Mealtimes with kids may not always be easy and mess-free, but it’s a great way to learn, grow, and try new foods with your children.
I just finished compiling our best 2016 photos into a family photo book a few nights ago. It was such a fun project to go through the year’s memories, and not surprisingly there were many photos of Neko’s face all smeared with food to sift through.
This last year+ of feeding her solids has honestly brought me so much joy, but it’s also been a steep learning curve.
Unfortunately, running a cooking company doesn’t preclude me from all the normal pains of learning how to feed a baby / toddler.
I was probably more prepared than most; because of my job, I had already read many books on feeding strategies. But of course, as any parent who’s tried to help a baby sleep, breastfeed or try new foods knows, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and what works today may not work a week from now.
So as I looked back on 2016’s photos, I also got a chance to think about all that I’ve learned in the feeding department. I’ve summed up my reflections in the 10 takeaways below that will hopefully help you and your kids enjoy mealtimes a lot more too.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and learn more about your personal experience in the comments!
10 Lessons I’ve Learned from Feeding My Daughter
1. What works today may not work tomorrow
Kids are fickle and also going through constant change. Feeding strategies that worked one week may not work the next, so as a parent you have the tough job of constant experimentation. There’s nothing like kids to keep you on your toes! Be patient with your kids, but most importantly, be patient with yourself because it’s a lot of change to manage in an already hectic life.
2. Don’t worry too much about quantity
For a long time, I defined success based on how much my child ate. If she would only take 2 bites, I felt like the meal was a failure. However, I’ve learned that a toddler’s stomach is about the size of their fist, which means it can really hold a few tablespoons of solid food. Plus, I’ve noticed that her appetite fluctuates from meal to meal, day to day, so I’ve stopped expecting her to eat a consistently regular amount at every meal. With that understanding, I’ve stopped focusing on the amount she eats and focus more on exposure of foods and creating an inviting, no-pressure mealtime environment.
3. Mealtime is more than just the eating part
Once I started focusing more on the experience and environment of mealtime, they became a lot more fun for the both of us. During the time she was 5 to ~10 months, we often ate meals separately. I would get her fed (or she would feed herself) in her little high chair and the tray that came with it. She enjoyed exploring new foods and practicing new motor skills. However, starting around 11 months, she hit a pickier, more controlling phase so we decided to change the environment. I removed the tray, moved her right up to the table and started eating meals together. I tried as much as possible to eat outside with music playing, and it definitely made a huge difference in her mood at meals. Apparently toddlers care about ambiance too!
4. Helping doesn’t guarantee enjoyment
In the last 2 months, my daughter has been “helping” me out at mealtimes in her Learning Tower. I let her stir things, whisk eggs, pour and add things to a bowl and hold a serrated knife with me while I chop very soft ingredients. She likes the chance to help but helping with a meal doesn’t always mean she will gobble the meal up. She’s more excited to try it but it certainly doesn’t mean she’ll like it. Still, I enjoy the time we have together in the kitchen and helping her practice her motor skills, and I’m hoping it won’t be long till she becomes a reliable sous chef.
5. Cook meals that you want to eat
As much as I love, love watching my kid enjoy a meal, I know I don’t have the patience or time to create meals just for her. There is one meal presented and if she doesn’t love it, I use Dina Rose’s suggestion from her book It’s Not About the Broccoli. Rose suggests providing one back-up option of something your kiddo(s) likes okay but certainly doesn’t love. Otherwise, they’ll always hold out for the backup. At our table, the backup is usually whole grain toast with peanut butter.
6. Don’t make super-loved foods your backup
For awhile, I wasn’t following Dina Rose’s backup suggestion and always giving in with my daughter’s absolute favorite food: cheese. I got so much joy out of watching her eat it so eagerly that it just became easy to pull out a cheese stick whenever we got stuck during a meal. This only reinforced her preference for cheese and made every meal a hold out for cheese. So for several months, I just stopped stocking cheese at home. Once it stopped being an option, she started eating a much wider variety of foods again and I’ve been able to reintroduce it back into our rotation without the fear that it would be the only thing she would eat.
7. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again
As I mentioned before, kids are fickle. Some of my daughter’s early favorites (like salmon), she only enjoys so-so now. Some things she used to spit right back out (like tomatoes) could easily be her whole entire meal now. I’m glad we didn’t give up on those early rejected foods because her preferences are always changing. The best way to do this without driving yourself crazy is to just eat a wide variety of ingredients in a wide variety of ways yourself, and your kids will naturally experience the exposure they need to acclimate to new or less-liked ingredients without you having to make separate meals. Nobody ever said that parenting was easy, right?
8. Serve everything together family-style
My daughter is too young for desserts, and I didn’t grow up in a household that ate dessert regularly. However, she usually eats a fruit with all of her meals. We used to offer fruit at the end of meals, and once she figured that out, she just refused to eat anything until we gave in and gave her the fruit. At this point, I decided to follow Ellyn Satter’s “Division of Responsibility” philosophy. My job was to present her with a wide variety of nutritious foods at consistent meal time periods; her job was to decide what to eat and how much to eat. We started offering everything together, family-style. She starts with an empty bowl or plate, and I actually serve myself first. I find that seeing me try things first while not forcing anything onto her plate usually entices her to ask for a taste of everything. She points to what she wants, and instead of overwhelming her with a huge portion, we start with one to two bite portions. If she asks for more, great! If not, we don’t push it. I think giving her complete control at the table has made a huge difference in her willingness to try new things and has made mealtimes so much more pleasant for the both of us.
9. It’s ok to make the food tasty!
My daughter certainly enjoys food more when it tastes good, so I’m not shy about using soy sauce, sweetener, oyster sauce or other condiments to make less-favored foods a bit more appetizing. I also have no problem pairing new foods with familiar and well-liked dips – in our case this is usually yogurt, hummus and sometimes even ketchup. I wouldn’t want to eat broccoli dipped in ketchup but if that’s one way to get her to enjoy her broccoli, then I consider that a win.
10. Embrace the mess
I am a bit of a neat freak but a baby with its constant biological disruptions and budding motor skills doesn’t really care about my desire to keep things tidy and clean. One of the hardest things about parenthood is embracing the fact that babies need falls, mistakes and messes to learn and then just hanging back and letting it happen. I’ve learned that messes can be wiped up and that playing with your food can be its own mini lesson in flavor exploration. For messier meals, we just do a full strip down before eating and go right to bathtime afterwards.
I also shared these 10 lessons on Facebook Live. You can see the replay here if you missed it.
I know this is just the beginning and there will be many more challenges ahead. Right now, my daughter is in a “must be near papa at all times” phase. If he’s around during a mealtime, she insists on having her meals on his lap instead of her high chair, so that’s what we’re working on now.
However, this year of learning has boosted my confidence a lot as a mom, and I’m very curious to see how kiddo #2 will be different and the same. I’m sure there will be many lessons ahead, and I’m excited to share them all with you.
Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts and learn more about your personal experience in the comments below!
If you’re looking for more ways to raise your kids to become healthy and adventurous eaters, check out all our awesome resources (some are free printables!) in our Guide to Healthy Cooking with Kids and our #KidsWhoEat series.
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