I am frequently approached for information about how to start infants with solid foods. While there are a variety of books about making your own baby foods and different food mills and devices and recipes available, I think keeping things as simple as possible is the best thing for a busy, young family.
Make it easy, keep it real (real foods, that is): this is the foundation to giving your child lifelong healthy tastes.
When our son was starting solids, we believed it was important not only to recognize the latest in research on allergies, but also focus on digestible food combinations, the same way that we ourselves do in consideration of Ayurvedic principles. I didn’t want to give the usual first foods that were offered to my generation, which were principally carby warm cereals like rice porridge; I didn’t want my child to develop a habit of reaching for the sweet taste too preferentially so early in life. After all, although breastmilk is quite sweet, it is balanced with protein and fat in a way that rice cereal is not.
The Traditional Signs
We first offered solids when our son showed the traditional signs:
- he was over 6 months old,
- had broken his first tooth,
- and showed interest in eating.
When I say “interest in eating,” I mean he would watch us eat intently and excitedly. His little eyes would follow the fork as I loaded it up and brought it to my mouth and back as if he were watching Agassi at the US Open. He would reach out and grab the utensils. He would teeth on a spoon. He would drool and hunger not just to eat, but to get involved with the fun and exciting mealtime ritual.
The first foods were mashed or pureed root vegetables. Not white potatoes (which are too vata-provoking and may cause gas). We stayed on the side of carrots, sweet potatoes, taro, parsnip, celery root, squash (which is obviously not a root, but still). Sometimes to add some protein, I would offer homemade bone broth separately or mix it into the mashed roots.
After a few weeks of this (really not long) we saw that he was doing fine with eating. Call me crazy, but I was already getting tired of separate meal prep. We have a rule in the house: no special interest eating groups. (I’m kidding. Sorta.) Besides, his bounding enthusiasm for inclusion in the social aspect of family mealtimes was an ongoing good sign. So, we gave him bits of our dinner, straight from–well, not exactly our plates, but our mouths. Actually, just mine. It is supposed to be from just the Mom’s, according to traditional lore.
The “Mama Bird” Method
I’m not sure how modern dentistry views this old approach*, but I first saw what I can only refer to as the “mama bird method” when I was out for dim sum when I was 6 months pregnant. We were sitting across from a new family who spoke only Chinese. The mother mimed that the baby boy in her lap was 6 months old. She would eat a little herself and then, offer baby some by basically taking a bite of veggies and meat and noodle and chewing it and the spitting it back on the chopsticks and giving it to the baby. A bite for her, then a bite for him. A very pleasant family outing. He looked like a little prince there in Mama’s lap, facing the table, pleased to be able to pretend to be grownup and do and eat and sit as the grownups did around him.
I did it and it worked very well. A dear friend who grew up in Romania says that they feed children the mama bird way in her homeland. Another friend of Mexican decent says that the Mamas and Grandmamas from Mexico fed babies this way, too.
Anyway, I checked in about it with Liu Ming, our favorite local Orthodox Daoist teacher in Oakland who is a specialist in the realm of nutritional, traditional eating, who gave me the huge thumbs up to being your child’s own food processor. To condense what he said, he basically thought that when parents ignore a child’s desire to grow up and eat real food, they do it a disservice. He also okayed a wide variety of food relatively soon after introducing food. Obviously, he meant in proper combinations and real food forms (fresh, homecooked, warm, balanced, combined using the basic tenets of Ayurveda or TCM and some understanding of season and personal constitution). Oh, and the whole root veggies thing that we started with was partly what Dharmanidhi trained us about in the Ayurveda apprenticeship. So, basically, props to Ming, Dharmanidhi and Nam Singh–they are my inspiration and basis of my training in most food-as-medicine approaches. Since kids are people, too, the specifics for infants and children are really few.
The way I see it, this kind of approach is ideal for most normal, healthy kids. Obviously, if you are concerned about an allergy, you can introduce foods one at a time and even sticking to that food for some time (a cycle of several poops, for instance) so that you can easily trace any potential reaction directly to the food source. My nephew has extreme and life-threatening food allergies, so I’ve seen the horrors of food allergies and it is really no joke. There is definitely value in taking a progressive step-by-step introduction of food substances in cases like his. Still, in his case as in many like his, there were many signs of sensitivity long before he got a taste of solid food (usually seen on the skin if not also in the diaper, the behavior, etc.) that guide how you would offer solids. Listen if your doctor is concerned and use your intuition. For our family, a one-by-one introduction of food substances was luckily not necessary.
I think the main benefit to our more old world approach (regardless of whether you will actually chew for your kid or not) is that the child learns to eat and accept and even like a wide variety if tastes (provided that you include them in your diet). Your kid WILL pick up your food habits.
We now have a 3.5 year old whose only food preference is not liking tomatoes. That’s it. And that preference only emerged a few months ago. Yes, there were mild food struggles here and there that we guided him through, and really most of those issues were really about him trying to use food to press our boundaries and see where he was with us. But, by and large the kid will chow on anything: sauerkraut, olives, bitter greens, all manner of veggie and meat. He eats unsweetened yogurt just fine. I don’t have to hide greens in a smoothie. I don’t have to beg him to eat or negotiate or bribe. His proper eating habits and varied tastes are absolutely natural, but every bit trained. It is convenient for me and also one of the best gifts for lifelong health that we could have given our child.
*Note: Ok, I fibbed. Actually, I have read something about what modern dentistry thinks about spit swapping with your kid, whether from mama bird feeding practices or whatever other reason your slobber might get mixed with theirs. I can’t find the research, so I hesitate with this, but basically what I remember is that babies end up with the bacteria present in mom’s mouths no matter what, but not dad’s. So, you want to limit the introduction of different strains of bacteria so as to prevent future gum disease later in life. Therefore, it is better for children to share a cup with mom, but not as much with dad and grandma, etc.