when adaptive equipment for eating is used.

How to hold a spoon
How to hold a spoon.

how to hold a spoon

To hold a spoon, one needs to grasp the utensil with their dominant hand. The spoon is placed along the lateral edge of the middle finger or pad of the middle finger. The pointer or index finger typically rests over the top of the neck of the spoon, and guides movements when scooping. The thumb rests and stabilizes the flat handle of the spoon on the top, above the pointer finger in a modified lateral key grasp. The scoop of the spoon is pointing out toward the direction the thumb points, and the handle is above the thumb web space. In this position, one can scoop with refined movements and graded precision using the pad of the thumb on the flat part of the spoon handle. When the spoon is properly placed in the hand, the wrist is slightly pronated and slightly flexed.

You can see from the image below that there are many different grasp patterns used when holding a spoon, which progress as the child develops more refined fine motor skills. The most efficient grasp pattern is the “adult grip”, however, the other grasp patterns are typically part of a progression as the toddler or young child gains experience with eating with a spoon.

Using a spoon is likely one of the first functional tools that a small child has experience with, and while messy eating will ensue, it is important to allow the baby or toddler experience with holding and manipulating a spoon, even if they are not getting actual food into their mouth at first.

Grasp patterns for holding a spoon
Grasp patterns for holding a spoon.
No source was found for this image, may be subject to copyright

Inefficient grasp on a spoon- When the handle end of the spoon is UNDER the thumb web space, the grasp moves into a poor position for function and accuracy of scooping. In this case, the hand moves into a gross grasp pattern, and in order to gain motor control with graded precision, the elbow tends to pop out as the shoulder abducts. In this poor functional grasp pattern, you’ll see the wrist fully supinated.

Activities to move from an inefficient grasp pattern to an efficient grasp pattern include PLAY:

How to hold a fork
How to hold a fork.

how to hold a fork

Next, let’s cover the proper grasp pattern required to effectively hold a fork. Note that there are different ways to hold a fork, depending on location, no one way of these different style being better or worse for functional performance to hold and use a fork to stab and eat food.

To hold a fork, the fork is held in the dominant hand much like a pencil is held. The thumb stabilizes the narrow part of the fork handle, or the neck of the fork. This area is located above the prongs, or tines of the fork. The neck of the fork rests on the lateral side of the middle finger or the pad of the middle finger.

Like holding a spoon, the end of the fork is above the back of the hand, and not under the thumb web space into the palm.

The wrist of the hand should be slightly pronated and slightly flexed.

Note that when holding a fork to scoop food, a different grasp pattern is used than when using a fork to stab food, and still another grasp pattern is used to stabilize food when using a knife to cut.

To stab food with a fork, the fork rotates in the hand and skills of in-hand manipulation are used.

To stabilize food with a fork, in order to hold food stabile so a knife can cut the food item, the fork continues to rotate within the hand using in-hand manipulation, but the addition of finger isolation of the index finger is used to hold the fork steady.

Inefficient grasp on a fork– When the end of the fork handle is under the palm, the hand tends to pull into a gross grasp on the fork, which is a more primitive grasp pattern, and is less functional for refined and graded movements. Similar to the motions used with a spoon held in this manner, a fork held in a gross grasp will include elbow and shoulder.

Much like using a spoon, progression from inefficient grasp patterns on a fork is developmental and requires practice. Allowing kids to use and hold a fork with verbal and visual prompts is helpful. Other fine motor and eye-hand coordination tasks will support development from inefficient grasp patterns when holding a fork to more efficient and refined motor skills:

Prerequisites to hold a spoon and fork

Before a child can use fine motor tools such as a spoon, fork, knife and other self-care tools (hair brush, toothbrush, pencil, scissors…) independently, there are certain physical, cognitive, and emotional prerequisites that must fall into place.

These self-care skills include many of the same sensory motor components, so in this blog post, we’re covering primarily the skills needed to hold a spoon and fork.

Toddlers and young preschoolers that sit at the table, probably have taken notice of how adults and older children at the table eat. This is actually part of the developmental process. When sitting at a table, a baby and toddler is observing and noticing how older siblings and parents use forks to stab food, spoons to scoop, and knives to cut.

Toddlers often want to take part in the action!

Using a spoon and fork during the Toddler years is a natural development of self-awareness and self-control.  Using utensils is part of that progression of feeding developmental milestones that children go through. A child becomes more aware of the skills that they are developing and that they can assert their own independence. 

Likewise, using a spoon to eat at first can lead to messy eating with young children, and that’s totally normally, developmentally.

But, before these areas of independence arise, there are certain prerequisites that need to be in place. Using tools in self-feeding, brushing one’s own teeth, using a knife, crayon, pencil, or other tool requires development in a few areas. 

Speaking of using crayons to develop motor skills, these crayons for toddlers support fine motor development and coordination skills through play.

 

Prerequisites that are necessary for kids (or adults!) to effectively and efficiently use tools in fine motor and self-care tasks, like scissor use, handwriting, hair brushing, self-feeding, tooth brushing, and more.  From an Occupational Therapist.

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Skills Needed to Hold a spoon and fork

When you take a look at the motor breakdown of using a spoon and fork, there are several components you’ll see in action:

  • Posture
  • Grasp Development
  • Hand Preference
  • Cognition
  • Attention
  • Eye-hand coordination
  • Somatosensory experience
  • And even play!

Let’s cover each of these areas needed to hold a spoon and fork in more detail:

  • Posture- When using a tool like a fork, pencil, scissors, toothbrush, paint brush, knife…postural control is essential.  Like anything else, it all starts at the center and at the body.  You can’s use your hands in fine motor play activities if your upper body is slumped or slouched.  If postural support is the issue, work on getting into a better sitting position. Speak to an Occupational Therapist for individualized assessment and recommendations.                   
  • Grasp Development- For using tools, a child needs prehension skills and  precision skills, including grasp, release, and the ability to stabilize their arm and write while moving the hand.  Sometimes a pinch or required muscle movement is too much for an unstable arm/wrist and that required muscle effort makes the upper body slouch.  Start over with posturing is this happens.
  • Hand dominance–  A true hand dominance doesn’t typically become established until 5-6 years.  And that is a good thing!  A child’s body is developing strength, balance, muscle tone, and sensorimotor abilities at an even and symmetrical rate in the early years.  We want that to happen!  If a very strong preference of dominance is noticed at an early age, ask your pediatrician or occupational therapist for assessment of asymmetry or delay.
  • Cognitive prerequisites– Appropriate ability to follow simple directions is a must in order for use of tools in typical ways.  Sure, a fork makes a great hair brush.  A spoon is an excellent drumstick. But, inappropriate use of utensils can be dangerous.
  • Attentional Prerequisites– Appropriate attention span is needed for using tools in functional tasks. This blog post covers more on attention needed during meals.
  • Constructive play– What? A child needs functional play in order to use a pencil? Yep!  Building with blocks, combining toys, and pretending provides the base of fine motor development, skilled use, strength, imagination, and creativity that is needed to problem solve and use tools appropriately.
  • Eye Hand Coordination– More play!  Catch a ball and use crayons to establish the base of hand eye coordination needed for skilled maneuvering of tools to the mouth, paper, hair, or teeth.
  • Somatosensory Experience– Playing and experiencing the senses in typical every day activities are essential for the child to build on their awareness of textures, weights, manipulating objects, and sizes.

Given all of these areas that a child must have in place before showing success with tools in functional tasks, it’s important to work on certain areas.

Below, you’ll find a great printable resource that covers all of these skill areas that are needed for using a spoon and fork. This is a great handout to use especially when working with families of young children who are learning to hold a spoon and fork.

You can enter your email address into the form below and access this printable handout, or The OT Toolbox Member’s Club members can log into their accounts and access the handout in the Educational Handouts Toolbox area.

Prerequisites that are necessary for kids (or adults!) to effectively and efficiently use tools in fine motor and self-care tasks, like scissor use, handwriting, hair brushing, self-feeding, tooth brushing, and more.  From an Occupational Therapist.

Scooping food with a spoon

Teaching kids how to hold a spoon is the first step, but then actually scooping food, getting the food to the mouth, clearing the food from the spoon, and then repeating the process is part of the functional task of eating.

Remember that eating is a developmental process, and that this is another occupation in which practice is key to functional performance!

To improve use with a spoon and fork (and then spoon, fork, and knife!), it’s important to have various opportunities for practice.

Provide opportunities to use tools like spoons in scooping items.  You’ll find more information on the topic of scooping in our blog post on scooping and pouring.

These black beans are a great way to practice tool use and all of the skills needed in managing tools.  See the bottom of this post for more ideas.

Be sure to provide your little one with lots of opportunities to use tools in activities and play!

Related activities that you will love for teaching kids to use tools:

  • Sight Word Scoop– this scooping activity encourages users to develop the eye-hand coordination needed to use a spoon to scoop an object in a liquid, much like scooping the remaining cereals in a bowl of milk, or scooping food from a soup broth.
  • Toddler Visual Motor Scoop (Ping Pong balls)– This activity is another great way to teach toddlers to use a spoon, using a large and bright object with high visual contrast.
  • Invitation to Scoop and Pour– In this activity users can use a spoon with graded precision and refined movements to scoop grains of corn which can be a great way to practice motor skills to hold a spoon.
  • Field Corn Sensory Bin– Another activity using spoons to scoop field corn, this activity offers proprioceptive feedback through the joints and muscles of the hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder.
  • Moon Dough Scooping– In this activity, users use a spoon to scoop and pick up a moist and dry material. This can be a great way to practice using a spoon with different materials.
  • Scooping Ice– Using a spoon to pick up ice is a fun way to practice using a spoon with a different material that also offers precision and refinement in using a spoon or scoop.
  • Relaxing Lavender Water Bin– Kids love this sensory bin, but therapists love the functionality! Use a spoon to pick up small items in a liquid, developing eye-hand coordination skills with sensory benefits.
  • Invitation to Scoop, Pour, Transfer Nuts– Use a spoon to pick up nuts with a fun sensory activity that offers feedback with movement.
  • Scooping Dyed Alphabet pasta– Kids can pick up dry pasta with a spoon and practice motor skills.
  • (Amazon affiliate link) Learning Resources Handy Scoopers are colorful and bright and a great way to practice the prerequisites for tool use in many ways.
How to hold a fork and spoon handout
Get this free handout on skills needed to hold a fork and spoon below or in The OT Toolbox Member’s Club

Free Handout- Skills Needed to Hold a Spoon and Fork

Want a printable handout of the skills kids need to hold a spoon and fork? Working with families on teaching kids how to hold a fork and spoon and need actionable tips and strategies in a handout format?

You can enter your email address into the form below and access this printable handout, or The OT Toolbox Member’s Club members can log into their accounts and access the handout in the Educational Handouts Toolbox area.

Free Handout: Using a Spoon and Fork

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    Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20+ years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

    5 Tips for Completing a Feeding Evaluation

    feeding evaluation

    An integral part of an occupational therapy feeding evaluation is the food questionnaire or checklist. This is the foundation for building your learner’s food repertoire based on their likes and dislikes. When discussing preferences with the parent and child, the more details they are able to provide, the smoother the sessions will go.

    Feeding evaluation tips

    How to Do a Feeding Evaluation

    The first step to a feeding evaluation is often a comprehensive Food Inventory Questionnaire. By understanding what a child is and is not eating helps the therapist to better understand food preferences in the way of food texture issues, flavors, colors, tec. The food inventory is a great tool for consistent data collection. Accurate data collection will helpful be able to provide a just right challenge. Before beginning any feeding program, it is important to become educated on feeding therapy, treatment, and problem areas in a thorough feeding assessment. This guide will provide a basic understanding of sensory versus oral motor feeding concerns.

    Check out the tips below to help guide your discussion.

    Tip #1: When Planning a Feeding Evaluation, Provide Questionnaires Ahead of Time 

    If at all possible, try to provide a feeding assessment checklist or questionnaire ahead of time, or ask the parent to come prepared with a list of foods that their child does or does not like. This is SUPER important, because asking a parent during the feeding evaluation, does not typically go well.

    It is likely that you will not get a complete picture, or the parent will forget some key pieces of information–such as what brand of cereal their child eats or be so overwhelmed they claim their child eats “nothing”.

    Not all of the problems presented will be sensory food issue related. There are times when they stem from an oral motor deficiency. It is important to be able to spot the difference before beginning treatment.

    Tip #2 During a Feeding Evaluation: Ask About Food Jags 

    What is a Food Jag?

    The term “food jag” is fairly new term referring to a preference toward a couple of foods, eating them all of the time; suddenly stopping eating a once highly preferred food, refusing to add it back into their repertoire. A food jag refers to the case of children only eating one type of food or a small number of food items. Some common food jags include:

    • The child that only eats chicken nuggets, crackers, and French fries (all foods are consistent in taste and texture.
    • The child that only eats Goldfish crackers, dry cereal, and crackers (all foods are bland, have some crunch, but are thin in width
    • The child only eats yogurt tubes or yogurt smoothie drinks (the consistency and sweetness of the yogurt flavors are satisfying)

    Food jags include any small group of limited food selections. These food limitations can change over time.

    You’re looking to see if this has happened over the course of the child’s feeding history as it may be indicative of trauma (i.e.-choking), emergence of sensory processing difficulties, and feeding developmental milestones that occur in leaps and stages.

    This is also common in people who do not eat a variety of foods. They get tired of eating the same three foods over and over. Food jags can happen to people who eat a variety of foods also, but generally people have other foods to put in its place.

    For instance, I may eat peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day for three weeks, then get tired of it. That is fine because I can switch to yogurt, or ham, or turkey. A person with limited food choices loses a preferred food and does not have anything to replace it with.

    If you notice a trend of food jags in the child’s history, make sure that you provide education on how food jags occur and how to prevent food them, before they leave the evaluation. 

    Tip #3: Complete a Sensory Evaluation of Food- Review Each Food Category 

    Even if the parent fills out a feeding assessment checklist/questionnaire and hits all the food categories, fruits, vegetables, starches, dairy, protein (meat, eggs, nuts) and other (snack foods), make sure that you go through the list with the family.

    When you review each category, even briefly, it may spark the parent to remember something regarding the child’s eating patterns. 

    Consider the sensory evaluation of food including differences in types of food categories, and how there can be minute or vast sensory differences in foods based on preparation (cooked in the oven or cooked in the microwave, different brands (drier consistency vs. saltier flavor), or types of foods (spaghetti pasta vs. smaller elbow noodles).

    A food evaluation should take the sensory evaluation of foods into consideration for each meal.

    Questions to ask regarding food preferences:

    For example, if the parent reports that their child eats noodles, you might want to ask what kind of noodles.

    • Do they eat only elbow noodles?
    • All types of noodles?
    • And all varieties of noodles-egg noodles, veggie noodles, rice noodles? 

    Another example of food variables is seen in fruit.

    • Fruit can be whole, peeled, fresh or comes in a container.
    • Apples can be peeled, sliced, or presented whole.
    • How does the child eat them?
    • Mandarin oranges come in syrup or can be freshly peeled. Which does your learner prefer?

    If the parent reports that their child is very specific or limited on how they will eat their food, this is a starting place for pushing their food limits and boundaries in the first couple of sessions.

    Tip #4: Ask About Brands 

    This tip ties into Tip #3 when discussing the categories of foods. You want to know if the child will only eat a specific brand of food. This is common with cereal, snack foods, pizza, and pastas such as macaroni and cheese. It can happen with all foods, so it’s good to ask.

    This may indicate that the child has challenges with processing novel experiences and may be easily distressed by change, from a sensory perspective. It also indicates that the child is very rigid in their thinking and expectations for mealtimes.

    You will need to build confidence and trust, as something as small as changing brand of cereal might be a big leap.

    Tip #5 during feeding evaluation: Ask About Temperature 

    Another aspect to the sensory evaluation of food is the temperature of preferred foods. Ask how the child likes their food served–hot, cold or room temperature. While this may not seem like a big deal, but it can be for a child who is already struggling with introducing new foods and experiences into mealtimes.

    It’s also a very personal preference, and by knowing that preference, you have an increased understanding of the child which leads to trust, and eventually a broadened food repertoire.

    Sometimes the issue at hand is not the food at all. It is the learner’s difficulty getting it into the mouth. There are many choices when it comes to spoons, bowls, plates, cups, and serving ideas.

    Check out some of these ideas to see if these may help your learner with self feeding or trying new food challenges.

    Feeding therapy is complicated

    Feeding therapy is complicated. Without the right knowledge and tools, therapist/parents can make the problems worse. Take time to get educated on correct feeding therapy techniques. In the meantime, feel free to engage your learner in messy play. This is a great first step to understanding and tolerating new foods.

    Other areas to consider in a feeding assessment include:

    • Anatomical considerations of the mouth and tongue
    • Mobility of the jaw, tongue, lips, and cheeks
    • Positioning and body posture
    • Body awareness
    • Developmental progression of oral motor skills
    • Muscle considerations and issues that impact musculature (digit sucking, extended use of bottle or pacifier, reverse swallow/tongue trust, tongue, chewing habits, lip closure, vertical chewing during food prep stage,
    • Structural abnormalities (teeth alignment, tongue tie, palate, tonsils, lip symmetry, etc.)
    • Movements and range of motion in mouth, cheeks, lips, jaw: Jaw Thrust, Exaggerated Jaw Movements, Jaw Instability, Jaw Clenching, Tonic Bite, Jaw Retraction, Tongue Retraction, Tongue Protrusion, Stability Bite
    • Alignment of teeth
    • Presence of gagging or choking on foods
    • Speech skills
    • Sleep habits (sleeping through the night, snoring, light sleeper/heavy sleeper)
    • Tooth Grinding
    • Phases of food swallow- Oral preparation, Oral Propulsion, Pharyngeal phase, Esophageal phase
    • Vision and Visual motor skills
    • Tone and musculature of the body-impacting range of motion, posture, etc.
    • Fine motor skills

    You’ll want to contact a pediatric occupational therapist who is experienced in feeding evaluations, including the oral motor aspect of food assessments.

    Use the Food Inventory Tool- A Parent Report Screening Tool to incorporate into feeding evaluations to ensure successful feeding therapy.

    This tool provides the therapist with a data sheet for a child’s repertoire allowing for consistent data collection over the course of feeding treatment. It also provides the therapist with a professional looking tool and talking point during the initial feeding evaluation to ensure that a comprehensive list of foods the child eats is gathered to support successful feeding therapy.

    Click here to get a copy of the Food Inventory Tool- A Parent Report Screening Tool.

    Contributor: Kaylee is a pediatric occupational therapist with a bachelors in Health Science from Syracuse University at Utica College, and a Masters in Occupational Therapy from Utica College. Kaylee has been working with children with special needs for 8 years, and practicing occupational therapy for 4 years, primarily in a private clinic, but has home health experience as well. Kaylee has a passion for working with the areas of feeding, visual development, and motor integration.

    *The term, “learner” is used throughout this post for readability, however this information is relevant for students, patients, clients, children of all ages and stages or whomever could benefit from these resources. The term “they” is used instead of he/she to be inclusive.