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By Leanne Cooper

Learning to eat: food, finger foods and feeding

Eating with fingers

Starting your little one on solids can be an intimidating prospect. For first-time mums, the thought of baby having a solid piece of food in their mouth can be scary. Who hasn’t heard the tale about a baby choking on a grape? And before you ask: yes, grapes are one of the top risky foods for choking!

But while starting on solids can certainly be challenging – especially when you have other little ones to feed and time is an issue – it is also a lot of fun. And as the weeks turn to months, what a relief when finally your little one is able to handle food and gobble down bits of food themselves!

So, I hear you ask, how can you overcome this hurdle safely? How can both you and your baby manage the transition from runny food to finger foods? Don’t worry: try these tips below; they are aimed at helping you to make this move – even to enjoy it – and encourage you to set up healthy eating habits for your baby which will then take them into their toddler years and beyond.

Meal ideas for Learning to Eat

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When to start chunky food?

It is important that your baby is eating chunky food by nine months. Chunky food is important for your baby’s dentition and it seems to have a preventative effect on the development of fussy eating habits a little later on. Try not to fall into the habit of providing soft foods for too long or you may find you have dug a rather large hole you can’t get out of.

Finger foods commonly start around this time, although some babies start self-feeding earlier, and this is fine too. Remember, baby is your best guide. In fact, some babies refuse food unless they can feed it to themselves, the spoon becomes temporarily redundant and this new-found freedom is enjoyed with gusto.

Your baby may also start to show some clear preferences – and dislikes – for certain foods. Keep offering a good variety of foods, even if they have been rejected before. Just because baby said no today doesn’t mean they won’t want to have a nibble of it tomorrow. Rotating food so that you offer a variety of vegetables, fruit, breads, cereals, crackers, pastas etc. is a great way of spreading the selection of nutrients, making baby’s diet interesting and varied.

Food and safe eating

Infants and young children don’t have back teeth which we use to chew and grind food down to make smaller pieces. Combined with their still-developing eating methods, this puts them at risk of choking.

Most babies will gag quite often while eating; this is caused by food sitting at the back of the tongue and is most commonly a mechanical issue of moving food around the mouth. Nevertheless, despite there being no cause for alarm, most parents find it a little unsettling. It’s worth noting that this is quite different from choking where the airways are blocked by a food or object.

Always supervise babies and children while eating. Too many toddlers and preschoolers think of eating as an inconvenience in a day that is otherwise filled with play. A common tendency is to take large mouthfuls of food and get it down as fast as possible. (Of course there are others who have a complete lack of interest, but that’s a different story.)

The age groups most at risk from food-related choking:

  • 90% occurs in infants and children under the age of five years
  • 65% in children under two

What foods are the most common offenders?

  • Sweets
  • Nuts
  • Grapes

Tips for making food safer

  • Always sit down to eat in a calm manner.
  • Supervise infants or young children while they eat.
  • Avoid hard, round small foods or chop them into irregular small pieces.
  • Encourage children to take small to medium bites, to eat slowly and to chew their food well.
  • Never force food into a child’s mouth.
  • Cut meat, poultry etc. into small non-spherical pieces and remove skin and excess fat.
  • Grate, cook or mash small hard fruit and vegies.
  • Cut hard fruit and vegetables into odd shapes (e.g. quarter grapes) or thin strips (e.g. apple or pear) and non-chokeable size pieces (this may just enable air to pass if the food does get stuck in the throat).
  • Avoid or be extra vigilant with nuts, seeds, popcorn, whole grapes and sweets.
  • Also watch out for melted cheese that has solidified as it can also be a hazard.

Quick tip for starting out safely

Baby-feeding meshes are a recent product on the market, replacing the home-made version using muslin. They are plastic holders with a mesh bag to hold food that baby can then chew on. They are fantastic for teething and safely introducing finger foods; for example, a wide range of fruit, veggies and other foods. A great invention.

Messy but fun

Food should be a positive experience, so be prepared for some “messes”. The highchair will get a working over so check those cracks and crevices before the insects go for leftovers. Placing your little one’s highchair on a plastic floor-covering or a position in the room that can be cleaned easily can be helpful. Always be prepared and have a ready supply of baby wipes or a damp face washer, as once your toddler is done with food they won’t hang about. And keep up with the bibs. Remember, colour match to the food if necessary to hide some of those hard-to-remove stains.

Portable foods for bubs on the go

So now you are both out and about more and you are finding that you need portable foods to ensure that baby gets their three or more meals a day. Some ideas for portable foods include:

  • Fresh raw fruit such as watermelon, rockmelon, mango, avocado, banana, kiwi fruit, nashi pears
  • Partially cooked or grated hard fruit and vegetables such as carrot, sweet potato, zucchini, beetroot and pumpkin sticks, plus small cauliflower and broccoli florets
  • Grated cheese
  • Baby rusks
  • Toast pieces (start with smallish squares still big enough for baby to grasp and move onto stick shapes)
  • Home-baked foods without sugar or salt
  • Sandwiches can be introduced to some babies; others may need to wait another month or so
  • Yoghurt: personally I use plain unsweetened but adding fruit yourself is a good way to spice up a healthy snack

Try cubing and lightly steaming harder vegies and fruit and freezing into snack-size containers. You could do the same for noodles and pasta (rice is considered a hazardous food in terms of bacteria so offer it fresh). Then all you need to do is grab one as you walk out the door and they will stay cool and fresh until ready to be eaten.

What about a few snack ideas?

Keeping up the pace with food variety can be a stretch at times so here are few handy snack ideas.

Fruit and vegies

  • Steamed carrot sticks
  • Avocado strips
  • Quartered grapes
  • Tiny kiwi fruit squares
  • Fine slices (slithers) of apple or pear or other harder fruit
  • Apple given in baby mesh bag (also great for teething)
  • Banana fingers (can also be slightly frozen to add strength and for teething)
  • Slithers of dried fig, dates, apricot etc. (I try to buy the naturally sundried brands that don’t have any 220 or 221)

Ready to go

  • Alternate breads such as wholemeal, wholegrain, rye, spelt, barley etc. Offer with toppings such as almond spread, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, tahini, avocado, banana etc. (Leave crusts on, cover the bread entirely with the spread and cut into small cubes.)
  • Grated cheddar cheese or thin holdable slices.
  • Offer a variety of crackers, such as wholemeal, organic corn crackers. They can be plain or with toppings (see bread suggestions). Break the cracker into manageable bite-sized pieces for baby (for safety also).

Quick bakes

  • Homemade rusks made from wholemeal loaf. Cut slices about 1-2 cm thick and 5-6 cm long. Bake in a slow oven for about an hour or until the bread is dry and crisp.
  • Cooked pasta spirals (these are fun and great for baby’s dexterity).
  • Tiny muffins and scones (cheesey pumpkin is our favourite, and are a great source of protein, calcium and of course veggie).
  • Place a piece of bread in a muffin pattie, push it in to flatten it out a little and remove the excess, pop in some diced veg and top with some cheese and bake till brown – these are great even cold.

Getting fussy?

It is common for babies to appear to go off their food as they begin walking. This new-found independence and mastery of the world may get in the way of eating for a period of time, but most will emerge from this phase. Just stick with how you have been doing things. Picky eating tends to hit around 18 months.

Encouraging healthy eating in children

All bubs are born with preferences for certain tastes (namely sweet and salty) but there are ways these preferences can be influenced (positively, in the perfect world). We know that early exposure to a variety of foods and food textures has a beneficial influence on eating patterns. Of course, other influences include role models, TV, culture and religion, books, peers, food rules, and even the family structure.

But by far the most influential factor on your little one’s early preferences is you. Parents’ attitudes towards food and mealtimes – along with the actual foods they themselves consume – will help to shape their child’s eating habits from a very early age. So while of course baby’s own personality will influence what they eat, it is the combination of this inherent aspect with their environment that determines the outcome.

It’s all starting to sound a little hard, but really, just keep in mind you ultimately have control over the environment (you as a role model, your values towards food and meals) and your child has control over what they choose to eat. Offer healthy foods, leave the junk for outside the home, and you will be doing great!

So what are some tips to keep in mind when trying to foster healthy eating habits?

The following summary points are taken from “Parents as Teachers”.

Tips on making mealtimes a success

  • Be consistent with how you deal with the rejection of food; for example, make no fuss, remove the food and re-present it in the next meal if possible.
  • Try serving a new food with a favourite food to reduce the chances of rejection.
  • ‘Pretty-up’ your child’s meals and make them visually interesting; for example, make a face.
  • Involve your child in the safe preparation of the meal.
  • Don’t forget, some children need to see a new food a number of times before they accept it.
  • Try not to create negative situations such as force-feeding, getting angry or using bribes.
  • Children eat best when they are not tired and meals are served at regular times.
  • Lead by example and encourage your child to eat healthy foods.
  • Avoid using non-nutritious treats or snacks, make each meal count and try not to set up alternative foods just for the sake of eating.
  • Avoid juices and milks around mealtimes; they can make your child feel suddenly and temporarily full.
  • Remember, children will eat when they are hungry and food fads for toddlers and children are very normal.
  • Avoid distractions such as TV.
  • Let your child enjoy their meals, this may involve touching, poking, prodding etc.
  • Regularly offer the option of finger foods in a meal to encourage your child’s independence, and allow them to use cutlery even while you are assisting them with another set.
  • Offer your toddler a choice of foods to increase the likelihood of acceptance of at least one of the options, for example 2-3 vegetables.
  • Use positive feedback.

Cited in Parents as Teachers, Department of Education and Training, Manly Village Public School, Manly, May 2004, Community Nutrition Unit Tasmania

This information has been provided by Leanne Cooper from Sneakys baby and child nutrition. Leanne is a qualified nutritionist and mother of two very active boys.

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