Baby food purees are a racket. Jenrose’s guide to babies and eating.

This comes up all the time, so I’m putting it here so I don’t have to keep typing it. The questions are, “When should we start solids?” and “What should we use as first foods?” and “Why not wait longer than 6 months to start (or conversely, why wait past 4 months to start solids?)

There’s quite a bit of research (and a lot of parental experience with grabby babies) that says there is a “sweet spot” around six months for starting experimenting with solids. Babies started later than six months or earlier than four statistically speaking tend to have more allergies and reactions. Too early and the gut is still quite permeable and immune reactions can be triggered, too much later and they don’t get the small exposures that teach the immune system to ignore food as not-a-problem. Theoretically.

But this is not going to be a line by line cited official paper, this is how I feed my kids, and an approach to eating for babies that I think makes a lot of sense. I’ve been parenting for 21 years,  have three children of vastly varying dietary foibles, allergies, sensitivities and pickiness, age 3, almost 10 and 21 1/2 at this writing, and have a zillion food issues so tend to read constantly on the subject. This is drawn from many sources, so if the wording appears familiar, it’s because I burned it into my brain at some point and don’t remember where I got it. I’m not looking up a darned thing for this right now, it’s mostly “what I tell people when they ask about it online”.

Realistically, from a parenting perspective, I feel like it’s just common sense to pay attention to what your kid is doing. Are they sitting up and grabbing at stuff on your plate? Can they coordinate bringing something to their mouth (toy, rib bone, whatever)? If food gets on their tongue do they move it back in their mouth and swallow it or push it back out reflexively?

It’s also common sense that if they push food out with their tongue, or can’t cope with textures other than purees, they’re probably not ready for food. Keep in mind that purees may be harder for some babies to handle than food with more texture. Don’t necessarily assume that because a baby gags on a thin puree that they would have a harder time with something fork-mashed. Texture provides sensory cues. Food fixations can only form on foods that are offered to a child. I don’t usually offer foods like pizza, or chicken nuggets, until a child is well established on a wide range of other foods.

IMO, purees, baby cereals and the wide variety of prepackaged mushes they spend millions marketing to parents of infants are pretty much a racket. If you’re eating a reasonably nutritious diet as a family, just incorporate foods into the family diet that can be fork-mashed or diced small for your grabby baby.

Use your clean finger as a “spoon” (unless they’re bitey) that they can grab and bring to their mouth, loaded with a bit of ripe avocado, a tiny bit of shredded beef (dice the shred across the grain), a little banana or ripe pear until they’ve got the hang of grab-and-mouth or silverware. My special needs child who had massive issues with liquids as an infant (repeatedly gagged, choked and struggled with breastmilk alone) took to finger-fed banana and super tender green beans like a champion at 7 1/2 months old despite huge motor delays. The texture she could handle with ease.

Sweet potatoes, cooked plantains, tender cooked tiny bits of broccoli, seasonal fruit cut into tiny dices… you don’t need a grinder, a ricer, a pureer, you need a small sharp knife or a fork or the back of a spoon, depending on the food. Once you’ve introduced a handful of foods, if your baby has tolerated them well, you can start with more complex foods fairly quickly. With my last child, who started swiping food off my plate at 5 1/2 months old after making huge attempts for the previous couple weeks, I think by the time he was 7 months old he was almost up to curries.

Don’t be afraid to hand a baby a whole apple or a whole pear to work on, just keep an eye on them. Whole apples, by the way, are going to be safer for most kids than cut apples. I actually had to finger-sweep apple pieces off of my middle child’s trachea more than once because Heimlich wasn’t doing it. Tiny sharp teeth will scrape mush off a whole apple, but bite chunks off a slice. Miles got a hold of a pear when he was about a week shy of 6 months. It was super ripe, and he slurped and sucked and chewed bits off it it with great delight. I did not peel it, the peel was already very thin due to ripeness. I did not cut it in any way.

The opposite is true for smaller berries and stone fruit. Most babies will handle berries quite young if cut in halves or quarters (blueberries, grapes) or diced (strawberry). Stone fruit like cherries need the pit and stem completely removed and to be quartered or eighthed for babies on the younger side (i.e. 6-9 months). Once you know they can handle quartered berries well, you can halve them, the goal is to get the taut skin broken well so that they can tongue or gum masticate the fruit well enough that it will not get lodged whole in the windpipe. If the berry is firm enough that you can’t mash it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue and have it moosh, it’s probably not ripe enough for a younger baby. Try to stick with seasonal, local, organic fruit if you can, especially for brand new eaters. For one thing, they’ll taste better in most cases, for another, it puts minimum stress on a system unused to food. And seasonal/local tends to make the organic part more affordable.

I have no hard and fast rules for order of introduction. It depends a lot on time of year, what your family eats, how old your baby is when they start, and whether there are any nutritional concerns. Babies who struggle to put weight on and grow should probably be started on higher fat options. ALL babies need fat, and you should be wary of going the traditional “rice cereal, potted fruit, potted veg” route as there is little to no fat in those foods, and if a baby starts eating a lot of those foods, they’re going to abruptly slow their growth (and have a harder time growing that young brain) if there’s no fat coming along with.

What are some ideal first foods? I actually look to the Paleo AIP and GAPS programs for ideas. We want foods that are easy on the gut. That don’t contain a lot of grains (grains as a first food have very little scientific justification and a whole lot of reasons to look at them with skepticism) and that are very easy to eat without a ton of fancy preparation. We’d prefer foods that most people don’t get allergic to, that are easily accessible and easily prepared. We’d like foods that the rest of the family will eat.

With all foods, I watch for reactions. Traditional recommendations range from “Carefully introduce one food per week and neurotically watch your child for any possible blip or reaction before daring to introduce a second food.” This path means that at one year, a child introduced to food for the first time on their 6 month birthday will have a whopping total of 26 foods, and will probably be royally sick of all of them.  Three to four days is a more common approach, long enough to see a reaction, short enough that you have closer to 50-60 foods at the one year mark. HOWEVER, my feeling is that most parents will get a pretty good sense of whether their child is prone to reactions within the first month or two of introducing foods. If you had to eliminate a bunch of foods while breastfeeding to get your baby comfortable, that may be a clue that a more careful and selective introduction of solids is in order.

But… Babies grab. And since I hold my babies a lot, they tend to grab a lot. So unless you want to restrict yourself (and the family, since in my case like heck I’m making a zillion separate meals every night) to only the foods the baby eats, if you your baby is generally tolerating their infant diet (breast milk or formula) well, without you having to eliminate dozens of foods to keep them from intense gut pain, you’re probably safe taking a more relaxed approach. Baby swipes a green bean off your plate and it happens to have some sauce on it? Well, note what’s in the sauce and watch for reactions. If you’re mindful of what your baby is eating, and what you are eating, and you read labels and/or cook a lot of your food from scratch, if there is a reaction to a swipe like this, you’re going to have a handful of new foods to not continue to add and to check out more carefully for reactions one at a time.

What do reactions look like? Red spots that don’t clean off around the mouth are a warning but not definitive. That may be a cue to cook a fruit, or peel a peach instead of serving it raw or skin on. Sudden bum rashes can be allergy, acid (it burns), or even yeast, which can flare (especially here in the damp PNW) when sugars and starches are higher. Behavior can be a cue… allergic reactions and gut sensitivities are irritating, and can be systemically irritating. My eldest describe the feeling as, “I suddenly feel like I want to kill something. (Thank heavens for video games.)” As a toddler the complaint was, “I have a bee in my ear.” A sudden flare of temper in a child who is normally mellow might, maybe be food related (or they may be teething, or they may be about to make a developmental leap, and what you do is make a mental (or actual) note about that food and watch the next time you give it to see if the same thing happens.

Any sign of swelling, hives, or systemic rash in a child who has just had a new food or medicine should be checked out, and probably immediately (facial swelling means call 911). New foods most likely to cause this type of reaction include cow milk (and other milks), egg (especially egg white), shellfish and other fish, peanuts, tree nuts, corn, soy and some raw fruits. We’ve had multiple incidences of anaphylactic strawberry allergy in my extended family, but ANY food can cause an allergy in a sensitive individual. Shiny had issues for a while with broccoli and carrots (and does fine with them now). Rice allergies are reasonably common in countries where rice is a staple food.

The harder reactions to track are the more delayed reactions. K’s response to allergens in the first three or four years was absolutely consistent but discovering the first one was maddening for a month because the reactions always took two days to become really problematic. Those “allergies” don’t show up on a skin test, but the reactions are absolutely clear once we figured it out. See, I started soy at about 9 months, as an incidental ingredient in something, and we moved on to tofu not long after. And there was an ear infection. And we got it treated. And it kept coming back. For a month, no matter what we did, the ears were red hot and antibiotics would help for a few days, maybe, and then it would come raging back. I finally figured it out and dropped soy and the infections stopped coming and we stopped having to give antibiotics. At 1 year, we trialed egg, and 2 days later, ear infection symptoms. Okay. So we avoided egg and soy and I didn’t even think about trying milk or peanut (this was my best nurser, so there was no pressure on milk) until age 2. At age two, one glass of milk, and two days later, the first ear infection in a year.

I can hypothesize about why this happened this way, but it was a pattern that remained consistent through many accidental exposures throughout the toddler years, and the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t matter really WHAT the reaction is, the point is to watch your kid and watch for things that are atypical, and listen to your gut.

Shiny’s reactions to natamycin (the fungicide in grated cheese that keeps it from molding rapidly) and wheat are extremely atypical… but pronounced. Every time we ate fast food (and fast food for us means maybe take and bake pizza or burritos from a local burrito joint) she would end up being wakeful most of the night. Particularly traumatic since poor sleep means staying home from school and special needs in this case include violent behavior (worsened by lack of sleep and reactions to foods). We managed to figure out with Shiny that she was NOT reacting to milk specifically, but to the fungicide because she wasn’t wakeful after, say, gluten free cheesy bread made with a slice of Dubliner, but was wakeful after a gluten free piece of of bread with pre-grated cheddar on it, or after a piece of wheat bread with Dubliner on it. And maybe it was just the specific bread, or a common dough conditioner, she had crackers for many years that didn’t keep her awake, but our first step was to eliminate the “big” food (bread) and the next step will be to check out plain wheat (for example a flat bread made with just organic wheat and water), and then other common ingredients in wheat bread. It may not be gluten, it could be FODMAPS (Google it) or something more obscure. If your child has a reaction to “something”, you start by eliminating the big, and then adding back the little.

My eldest’s behaviors were truly Jekyll and Hyde, and teachers noticed. When we avoided the specific allergens, there was my sweet, logical child. Bring out the soy, and BOOM, tantrums and aggression and it was like aliens had taken my baby away. Peanut issues developed gradually and made themselves known by a runny nose that showed up and didn’t leave until we switched to almond butter. Reactions take many forms.

So, then what to feed the little darlings?

1. Red meat, poultry, bone broth: Meats contain fats, iron and complete proteins that are complex and not highly  likely to cause allergic reaction.  Well cooked, they are extremely unlikely to have unpleasant microorganisms and can be cooked to a softness that is both easy to  moosh and easy to digest. Bone broths are particularly nutritious, full of collagen and minerals, a traditional food for healing. A good rich bone broth will often cool to gelatin, and can be cut into “french fry” shape for the amusement of small children. And is also useful to cook veggies for baby as well.

In an era where corn prices are going through the roof, grass and pasture raised meats are relatively much more affordable than they have been (if you can get together with people to share a side of an animal, they can be even cheaper than the grocery store). I worry less about poultry, though there are certainly issues with conventional poultry farming. My rule of thumb is that if I’m eating the meat only, I get a mix of conventional and organic as the price allows, and if I’m doing a soup or bone broth, or using organ meats, organic or close to it is important, as bone and organ meats are more likely to accumulate toxins, as a rule. But if your choice is conventional or not being able to afford the meat at all, get what you can afford. The point is to do what you can, in your situation, to keep your diet as clean as you can afford to.

I avoid most fish for beginning eaters. I may make an exception for wild salmon if we get it in season. Shellfish are a late introduction, as they are pretty reactive for a lot of people. My kids usually have smoked oysters as their first taste of shellfish, but that’s just how our family eats. We eat salmon all the time, it’s low enough mercury for me to feel comfortable giving a baby tastes, and it’s got a great fat profile. But we’re in the Pacific Northwest, so we have access, seasonally, to amazing salmon for an affordable price. We’ll do canned wild salmon in preference to tuna for older babies. There are many online local guides for what of your local fish fare is suitable for young children. Mercury is only one issue, freshwater fish contamination can be an issue of varying urgency depending on where you live. Volume is also important. An occasional tuna sandwich is unlikely to be problematic. Eating tuna daily, especially canned albacore, can be a problem.

Eggs and dairy are something I wait on for kids who have reacted to other early foods, and will start between 8-10 months for babies who have not reacted to much else we’ve given them. Later or earlier is mostly about time of year. If I have a baby who is turning 8 months around Easter, they’re probably going to get to moosh around a hard boiled egg yolk cut into chunks. Yolk tends to be less reactive than whites, and has most of the nutritional value and fat. If you’ve got someone who prefers to make eggwhite omelettes for themselves, let baby use up the yolks, starting on average around 9 months. Whites I tend to introduce closer to the one year mark (in the birthday cake often), but this is highly individual and may just come down to what the family is eating for dinner or what baby manages to swipe of my breakfast. “Oh, whoops, guess we’re trialing omelettes today.” (Actual quote, and the story of how my 8 month old got his first taste of both dairy and eggs in the same day.) If your baby is reactive, you’ll find yourself tweaking your own diet while they’re still in the grabby stage.

2. Sweet potatoes, winter squash, and carrots. Whole, raw carrots may be gnawed on with supervision by toothless littles, but their size means they become a choking hazard once the first teeth emerge, and don’t stop being a choking hazard until molars show up and competence is demonstrated. But well-cooked and fork-mashed carrots (think about what happens when you roast carrots in with a pot roast, or in a stew), roasted or boiled squash, and baked sweet potatoes are all pretty ideal for the youngest babies. Allergies to them are unusual (carrots are the most likely of the three to cause a problem for a child prone to allergies). These work well fork-mashed, go well with meat, and are easily and cheaply accessible all winter long. They contain beta carotene, taste sweet and are easy for a baby to gum into submission.  Sweet potatoes are the easiest, stick ’em in the oven (whatever temp you’re cooking something else at) and cook them until they are very soft. You don’t have to clean them before they go into the oven, and you can just pull off the skin with your fingers as soon as they’re remotely cool enough to touch. Squash can be roasted whole, then cut and the seeds removed, then the flesh scooped out and fork mashed. Carrots’ skins can be rubbed off once they are well cooked, and fork mashed. Add fat in most cases, it will make them taste better, and train their brain to want the vegetable.

3. Early fruits: Ripe pear, ripe banana (avoid if constipation is an issue at all! Resist temptation to feed baby whole banana, no matter how much they beg), apple (cored, baked and fork mashed–do traditional baked apples for the family, leave one without the sugar and butter for baby in a separate small pan, or adult-style unsweetened applesauce, or whole intact unpeeled). Of those, the pear is the least allergenic. In season, I do give watermelon (just remove the seeds, give them a big whackin’ wedge and plunk them down over a section of grass naked and let them go to town on it) and other melons (but watch ripeness and rinds with the other melons).

I tend to wait on berries until they are at the peak of the season with babies under 9 months, and don’t give out of season berries to babies until they’re over 9 months. That’s just a gut instinct and experience with how out of season fruit tends to be firmer and less tasty and less easy to moosh. I’ve already talked about berry prep.

Fruits I approach with caution due to having observed reactions to them in me and family members: Strawberries (I’m deathly allergic, even organic berries are a problem for me), peaches (can give many babies the runs and a burny butt, riper, in season fruit are less likely to cause problems due to lower acid levels). Plums seem better tolerated than some of the other stone fruit, apricots and peaches both may work better cooked and/or peeled for many people, not just babies. Nectarines and hybrids (apriums, pluots, etc.) should be very ripe, but I don’t worry about cooking. Peaches actually taste better to me lightly poached, and there are MANY fruits which may not be tolerated well raw that may be tolerated perfectly cooked or even just blanched (lower into boiling water, spoon out after 30-60 seconds, lower into ice water, the peel will slip off in your hands when you pull it out of the cold).  Citrus can be really hard on the bum for some kids. For some it’s dose dependent (I’ve watched Miles eat 8 satsumas in a row, the diapers are horrendous) and for others they just react to any citrus or to just one type of citrus. Regardless, it’s a later introduction for us and something I don’t tend to offer until a baby is 10-12 months old. Start with a peeled segment (take the membrane off the segment) with no seeds, when you’re first introducing oranges, or cut the orange across the grain into wedges, so the membrane is minimized. (Orange “smiles”.)

4. Fats: Avocado, coconut milk and coconut oil, ghee, beef and pork fat, schmaltz(chicken fat): Don’t be afraid of fat, especially where babies are concerned. Coconut fat and the cream from canned coconut (ideal is to avoid canned coconut that has gums or binders, full fat is best) and extra virgin coconut oil are an ideal mix of medium chain triglycerides and coconut oil is actually the primary fat in many non-dairy infant formulas because of the blend of fatty acids. Avocado is also a good blend, as are saturated animal fats. Ghee is butter with the milk proteins processed out, and is a traditional food in India. It tends to be well tolerated by most (and tastes wonderful.)  Add fat if it seems appropriate with what your child is eating. Coconut cream and coconut oil go amazingly well with bananas, sweet potatoes, squash and chicken, for example, and we used it frequently to boost Shiny’s fat intake, which proved to be a good instinct when we discovered she has metabolic issues that benefit from a high fat diet especially. Squash works well with ghee and meat fats. Pork fat is delicious to work with. Don’t go out searching for organic lard and tallow and schmaltz–just when you make a big beef soup or chicken soup or a pan of pork, pour the fat through a coffee filter into a jar, and keep it in the fridge until you need it. The point is NOT to make a huge stinkin’ deal about baby’s meal separate from your own.

Fats I’m not all that excited about giving to young children include most vegetable oils (we use a fair amount of extra virgin olive oil, but not so much for babies), but especially corn oil, soy oil, safflower, sunflower, etc. They need the saturated fats. If you’re cooking in oil on the stove and need something that isn’t ghee or pork fat, for example, for flavor purposes, try avocado oil.

I don’t feed anyone in our family hydrogenated fats, ever. Just avoid. no margarine, no hydrogenated shortening (alternatives are available, palm shortening and coconut oil work well.)

I tend to be a little cautious about nuts and peanuts especially, though the science on that is tricky. Small (SMALL) frequent exposures may be better than no exposures at all. Seeds tend to be less allergenic than nuts, per se, so starting with small incidental exposures (hummus with sesame tahini in it, for example, or sunflower butter in a sauce you make often) and seeing how a kid does before introducing trickier things like peanut and almond butter might be a good idea. Coconut, while technically defined as a tree nut under labeling laws, is rarely but occasionally allergenic, but is in particular not very cross reactive with other nut allergies. Which is why it comes much higher up on the list of good early foods.

Peanuts are kind of a problem because conventional peanuts get a ton of sprays and treatments and do absorb them into the peanut. But organic tend to get a fungus that produces a toxin and so you kind of end up picking your poison. I have a mild actual skin-tested peanut allergy and K reacts to them and so does my mother so mostly we just don’t. Sunflower butter is our go-to sub, but probably a later introduction for babies because nut butters can be a choking hazard for texture alone.

5. Green veggies. Green beans are a huge early favorite, cooked to very tender. I’m not downplaying the importance of green veggies by putting them so far down on the list, but the fact of the matter is that for many kids, they are a taste that takes years to acquire. Offer your kids what you are eating if the texture and seasonings are appropriate. Baby food pureed jarred peas are one of the most disgusting foods in existence, but steamed baby peas are a delight and a perfect “practice” food that most babies find fascinating. Canned spinach is disgusting, but spinach pie and spinach quiche are delicious. Most people don’t have the hang of cauliflower, but coated in a little fat and seasoning and roasted to a fork-mashable tenderness, it is fantastic. Broccoli preferences in our house range from completely raw dipped in sauces, to barely steamed, to cooked to fork tender bright green, to slathered in cheese sauce or cooked into a cream soup. The chances are that your baby is most likely to be willing to try the things you obviously enjoy. And sometimes they just flat out won’t, and that’s okay. I told each of my older kids for years that when they grew up, they’d probably like salads a whole lot better. Sure enough, somewhere around 9 years old, they start asking for them.

But for infants, things like roast zucchini or summer squash or spiral noodles from same are probably going to go over better than puree of spinach. (Creamed spinach or a savory Indian spinach dish, on the other hand, you might find your kid devouring). Raw zucchini might be shunned even by kids who are capable of masticating it. Right now my three year old adores raw sweet peppers, raw carrots, raw snap peas and Will Not Touch the cooked versions of same. Both younger kids will actually fight over raw cucumbers and pickles, and sometimes zucchini. As a baby he could not stand mushrooms, and now he will ask for them specifically (sauteed, in butter, with a little wine and garlic, smart kid…) and has since he was about 14 months. You have plenty of time for your kid to get the hang of vegetables. You don’t really need to “sneak” them into things, but if you want to try, anything will grate into a tomato sauce or macaroni and cheese, just about.

Oh, tomatoes. Some babies tolerate them, some don’t. The acid can be harsh on the bum, they’re a nightshade and can be a little difficult on the gut (I react to raw tomatoes sometimes as an adult, from an IBS perspective.) This is where the fruit guidelines come in… if your baby is old enough for solids and it is absolutely the peak of tomato season and you have access to sweet, ripe, home grown tomatoes, it’s probably worth a shot. The usual caveat of some may tolerate cooked better than raw applies. Out of season, don’t bother with raw (really for anyone, lol.) Canned: Please go for jarred. I don’t stress a huge amount about plastic, but canned acid foods in metal cans require a can liner, and most can liners are some sort of plastic, and most plastics will, under the right circumstances, leech BPA and other endocrine disruptors (even BPA substitutes are pretty iffy, but that’s another conversation) and tomato products are both ubiquitous and the exact combination of acidic that is most adept at leaching anything. Ideally, jarred, or frozen in-season. The younger the child, the more careful I am about this. We have a couple people in the family that don’t eat tomato sauce or tomatoes at all, and our usual policy is to cook everything else for a sauce and then put the tomato in, already cooked (or cooked in another pot) last after taking out a portion for those who don’t eat tomatoes.

Onions and garlic and other stinky or gassy veggies: I tend to introduce them when the family is eating them. Be aware they can do vile things to diapers. We tend to go light on the garlic in particular while baby is still getting changed lying down. Might be best to hold off on the three head garlic chicken soup until potty training happens.

6. Starchy foods. For youngest babies, plantains and bananas and sweet potatoes and squash tend to be the primary starches I’d prefer, and those aren’t particularly high glycemic index compared to, say, your average potato or a bowl of rice. How careful you are about rice, wheat, and other grains really comes down to how your family tolerates them. If you are hale and hearty and have very few food issues, your biological child is probably going to be fine eating many of the foods you do, as early as 8 or 9 months, in appropriate small quantities and with appropriate textures. If you struggle with autoimmune issues, there are lots of food allergies in the family, or someone in the family has celiac, you’re probably going to want to be pretty thoughtful about how you approach introducing things like wheat. As a rule, in our family, as I have myriad issues, grains are a late addition, and I prefer to start with non-grain starches like tapioca and arrowroot, then rice and less traditional grains/seeds like millet, sorghum, amaranth, teff, etc. before going straight to wheat. Rice is usually the first grain we introduce, for convenience sake, but NEVER the library paste they call baby rice cereal. That stuff should probably be reserved for making finger paints (add turmeric, or beet juice, etc. to infant rice cereal and you’ll see what I mean). It is a highly processed starch, hard on the pancreas, hard on the digestion, and completely unnecessary for iron content if your child is getting a variety of red meat and fruits and vegetables. Like tiny jars of babyfood, rice cereal is a racket and in my mind, a completely worthless first food. Or last food. It’s not really food. Now, cream of rice can be very comforting on a sore throat, even for adults, but it has both texture and flavor which baby cereal lacks completely.

A baby around here is most likely to experience rice in the form of brown rice penne pasta, which is an awesome finger food for your average 8 month old, and well liked by the rest of the family. Or in brown or white basmati or jasmine rice under a nice curry or in a veggy pilaf. Trader Joe’s makes a brown rice gluten free bread that cooks extremely well and makes awesome cooked sandwiches, and my kids end up getting that on a pretty regular basis. We have people in our family who eat wheat just fine but prefer macaroni and cheese made with rice penne for the taste and texture.

White potatoes are a fairly early food owing to their baby friendly texture and dietary ubiquity, but shouldn’t be high on the list if you’re being deliberate in order of introduction primarily because they’re not really great powerhouses of nutrition, and can be reactive for some. Green on potatoes can even be somewhat toxic. They have a fairly high glycemic index, as well, and are in the nightshade family, which may be problematic for some. However, as part of a soup or stew or roasted with meat or in a hash, potatoes are not something I’d panic about my kid swiping younger than planned. For older babies, potatoes are extremely useful for finger foods, but avoid frequent serving of highly addictive forms like french fries that can override kids’ natural sense due to high fat and salt content. (Fat and salt can trick the brain into thinking a food is more nutritious than it is. While neither fat nor salt are evil in my book, salt can be hard on tiny kidneys, and fried super simple starches (that includes breaded fried foods) and greasy starches like pizza are particularly addictive in a true sense of the word and I try to avoid feeding my kids addictive foods. I’ve lived with kids who would only eat the same thing for dinner every night and I don’t want that life.

This doesn’t mean you can never ever ever give your kids pizza… it means be aware of and strive for enough variety in your diet that they never get the idea that pizza is an always food.  (Or chicken nuggets. Or macaroni and cheese. Or french fries.)

So on frequency… the phrase “Food before one is just for fun” is a handy reminder that nutritionally speaking, breast milk, or if it isn’t an option, formula, should be providing all or essentially all of a child’s nutrition for the first six months (tiny swipes by an adept 5 1/2 month old are not generally large enough to replace needed nutrients from breast milk.) In the second six months, breast milk or formula will provide the majority of a child’s nutrition, with food being an experience, an experiment, and a slowly growing part of your child’s nutrition. Your baby does not need to eat “three square meals a day plus snacks” at 7 months.

How to avoid rapidly substituting solids for the breast?

1. Offer the breast first. Nurse as you always would.

2. Don’t make a big deal about feeding your baby separate from the family, and don’t treat “their meal time” as something special as separate from your mealtime. I remember the ceremonial huge high chair and spending an hour trying to get two tablespoons of pureed glop into my kid before gulping down something convenient heated up in the microwave. Heck, usually the baby was eating something I’d lovingly steamed, pureed, filtered, and then frozen into tiny cubes… Two babies I had where I discovered ziplocks full of cubed purees in the bottom of the freezer three years later before I wised up and said never again.

Just, make yourself a plate. Take a bite-sized portion of each of the things you’re willing for your baby to try, and dice or mash them, and put them on the part of your plate closest to you. Sit your baby on your lap while they’re still young enough to not throw the plate on the floor. Eat your food. If they swipe, they swipe. If they don’t, don’t worry about it.

When your kid gets feisty enough to try to swipe the whole plate, it might be time for a high chair. Because I don’t feed purees and I don’t feed solids to babies who can’t sit up in general, I skipped big high chairs and went straight for the Fisher Price Healthy Care booster seat. Bought three of them over the past 10 years, one for Mom’s house, one for my house, one for my sister’s house for my niece, if I recall correctly. The seat is small, straps to a regular chair, is easily washed and they last forever, and work from about 6 months to 2-5 years depending on whether you have moose kids or mini kids. (I’ve had both.) Miles is a very average sized 3 year old and still fits, just.

Then you can put their diced-bite samples on the tray, and let them have at. We take the tray away when food starts to be flung deliberately to the floor, that being apparently the universal baby sign for “I’m done eating and am ready to generate more chaos.”

Letting a baby manage their own volume of intake and letting them choose which of the foods in front of them they eat is a huge step toward them developing a lifelong healthy relationship to food and eating. Unless your child is severely underweight and has a medical reason why food is not optional, there are few circumstances where pushing food has an upside. Encourage tasting, but try to avoid coaxing. Be as philosophical as you can muster. Let your own food issues go. In those first six months of eating, especially, what they’re doing is not mission critical nutritionally speaking. Heck, since in the first two years of life you want them getting a good whack of nutrition from breast milk, cow milk, or formula, if they seem to subsist some days on dust bunnies, last night’s floor grapes, and things found under couch cushions, so be it. Most kids, served a reasonable variety of nutritious foods will, over the course of weeks, average out to a pretty good diet. Even if it does mean that one day they only eat peas, and another day blueberries, and the next day it’s all about the “cheese circles” and one day they don’t eat a darned thing you put in front of them but keep showing up with suspicious chocolate smears from a hidden cache they found. The more relaxed you are about what they choose from what you put in front of them, the less emotionally loaded food will be for them.

And some things they just won’t like. Heck, some meals they won’t want anything you’ve offered. My personal policy (and this is a place where you really need to pick and choose which hills you’re willing to die on) is that I’m cooking one main meal at dinner that the family sits down to together if possible. I don’t cook “second dinner” for kids who didn’t eat, but we have fairly unlimited access in this house to a bunch of nutritious foods the kids like the rest of the day, so I almost never say no to apples, bananas (unless they’ve already had three, I do have limits), other fruits as we have them available, cheese (real, unprocessed cheese, usually organic and/or grass fed and/or local as budget allows) in circles, strings, slices, or chunks, decent quality salami (naturally cured because I just can’t buy that refined sodium nitrite is somehow less of an issue than celery powder) or leftover chicken, leftover noodles or gluten free bread with cheese, avocado if they’re not being mushy little jerks about it. Eggs I’ll make up to about 5 pm but we eat at 7 and after 5 my cooking is about dinner, not about whims. Fresh raw veggies they can eat whenever we have them available, and rainbow organic carrots ($1 per pound on co-op AND in the store, and we go through about 4 pounds every 3 weeks if I don’t forget we have them) are a huge favorite right now. Bell and mini peppers are huge right now for some reason. Probably vitamin C.

You get to decide what’s the most important thing for you, if you want or need a family meal, where you’re willing to “cater” and when you’re not.

Now, I know a lot of parents say, “But if my child is swiping off my plate at 6 months, I’m not eating particularly healthy food, so I don’t want them eating that.”

Fair enough, and setting boundaries about when your child can share your plate with you and when they can’t is healthy and necessary. Tell them, and do what you need to do to make it happen.

But also think about this… making perfect meals or a balanced diet for a baby or young toddler while you eat poorly is unsustainable and demoralizing and harder than it needs to be. If you want to teach your child to have a varied, nutritious, healthy diet, the number one way they will learn that is by watching you. Better to spend the same time preparing something for yourself that is nutritious and satisfying, and let them share, than to spend hours on their diet and then fill in your gaps with fast food or processed snack foods.

Cooking does not have to be complex, and in fact, simple cooking is ideal for this way of feeding babies. A little creativity can turn one effort into several meals. Think about how you want your child to eat as they grow up. In general. Then strive for that. Develop some defaults that are easy but don’t make you feel like you’ve jumped the mommy shark.

I can get a roast chicken with sweet potatoes ready and in the oven in about 3 minutes of effort, an hour later, plus a salad, it’s a great meal and you have both chicken and sweet potato for your baby and enough leftovers for them to have chicken and sweet potato for days.  Simple. Most roasts are like that. Many of the first starches. Save your effort for some lovely sauteed veggies. For dicing up some extra veggies so when the chicken is eaten you can toss the bones in a bag and then the next day you can make soup and already have veggies for it.

Don’t overthink, especially if your kiddo is doing all right. This isn’t a competition, it isn’t a race, and some days will be better than others. There are in this world people who only ever eat chicken nuggets and survive decades before medical problems become large. Human children are remarkably resilient and thrive on a variety of diets. Pretty much throughout human history, the rule has been that kids hit an age where they swipe food off the parent’s plate and if it’s not a good texture the parent swipes it back, breaks it down, and feeds it to them. Curries, sushi, complex foods are not verboten for learning eaters in places where they are common. My eldest would eat salsa gladly right up until age 2, at which point taste buds happened and K would have none of it for another ten years or so.

A child’s rejection of food is not a rejection of you, or your parenting, or even a judgment of your cooking. It’s an expression of personal control and preference at a stage where very few parts of their lives actually allow for autonomy or decision making by necessity. And today’s acceptance does not mean tomorrow’s acceptance. Roll with it.

Posted in Baby development, Food, Parenting Questions.

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