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. The photos throughout are from our many enjoyable, healthy meals.
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 relationship with eating. 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 that the babies be able to visually recognize food, so that they may soak in this data and eat according to their needs.
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 with fascination). Around one year, you may want to introduce a Montessori style knife, 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 the kitchen, ideally happily occupied in their safe play 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."
I would never push a child to cook, but I've never needed to. Toddlers are enchanted by everyday life skills like cooking and washing dishes. If the child isn't interested in cooking, stick to a simple meal with visible ingredients and save the baking for next time (or just eat it all yourself!).
4. Know How Eating Develops
There is a developmental timetable for eating. Around 6 months, babies start to notice and become interested in solid food. From this period until around 12-18 months, most babies will try anything. It is a common mistake to offer children under 1 year old a very limited palate. Of course, you must be careful to watch for allergic reactions, but once the extent of allergies is known, go ahead and offer any and every safe food you can think of. Babyhood is the time to go wild with variety!
This broad exposure is important, because most toddlers go through a developmental stage where they don’t want to try new things, and they will often refuse foods they liked before. This is completely normal and healthy. Once children begin to walk, there is an evolutionary advantage to only eating foods they are very certain about. Imagine a hunter-gatherer toddler suddenly having the motor ability to wander in the forest...the child that tries everything without discernment may not survive. We must respect this instinct and offer the same foods repeatedly, in recognizable form, so that children can identify them as safe. You may need to offer the same food a dozen or more times before a toddler will even touch it. Be prepared for this and don’t take it personally. This is also, not coincidentally, the age where babies become enraptured with the idea of handing us their food to eat. Try what they offer you. This is an instinctual behavior that helps them verify the food is safe.
Also at this age, toddlers are beginning to express their very important selves. They are driven to show us that they have needs and desires that are distinct (opposite!!) from ours. We must respect this as well, and accept that they will be selective simply because they are developing preferences and the ability to demonstrate them. It is more important now, than ever, to refrain from applying any pressure whatsoever to the amount of food a child eats, or to push them to eat one thing over another. Toddlers can smell a power struggle a mile away, and they invariably find this smell far more appetizing than the food in front of them. Make a point of offering just food...not battles!
Later, in the preschool years, children open themselves up again and will be excited about new food experiences like complex cooking, setting a fancy table, and going to restaurants. So don't worry if your toddler isn't ready for those things yet. It’s simply too early.
5. Shared Meals
While a very young baby needs 100% of your attention during feeding times, it will not be long before they are capable enough with finger foods that you can eat at the same time. I highly recommend this because, for one thing, if you are like most parents, you are probably not setting aside enough time for yourself to eat! Having set mealtimes (the same ones as your baby) solves that problem. Secondly, you can model proper eating behavior like using a silverware or napkin without manipulating or shaming the child, simply because that is how you as an adult eat. Children learn through imitation, so it is important that they see table manners to imitate. Lastly, for some of us it simply doesn't come naturally to watch a baby eat without worrying about whether they are eating "enough" or the right things. If you suffer from this internal stress, it can be helpful to occupy yourself with eating, which you need to do anyway.
Babies may need way more or way less time than you to eat. That is fine. Always let the baby return to play when they signal they are done eating. You can finish your last few bites after you have helped them wipe their hands and return to their safe play space.
6. No Highly Satiating or Processed Food
The modern food industry has cracked the code on giving us food we simply can't put down and will choose over healthy food every time, especially if we happen to be a toddler with no impulse control. Obviously adult “junk” food like chips and soda is not appropriate for babies and toddlers, but I encourage parents to think of squeeze packs, puffs, and fruit bars as “junk” food as well. Even when made solely from healthy ingredients, these products have been engineered to appeal to babies' interest in sweet foods and neglect other tastes. The child also can't identify what is in the food. That is not healthy, no matter how organically sourced the ingredients are. I have seen many times that the children offered these foods on a regular basis have a much more limited palate, because they are used to super-engineered baby food products. Treat these foods like the delightful indulgences they are, and offer them only occasionally or when there aren’t other options.
Avoiding processed food also means you will be eliminating most of the excess saltiness, fattiness, and sugariness that is added to processed food to make it palatable. If you avoid offering your baby these highly satiating aspects of food, they will have room in their taste buds for more subtle tastes, like the shy sweetness of zucchini, or the lovely fattiness of plain yogurt.
Many families turn to these convenient foods because they don't believe they have time to cook a meal for their baby. I hope that the pictures in this article will demonstrate to you how very simple these meals can be. You truly can prepare a whole-food meal in 15 minutes, as I have done many times for an impatient 9 month old. Microwave a potato, microwave some vegetables in a steamer, and tada! It's dinner.
Additionally, if you are practicing Magda Gerber's Educaring® Approach in other ways, you will be spending lovely, quality time with your baby during caregiving routines like diapering, and your baby will be used to spending time in contented independent play. This will leave you with free moments throughout the day where you can chop vegetables for later.
If you would like to offer a puree, mash it yourself, each ingredient separately. Only the very earliest eaters need food so finely mashed that a grinder is necessary. Once the baby knows how to move food with their tongue and swallow (instead of just suck), you can offer potato, avocado, banana, yam, carrots, zucchini, and many other foods mashed with a fork. You can offer small, soft pieces of the same food just a week or two after that.
I hope you find these tips inspiring! Try out this style of feeding with your baby and you will see that it not only helps prepare children to eat a wide variety of healthy food, it also makes mealtimes much more relaxed and enjoyable for the whole family.