Parents are often told how incredibly important family meals are. But integrating the whole family — including a curious new eater — into the mix can pose a challenge. I remember the few months when I cooked three separate meals to satisfy my baby, my 3-year-old and the adults in the family. Getting everyone to eat together was hard work.
But it doesn’t have to be such a daunting task for the family to happily sit down to a meal together. Babies can often eat a simple version of the vegetables that you’re serving the rest of the family. “Even though they are little, babies are starting to create a habit at the table,” said Dr. Kate Williamson, a pediatrician in Orange County, Calif., and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Infants are very observant of their families; and when they watch the rest of the family eat, they are going to have more interest in eating as well.”
I talked to a child and family psychologist, a lactation and feeding expert, a researcher who studies babies’ senses and a pediatrician to get their takes on family meals.
Understand why family mealtimes matter.
“We always recommend that families eat together and that children are eating the same foods as their families whenever possible,” said Jennifer Banuelos, a researcher at University of California Davis who studies infant feeding.
The goal is to build the foundation of a healthy relationship with food, said Froma Burack, a Los Angeles-based child and family psychologist. That includes recognizing when you’re hungry, enjoying food and stopping when you’ve had enough.
Start slow with tiny tastes.
From 4 to 6 months of age, depending on your baby’s developmental readiness, you may offer your baby “tiny tastes” of varied foods each day to introduce the rich flavors of real foods while setting up future healthy food preferences, said Cynthia Epps, a lactation and feeding specialist. She recommended starting with the less-sweet, darker vegetables, such as spinach, broccoli, chard, asparagus, collard greens and kale — because starting with sweeter veggies may make a baby less likely to accept the less-sweet varieties. Then, work your way up to the various squashes, zucchini, green beans, peas and all varieties of beans. Epps recommended mashing bits of vegetables between your fingers to soften and release the smells before offering them to your baby to engage all of their senses.
Move to full meals, beginning with breakfast or lunch.
After palate training, real meals can start. With a flexible, silicone spoon, babies can start to explore puréed foods on their own. By 9 to 12 months, your baby should be enjoying two to three meals a day (mostly with the family) and getting a variety of flavors and textures.
It may be easiest to have the baby eat with the family at lunchtime or Saturday breakfast, rather than trying to get everyone ready at dinnertime, said Dr. Williamson. “Everyone should be eating together when the baby starts food, because they are so curious and observant,” she said. “It’s going to be super messy, but it’s more about doing it consistently.”
This is a time when you can help your child set a healthy relationship with food and with the family meal, Dr. Burack said. Babies want to touch, smear and mix food, and even put it in their hair. Even conservative pediatricians and psychologists now agree that parents should let it go and be more free with meals. “Let them feel around with their food,” Dr. Burack said. “If they’re holding the spoon upside down, don’t correct it — allow a baby to process and enjoy it.”
Once a baby is 4 to 6 months old, she can either be in a high chair or a parent’s arms. Some parents prefer to hold baby at the table, especially if they’ve been away from her all day, Dr. Williamson said. Others prefer a high chair.
If you’re using a high chair, things can get even messier. Dr. Burack pointed out that many babies see the highchair as an experiment with gravity, as their perspective changes with the newfound height. They’re thinking: “If I throw this food, is it going to make a big noise?” Instead of reacting dramatically, try to view their experiments as part of the learning process and play along.
Learn how to cook for a mixed-age crowd.
If you are serving zucchini spears to a toddler, you can purée that same zucchini for the infant. Steamed peas and carrots are good options for early finger foods, and pieces of tofu or chicken can help with the pincer grasp, when your baby is ready for them.
When her kids were just starting solids, Banuelos would cook extra portions, purée them and freeze them in ice cube trays or cupcake tins. “That way, I always had something to pull out even if I didn’t have a lot of time to precook a batch of baby food,” she said. “When what I was cooking wasn’t conducive to puréeing, I sometimes tried to color-coordinate our meals. For example, if we were eating broccoli and chicken, I’d try to offer a green purée to the baby.”
Don’t fixate on how much of the meal is consumed.
How many times do parents need to offer tastes of a new food before a baby will accept it? About 10 to 25 times, according to researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “What you model first, as real food for your infant through palate training, is the foundation of your child’s future preferences for food,” said Epps.
The actual amount getting in their mouths isn’t the most important part of this process. Babies and toddlers benefit most by watching their parents’ facial expressions, said Banuelos. Parents can watch for cues that indicate hunger, fullness or even overstimulation.
“As a parent, you are not responsible for how much they actually choose to eat,” said Dr. Burack. “You’re just responsible for what you buy and what’s in the pantry.”
Try this sample meal plan for 10 months and up.
Glazed salmon, brown rice and broccoli
Pat salmon fillets dry. Whisk a little maple syrup and soy sauce and pour over the fish. Bake for 15 minutes or until soft and cooked through.
Cook rice according to instructions. (A rice cooker can help do this ahead of time.)
Steam broccoli until soft.
Mash the broccoli and flake fish into small pieces for the baby, checking for bones. Add a little sauce to the rice to make it easier to scoop.
Toddler can have chunks of broccoli and a portion of fish alongside the rice.
When to Worry
There’s not too much to worry about when it comes to integrating a baby into family mealtimes, the experts said. There’s a wide variety of eating habits that are considered normal in the 6-to-12-month age range.
This guide was originally published on July 11, 2019.
Katharine Gammon is a mom of toddler and preschool boys.