By Sara Peterson
(Estimated reading time: 6 minutes)
My daughter’s first solid food—avocado—seems so long ago, probably because parenting years and dog years are essentially the same, time-wise. Back then, she was so interested in that slippery, squishy green wedge. She would bring a piece right up to her mouth with total trust and no hesitation. Nowadays, she looks at avocado slices as though they’re contaminants touching her quesadilla and infecting EVERYTHING and how dare we! Yet somehow, avocado toast is one of her favorites. And right there, you have a prime example of how confusing it can feel to feed a child. I mean, they’re humans, yet somehow the way they eat food doesn’t even remotely resemble the way we eat food, at least in my vast experience as a first-time mother of one.
In spite of my seemingly constant confusion, I have managed to keep my daughter nourished—sometimes even with vegetables! It’s definitely an ongoing learning process, and along the way I’ve collected some general how-to-feed-a-kiddo toolbox staples that I rely on, which I’m more than happy to share. Hopefully they’re somewhat helpful to any other equally confused parents out there.
Yes, pickiness and feeding little ones go together like peanut butter and jelly, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I mean is, pick and choose from the advice and tips you find so that they fit you and your family. If you’re not up for family meals, then don’t try to shoehorn them into your life. (There’s something to be said for adults-only meals, like hot food for everyone and uninterrupted conversation!) For example, I’ve had to tell myself to be picky on numerous occasions when it comes to Instagram. I started following some accounts for baby and toddler food ideas, but found myself getting caught up in the pretty bento lunchbox posts. More often than not, my daughter’s lunches (let’s be honest here—her meals in general) don’t even remotely resemble the Instagram photos I see. But, picture-perfect presentations aside, I am able to take away tidbits here and there that I can sometimes incorporate into my little one’s meals. The advice to “Take what you can and leave the rest” definitely applies.
I’m not necessarily talking about full-on meal planning, though I am in awe of the folks that pull off that feat. The closest I’ve come to that is, after our daughter is in bed, my husband and I usually work out a breakfast, lunch, and dinner idea for her for the following day. In general though, what I mean is knowing how to avoid getting a hungry (and therefore potentially cranky) kid on your hands. Sometimes it just takes figuring out your child’s particular meal and snack timing. When my daughter was dropping down to one nap, I couldn’t for the life of me decide where lunch fit into her schedule. Turns out, an early 11-o’clock-ish lunch has worked the best for us so far. My mom always had a strict “No snacks after 4” rule, so that seemed like as good a place as any to start where afternoon eating was concerned. Whatever level of planning works for you, just remember that even the best laid plans are no match for life sometimes, which is why it’s also helpful to…
Sometimes (okay, more often than not), things don’t go the way I plan. As in life, so also with food and little ones. I definitely had my vision of how solid foods would be with my daughter. Our friends—who have a daughter about a year and a half older than ours—did baby-led weaning when it came time for solid food. That seemed to fit the ideas we had about feeding our daughter, so we followed suit. But, I couldn’t handle the gagging, and for the sake of my mental and heart health, I scaled back on the larger chunks of food and mixed in purees and mashes. And the family dinners I used to picture? So far, family breakfasts are the meal we eat together with any regularity.
And if I’ve taken nothing else away from those Instagram food blog accounts I mentioned (and the online articles, and the cookbooks, and the myriad other resources that I look to for meal advice), it’s that kids’ eating is nowhere near consistent. They may scarf everything you give them and then some one day, and then eat practically nothing the next. A helpful tidbit that I remind myself of daily is to look at a child’s food intake over the course of a week, rather than meal by meal. I find that piece of advice has helped me keep my sanity on multiple occasions.
When it comes down to it, all you can really do is offer a variety of foods, in a variety of ways, and let your kid eat what they will from what you’ve prepared. What you offer, when you offer it, how you offer it, and so on are ultimately up to you, and with a lot of patience and some trial and error, you can figure out which toolbox staples work the best for you and your family.
Looking for more mealtime tips? Here are just a few of the resources that I’ve repeatedly turned to for help with feeding my daughter:
When I was first starting my daughter with solid foods, I consulted the Age-by-Age Guide to Feeding Your Baby (and later, their Age-by-Age Guide to Feeding Your Toddler) put out by BabyCenter.com for some basic parameters on what would be good to offer, and at what age.
The YummyToddlerFood.com site has what I’ve found to be helpful, practical tips and ideas (alongside some much needed moral support) for feeding little ones. I especially love the accessibility of the advice. I follow the Instagram account, but they’re also active on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest (all linked from the website).
The Complete Baby and Toddler Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen helped out when I felt I was in a rut in regards to meal options for my daughter (especially for lunch). Mostly, it’s offered ideas and inspiration for food combinations that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of on my own. Plus, in addition to baby- and toddler-specific foods, this cookbook also contains ideas for family dinners.
Raising Little Foodies on Instagram (@raising_little_foodies) has a plethora of those lovely bento-box pictures I was talking about. My main takeaway here is the actual contents of the boxes. Between this account and Yummy Toddler Food, I’ve fully embraced the idea of meals made from combined small portions of a few different simple foods. It can relieve some of the pressure that sometimes comes with trying to plan a menu-worthy meal. Blueberries + bell pepper strips + whole wheat tortilla + hummus + cottage cheese = a lunch that came together in mere minutes with very little brain power.
Sara Peterson grew up in Tucson and Iowa, and moved to Seattle with her husband, Josh, in 2007. In no particular order, she likes running, yoga, hiking, reading, writing, cooking (and eating!), traveling, and sweatpants, though some of these things are way easier to do than others these days. She currently stays at (and sometimes even works from) home with her daughter, Nora.