Cooking for babies and young kids not only can be simple, it should be simple! Here are my tips, proven 100% effective by a certain 6 year old who names vegetables when asked what he wants for dinner. Click the photos for descriptions & recipes!
1. Know What's Your Job (And What's Not)
When you get right down to it, you can't truly control what a child eats. That is the baby's job, and this is the way it should be. You can, however, arrange an environment that ensures proper nutrition and a healthy developing relationship with food. Are you familiar with Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility in Feeding? It's the best summary I know of for what you should and should not worry about.
Adults choose what to offer, when to offer, and how much to prepare.
Kids choose how much to eat, and which of the offered foods to eat.
That means once the food is on the table, there's no pressure to eat more or less of anything. Choosing what to eat (of what is offered) is their job, not ours. Believe it or not, the best way to "encourage" children to try new things is to not encourage them at all. Just offer, and let it be. Eventually they will become curious and try what is on offer.
2. Simple, Visible Ingredients
Children, especially babies and especially toddlers, need to be able to see and identify food in order to form a healthy relationship with whatever is served. A child can't love broccoli if they don't know they are eating it because we have cleverly hidden it in a pouch, bread, or casserole. Opt instead to simply steam the broccoli, or perhaps pan fry it in a little coconut oil.
There are theories that we subconsciously analyze the nutritive value of foods and then crave things accordingly. For example, a pregnant mother may crave artichokes without realizing they are full of folic acid her developing fetus needs. If this theory is true, then it is even more important the babies be able to visually recognize food, so that they may soak in and follow this data.
This is one advantage of introducing finger foods early, whenever your baby seems capable of picking them up. Many families wait too long to introduce finger foods, which you can safely do with most babies shortly after starting solids. Letting a child pick up and eat their own food gives them great control and awareness of what they are eating.
3. Cook Together
I'm not saying we should never offer soups, casseroles, curries, or smoothies. But if your child is turning those foods down, consider either offering a deconstructed version or making a point out of constructing it together. You can start cooking with your baby as soon as they are standing with good stability. A learning tower, stable chair, or footstool is a useful tool to bring them to counter height. At first they can only mix things with a spoon (or simply watch you adoringly). Around one year, you may want to introduce a Montessori style knife (purchases made through this link provide a small donation to my Nurturing Nanny Scholarship fund), which is not sharp but provides satisfying cutting experiences. Several years later, you can start to have the child in the room while the stove is on, but for the infant and toddler years, safety requires they be out of reach of the stove when it is on, ideally happily occupied in their Yes Space.
Similarly, if you want to add some fresh herbs to your cooking, do so in sight of the child. Even better, show them the whole plant and let them try a piece if they are willing. Then you can sprinkle chopped bits of the herb on their food without getting unappreciative comments about the suspicious "green things."