Should you let a toddler use a food knife?

This is, I know, likely to be a controversial question. Our children were given a full set of cutlery at a young age (we bought one of those cute kiddie sets of knives, forks, spoons). At family mealtimes, we demonstrate cutlery-handling skills to our children. Admittedly, our younger daughter still has some issues with positioning her food knife at mealtimes, but she’s got the basic idea.

This is partly a cultural issue: little children in France are used to using food knives, which are always on the table at mealtimes. It’s an expectation that even little children should know how to use a knife (and I think the same is true in Italy, Spain, and lots of other European countries).

Why would we want young children to learn to handle a food knife at a young age?

First, it teaches them a useful social skill. I remember still being awkward with a knife and fork in my late teens, and I still cringe at the memories.

Second, kids learn fine motor skills which are transferable–holding a knife and cutting aren’t that dissimilar to cutting paper with scissors, or even writing.

Third, it teaches them manners and respect for their food: in our house, only a few foods are ‘finger foods’.

Fourth, it’s less messy!

Fifth, it’s a safety issue: I teach my children how to walk with a knife (pointed down, parallel to the leg), and dangers associated with cutting in certain ways. (I admit that I’m a fan of that book “50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do)).

Last but not least, knife-handling teaches children independence. For example, our older daughter (now seven) is now skilled at chopping food. Recently, a guest came over to the house, and (without being asked) she went into the kitchen and chopped him some fresh apple slices, which she brought out to him on a plate. (I admit to being proud and a little surprised!)

My kids are proud that they know how to use a knife. I survey my toddler, but the older one is free to use her judgment. And (at least so far), she’s shown really good judgment.

Do you let your kids use knives? And how young do you think they should start?

6 thoughts on “Should you let a toddler use a food knife?

  1. Cutting steak – I’m impressed! 🙂 Same for the Swiss Army Knife! It’s going to be a present for our 8 year old daughter at her birthday this month. But I admit to feeling a bit nervous about it. Still, I think you’re right: learning the proper way to handle knives is the best approach. I’ll let you know how it goes! 🙂

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  2. I’m all for giving teaching kids how to use and handle knives properly. We always set the table with knives for our 6 and 4 year old. They still struggle with them when cutting tougher foods (like steak) and their form is not always perfect but they’re getting there. Our 6 year old has had his own Swiss Army knife since he was 4 (i’m also a fan of 50 Dangerous Things) and has never hurt himself with it despite using it quite regularly (with an adult watching out of the corner of an eye). I think the sooner you teach them the proper way to handle knives of any kind, the sooner they will understand and respect them and ultimately becoming less of a danger to them.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Bri. I can relate to the cutlery issues at family food gatherings (at least on the North American side of the family!). That’s so great about your older boy gaining confidence: mastering chopping and then teaching his peers. What a wonderful life lesson and self-esteem booster!

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  4. We’ve gritted our teeth through many an awkward family gathering at which the 12-year-olds were unable to cut their own food, so…I’m all in favor of children using appropriate cutlery.
    We’ve slowly begun introducing food knives to our boys — ages 5 and 2. Our 5 year old has a motor disability and has particular fine motor troubles, so it just wasn’t an option for him until now — now he’s at the point where it may actually help rather than hinder and frustrate, so I’m encouraging it slowly. Sometimes he’s interested and fairly successful, at other times, not. The 2-year-old is adept with it for things like spreading and spearing, which I’ll take for now! But I have had the older one in the kitchen with me and showed him, with lots of guidance, the basics of slicing foods with a sharp knife, and his teachers told me that he showed off his new knowledge one day when they were baking an apple pie as a class — L. showed the other kids how to slice the apples. That’s all I need to know to feel confident that giving them cutlery is an appropriate choice.

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  5. Great to hear your comments, Kristine.

    Our next step is a Swiss Army Knife for our older (7 year old) daughter…my husband thinks she’s ready but I’m happy to wait a year or two more!

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  6. We have always had kiddy cutlery sets – everyday and fancy ones. I don’t always set the table with the knife but when I do I encourage them to use it. Usually it’s just used to spread a little butter. Sometimes it’s used to cut the meal. My 4 yr old “M” is, of course, better at it than my 2 yr old “E”. The one rule we emphasize is not putting it in your mouth, but other than that I’m just letting them experiment. It’s not like they’re sharp or anything. And they certainly know what a sharp knife looks like and how dangerous they can be. Sometimes I’ll let M carry steak knives to the table when the meal requires a sharp knife (for the adult place settings). I think she might be ready to use a sharp knife when she’s six-ish.
    I remember getting a Swiss Army knife the summer I turned 10. I was taught how to use it and was given free reign. Don’t remember cutting myself. But I could soon whittle a mean marshmallow-toasting stick!

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