There are few things my baby girl enjoys more in life than sitting at the table with her favourite people and a big plate of food in front of her (and to be honest, a second big plate of food to her left that she can steal food from). Since Ben and I introduced Joan to solids at six months of age, she has taken to it with gusto. We have ourselves a girl who will try everything that is put in front of her, mood permitting, and usually enjoy it, which makes the whole experience fun and rewarding. On reflection, I think her readiness to eat is a combination of nature and nurture. Joan definitely has food-love in her blood, from both sides of her family. In addition, while I was pregnant I ate a wide range of foods, which they say encourages babies to have an adventurous palate. And finally, perhaps most importantly, Ben and I have been strict from the beginning in how we approach food with Joan. We’ve put a lot of effort into being relaxed about it all, which seems totally contradictory, I know, and I’ll explain more below.
Over the past six months I’ve received a number of requests to talk about what Joan eats and to share a few tips on raising an adventurous eater, and at last I’ve written a bunch of thoughts down. But before we get into it, I want to note that I am completely aware that I have one child and hence only one point of reference. Yes, I am also a dietitian, and have studied ways to encourage healthy eating habits in children, but that’s not the same as having a child who is very challenging in this regard and being able to share real life experience. I am not standing on a pedestal saying that this is the only way, it is simply what works for our family. Furthermore, I know that although Ben and I try hard with this eating business, our babe has made our job easy. We will see how much of Joan’s (so far) easy eating is down to nature vs nurture when we have more kids. Therefore, as with any advice or sharing of experiences that you receive as a parent, take from this post whatever resonates with you, tune out the rest and ultimately do whatever works for your family. Always and forever.
Alright, let’s start at the beginning.
INTRODUCING FOODS WITH BABY LED WEANING
Ben and I decided to do Baby Led Weaning (BLW) when introducing solid foods to Joan at age 6 months (more on this post here). There’s loads of information on Gill Rapley’s website about BLW, and I recommend you read her book if you’re interested in the topic. I also recommend you do a first aid course to feel confident about handling possible choking scenarios. It’s not that skipping purees, waiting until bubba is 6 months old and developmentally ready, then going straight to solid foods means your baby WILL choke, though it’s always good to know what to do if that happens (indeed we’ve needed to once or twice), but the course is, in my mind, key for anyone who looks after children. And it will help you feel reassured that when your baby gags on food (which WILL happen), it is not the same as choking, and the best thing you can do is let your baby figure it out while remaining relaxed and not jumping around grabbing food out of their mouths. That will just freak them out. The gagging thing is absolutely scary the first few times it happens, but it’s all part of your baby learning how to eat. As is mess. Indeed, BLW is verrrry messy stuff, as babies squish and spit and play with their food, but exploring in this way is part of learning what food is all about. These days Joan even gets involved in the clean up, and she’s actually quite helpful, which makes things easier. BLW worked really well for us. We weren’t strict about following the BLW rules, we served bubba some mashed foods and sometimes feed her with a spoon (which still do on occasion, when I cannot be bothered cleaning yoghurt out of her hair), but what we really honoured about the concept was giving our baby challenging textures (when ready and within reason), and respecting her appetite by letting her feed herself and listening when she was hungry and full.
Since the beginning we have constantly served new foods to Joan instead of parking with her “favourites”. Babies naturally favour sweet flavours, they see them as safe foods (breastmilk is super sweet!), and so I always prioritise serving Joan savoury foods in order to get her used to them and move her away from thinking food should just be sweet. I saw the initial period of introducing solids not as a way to get in lots of vitamins or minerals, rather as an opportunity to expose her to loads of different flavours and textures, so that she would develop an adventurous palate and accept a wide range of foods more easily as she grew up. As she has grown into a toddler and begun to play around with control and preferences and autonomy, I have continued to provide her food in this way, but I’ve had to tweak the way I approach it and react to her (all the while continuing to trust and respect her appetite as she reduced breastfeeds and began to rely on food for most of her nutrient intake). It’s easy to be relaxed about how much your baby eats in the early days, when you’ve got breastmilk or formula as a fallback to ensure they remain super well-nourished, but when they wean, parents can easily become anxious about whether their kids are getting enough goodness in. It’s a lot to deal with. I want to note that our daughter is not overly sensitive to textures and doesn’t appear to have any behavioural traits that make eating or introducing new foods particularly tricky (no trickier than it is for kids in general, at least). Some kids are very sensitive and in those cases I suggest seeking a paediatric dietitian for advice, but for the most part, it is completely natural for babies to be a little cautious about new flavours and textures that come their way. And it is natural for toddlers to say “no” and make things harder than we’d like, indeed Joan will surely begin to do more of this as she grows and her brain develops. So, how do we handle that?…
THIS IS DINNER
When introducing new foods that aren’t sweet or instantly appealing to your baby, expect them to warily taste the food, spit it out and shake their head as though you’ve poisoned them. It is totally normal behaviour, if not a little dramatic. Don’t be deterred or label it as a food that they don’t like. Labels like “fussy eater” and assumptions that kids will always hate XYZ can encourage them to embody this. When truthfully, it can take multiple exposures (like, 100!) before kids accept some foods. The best thing you can do is to be calm and confident, and consistently offer them a wide variety of foods with different colours, flavours and textures. Model eating the food yourself and, importantly, do not pressure your kid to eat it – i.e. don’t stare at them and make a big deal out of it, saying “Try your carrots, mmmm yum! Will you have some carrot, Sarah? Mummy’s having carrots, mmmm GOOD carrots. Please try the carrots? One bite? One little bite for Mummy? Carrot, carrot, carrot!”. Nope. Just have the food there and eat it yourself. “This is dinner”, kind of stuff. If they’re not hungry, that’s ok, they can sit there while you eat and the same meal can be offered to them later. That last part is easier said than done, I know, I hear ya. Don’t get me wrong, Joan isn’t a completely obliging baby. Sometimes she won’t sit up with us and will scream until she’s allowed to get out from her chair. In those cases we continue eating while she colours with crayons or runs back and forth down the hallway yelling like a lunatic. But I never, ever offer her an alternative. I do not want her to think that she can shake her head and then I’ll get her something else. Heck no. “This is dinner”, and that’s that. Sometimes it takes multiple re-offering attempts before she’ll get the picture and understand that she’s not getting anything else, and that if she’s hungry, she’d better eat it! But that’s cool. We read books or colour in between the re-offerings, or I’ll clean the kitchen. I make sure to allow us time at meals so that I’m not pressuring her to eat and food doesn’t become a battle ground. I also make sure to serve her food when I know she will be hungry, so this head shaking stuff hasn’t happened very often, but when it does, for whatever reason, I’ve found that letting it play out and remaining calm and confident and clear works really well for us. And after grizzling and dramatic head-shaking during the initial offerings, she will eventually ask to go to her high chair and she’ll devour her dinner because by that time, she will definitely be hungry and she’ll know that I’m not going to give her something else. As I said, we don’t have a lot of battles, and who knows if we will in the future when we (hopefully) have more children and our time to allow things to play out calmly will be stretched. I do not recall any food dramas in my house growing up, despite the fact that I know I felt bummed if meatloaf or silverbeet pie were on the menu. I never got anything different and it was never a big deal (and I eventually realised how delicious meatloaf is). I suspect that even though our girl has a very strong will, she won’t fancy going to bed with a rumbling tummy. And if she does, well, there’s a lesson learnt for her and I’ll just have to serve her the leftover meal from the fridge at 6am (or 3am, I guess) and pour myself an extra large coffee in the morning.
HUNGER IS GOOD
When people ask whether Joan is a good eater, I often reply, “Yes, she is, especially when she’s hungry.” While you don’t want kiddos to get incredibly hungry (because that’s just miserable for everyone), allowing them to have an appetite for their meal can be helpful in ensuring they eat what you serve. We have learnt is that if our daughter is hungry, she will eat practically anything we put in front of her. Therefore I make sure to offer the most nutritious foods (veggies!) during these times. She will eat 5 times the amount of carrots and broccoli I offer her after she’s been running around outside or has woken from a nap, compared to if I serve it up to her after she’s been grazing all morning. Similarly, I try to make sure she comes to dinner hungry. Sometimes this backfires, especially if Ben is delayed in getting home from work or if I misjudge how long dinner will take to cook, and she gets “hangry”, but I can usually distract bubba so that by the time we are all sitting at the table, she gobbles her meal up. I don’t deny her food when she’s ravenous, I’ll offer her some veggies to nibble on or one of these to tide her over, but my point is that hunger is good and natural, and helpful in having her view meals as something enjoyable and satisfying, instead of a chore. Who want’s to consistently eat their meals when they’re not truly hungry, just because it’s convenient for someone else to eat at that time?
It can be hard to catch that window between having a good appetite and being hangry. I guess it’s like being tired, you know? It’s a battle to get babies to sleep if they’re not ready, and if they get overtired, well, all bets are off. Indeed, as Joan and her appetite have grown, I’ve fumbled around with when to offer food, and even forgotten to offer her something in the first place. Though these days, if that happens, bubba will go to the kitchen, point at the fridge, grunt and pretend to chew while looking up at me. It’s cute and funny and helpful. And if Joan is very hungry when I’m serving dinner, she’ll run to her high chair and yell “Oooooooooooooooo!!!” excitedly. It’s time to eat. Together.
Eating as a family (the same meal, even if modified slightly) is a big priority for us. It’s something we’ve done from the beginning, and I believe it is super important when encouraging good eating behaviours in children. While I miss my 8pm dinners and always need a bedtime snack (which is actually kind of nice), and though Ben and I often struggle to coordinate our late afternoon/evening schedules to ensure we are eating together somewhere between 5:30-6pm before Joan gets overtired, 90% of the time we make it happen and the pay off is worth it. Joan already knows that dinner means sitting at the table together, talking and tasting, so much so, that if I get up from the table to get a drink and start the dishes, she will look at me, grunt and point at my chair as though I am committing a big sin by leaving the table. And I guess I am. Dishes can wait, who cares about getting a head start on cleaning at the end of the day? Being at the table together is one of the best things in life, in my mind, and clearly Joan agrees.
I also think that involving kids in meal preparation can help them get excited about meals and familiarise them with new foods. At 16 months, our baby girl already says “onion”, so I guess that is a good indicator of how much she is up at the bench in her learning tower (made by my clever dad) while I cook (ps. that learning tower has been a game changer for us!!). As we’re preparing our meals and snacks throughout the day, I’ll offer Joan tastes of food. When assembling a smoothie for breakfast, we’ll nibble on a date and some spinach before blitzing it up, and when washing veggies for a salad, we’ll munch on snow peas together. It took three tries on different days before she got past one bite of snow pea, but by the third taste she was saying, “Mmmm Mmmmmmmm!”, and they’re now a favourite snack (for now, at least). When offering her a taste of whatever I have on hand, I will take a bite myself, then pass it to her… Joan may gobble it up, go forth cautiously or shake her head and push it away. Either way I don’t respond, I just eat it myself and trust that she’ll get there in her own time, particularly if the pressure is off.
NO BIG DEAL
Along with not offering alternatives, allowing her to feel hunger and having us all eat the same meal together, another key component in encouraging an adventurous, breezy eater who has a healthy relationship with food is to not force them to eat. The pressure must be off. This will seem totally ridiculous and unrealistic to some, and I totally get why many people prefer the bribery route. But with babies and toddlers and all kiddos, it can help to hide the fact that you want them to eat the meal that you so thoughtfully prepared. You see, if they sense that it matters to you, they will use that as a way of controlling the situation. And I can’t blame them for that, as so much of their lives are controlled by us, with “Go here, do this, don’t touch that”…right?! Wherever they can get a bit of power they will, and good for them! And so, Ben and I don’t make a big deal of food. It’s just dinner. It’s yum, sure, but we trust Joan’s appetite and don’t force her to eat. We know that by serving up a variety of foods, she will eat some things and leave others. Some days she will eat chicken, other days she won’t. Some days she will eat lots of rice, other times it’s all about meat. Some days she will lick the avocado off the bread and ask for more, other days she picks it off eats only the bread. Looking at what your child eats over the week, rather than each day, is helpful, because some days they’ll eat very little and others they’ll shovel it in. Joan’s appetite, like all babies (and adults!) fluctuates daily, and regardless of what she chooses to eat, we don’t make a big deal out of it.
INTRODUCING NEW FOODS
As I said above, it’s normal for kids to be cautious with new foods and it’s normal for them to attempt to control their situation. It’s not being fussy, it’s being assertive. With any meal in our house, there’s no pressure to eat, and this is particularly true when it comes to new foods. We serve it up, and it’s Joan’s choice if she eats it or not. The food is there and it’s yummy, and Ben and I are eating and enjoying our meal, so eventually (whether it’s the first, second, fifth or twentieth time we serve a new-to-her food) she will try it too and, over time, she’ll usually accept the flavour and enjoy it. Needing repeated exposures is totally, totally normal, and kids are all the more likely to eat new foods sooner if the pressure is off and they see you eating it yourself. We’ve watched (out of the corner of our eyes) Joan pick up foods that she previously spat out at first taste and give them another go, explicitly because she saw us eating them. Here is a small list of foods that have taken repeated exposures before Joan attacked them with glee: chicken, zucchini, snow peas, sweet potato and boiled eggs. She fell in love with red meat, yoghurt, almond butter, strawberries, raspberries and lemons, however, at first bite. Joan still won’t eat a blueberry and doesn’t touch plain cheese (i.e. not melted in a dish) unless it’s parmesan.
When bringing new foods to the table at meal times, I make sure to serve Joan only a little of whatever is new, and I also ensure there is something on her plate that I know she will eat, such as rice or legumes, pasta, eggs, carrots or meat. I learnt this last point the hard way, after serving Joan brown rice and roasted eggplant one night, both for the first time. Dinner was late, because I always forget how long it takes to cook brown rice (and it was in the early days when I overcooked foods in case bubba choked – new parent worry stuff), and, when I finally placed these two new + weird foods in front of her, bubba was BESIDE herself. One bite of eggplant and it was all over, she was inconsolable. Now I know to give Joan something familiar that she can fill up on if she doesn’t like or cannot manage (texture-wise) the small portion of new food I serve. When you put yourself in their shoes, you can totally see where they’re coming from. Introducing a baby to food is a great lesson in empathy, patience and trust. And creativity, because there’s a lot leftovers begging to be repurposed.
Food waste is a truly serious issue, one that we should all be thinking about, in my opinion, particularly as parents who want to leave a healthy planet behind for future generations. Reducing food waste is an easy way to be kind to our environment and, as a bonus, you save money. To deal with the inevitable food waste that comes when trying new foods, I do the following things – 1) I eat leftovers myself, and 2) I make smoothies or frittatas. An example to the first point is when I am slicing toast for a meal – I assume Joan won’t finish her piece and I factor that into my portion (I can always get us more later if we are both hungry). In terms of repurposing leftovers, I blend sweet stuff (like bircher muesli, yoghurt & porridge), with milk, yoghurt and berries, and make a smoothie snack. Savoury food, like veggies, pasta, etc, becomes frittatas with egg and sometimes cheese. Note, I don’t serve this to her as an alternative if she hasn’t eaten her food (as I said above, in those cases I stick to my guns and re-offer the same thing), rather this is when I have made too much for her to eat and I want to mix it up for the next meal (I often find I overestimate how much porridge and pasta to cook), or if I have misjudged her ability to handle a texture (grated apple still gets her!), or if I have given her a new food that she is not yet loving, and she’s had a taste of it but not finished it and I want her to continue getting used to the flavour but don’t want to force her into eating it meal after meal. And that’s important to note – when eating a new food I don’t expect her to eat loads of it, a little taste is normal. Though sometime she doesn’t even have a taste and it may take five or more times before she puts it to her mouth instead of instantly moving it off her plate or handing it to Ben with a firm, “Ta”.
We cook a lot in our house. Cooking is something Ben and I both enjoy, and it allows us to eat in our desired way – making delicious, new and familiar dishes with quality produce. We base our diet on “wholefoods”, meaning as close to their natural state as possible, with some obvious forms of processing to get the food from field to plate. This looks like vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, fruit, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, and then in terms of animal products we go free-range eggs, fish (favouring canned, as it is easier to find wild-caught canned fish, and it’s cheaper than fresh fillets), organic free range chicken, grassfed meats and organic dairy. We favour wholefoods based on how they make us feel and how they impact the environment, and so we shop and cook and eat accordingly. And because Joan is our daughter and has no money of her own, nor the skills to make herself an omelette, she eats what we eat. We don’t alter our diet significantly for her (Joan eats dense and grainy sourdough and spiced dishes like dahl), however we now use a touch less salt and chilli in our cooking. Giving babies the same food as you cuts down your cooking time, saves money and also encourages healthy, adventurous eaters.
I do, however, have a few favourite “Joan foods” that I keep on hand for potentially hangry moments, i.e. if I’m needing to keep her happy during a long car trip (baby girl generally hates the car) or if we go to the doctors. I read food labels, and so I rarely buy pre-packaged, overly processed foods, because they honestly contain a lot of unnecessary ingredients that are thrown in to make them shelf-stable and appealing. And most of the time I offer her strips of toast with nut butter, a banana or dried figs/dates, which keep her happy, but I also buy the following products for when I am time poor or unorganised:
* Orgran crispbreads – I don’t avoid all wheat or gluten, but I make sure that her diet isn’t solely made up of wheat, as we get loads of it very easily in many foods and I prefer to mix up our diets with other wholegrains.
* Mogli spelt and coconut crackers – these are little animal-shaped biscuits that taste kind of like shortbread. Joan goes bonkers for them, and for a sweet biscuit, I am very happy with the ingredients list.
* Dr Karg’s grainy crackers – these are very crunchy, so bubba is only just handling them now, but she and I both adore them.
Other easy snacks we have:
* Sourdough toast with natural nut butter (Joan seems to favour almond butter) or avocado
* Boiled eggs, plain or mashed with avocado
* Black beans (just rinsed and served plain in a bowl – loves them!)
* Lightly steamed carrot sticks and broccoli
* Snow peas
* Fruit (fresh or preservative-free dried fruit)
* Almond butter, straight-up with a spoon
* Hummus and vegetables and/or crispreads
* Smoothies made with a combination of fruit/avocado/spinach/milk/yoghurt/hemp seeds/chia seeds/oats. What I put in depends on what I have on hand and whether it’s a little snack, simply for hydration or a full meal.
I prep the boiled eggs and steamed veg during my meal prep sessions, which happen once or twice a week (see this post for more details). If I am organised I may also make some mini frittatas, pancakes or muesli bars, but that honestly doesn’t happen often. We are now at the stage where cooking together is fun and achievable (thanks for that learning tower), so we save this to do together. It’s summer here now, and so homemade popsicles and date + coconut fudge are happening a lot, and most days we have a smoothie. Other than that Joan eats the same meals as us: scrambled eggs; avocado toast; lentils; rice cooked in chicken broth with chickpeas, greens and egg (a typical Monday night meal); quick curry type things; abundance bowls in summer (see the picture above); slow-cooked meat dishes and soupy stews in winter; and pasta absolutely any time of year. If you’re after great food ideas for kids, I cannot recommend my good pal’s book enough. Vanessa is a talented cook and shares the same view on kids + food as Ben and I, and her book, Real Food for Babies and Toddlers is coming out in May. I am so excited to cook from it! Jude Blereau’s book, Wholefood for Children, has some great recipes and ideas, and in terms of blogs (there are many!) this one seems to be popular, as does this one (though I haven’t made anything from them myself). Please feel free to share resources in the comments.
Lastly, I feel it is very important to note that being “healthy” also means not being too strict when it comes to wholefood eating. Joan’s friends often have biscuits or other food that I wouldn’t buy, however when my girl is offered one I do not hesitate in letting her have it. To be left out and feel restricted leaves kids at risk of developing deprivation issues, and it ignores the fact that food is a social thing. The act of sharing a meal, a snack or a biscuit (whether homemade or full of artificial ingredients) with loved ones brings us joy and that is incredibly important. Sitting at a table eating a housewarming meal of fish & chips and salad with great grandparents is, in my opinion, healthier for you than sitting alone eating pureed organic spinach.
Reading over this post, feeding a baby sounds like a lot of work. And I guess Ben and I do put a lot of effort in to raising an adventurous eater, because it’s incredibly important to us. I want to cook a variety of foods at home and I want to go out for dumplings and curry with my kids, and I absolutely do not want to be preparing separate meals. So, from day one, Ben and I have consistently, calmly and confidently done some key things, which, so far, appear to be helping nurture us in this direction. We eat together as a family, we ensure Joan has an appetite for her meals, and we gently expose her to a wide range of flavours and textures with no pressure and a lot of patience. And that, folks, is dinner.