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Develop your baby’s tastebuds with baby-led weaning

An acquired taste

Is your baby starting to eat? Opinion differs on when you should start introducing solids. Starting at four months old can actually give rise to more allergies, half a year is recommend by the people I trust. As a breastfeeding mom, I decided to start Jet’s wonderful journey of messy discoveries at half a year, as that is what La Leche League also recommends.

Before having a baby, I imagined making all kinds of cute porridges for my son. Weren’t they supposed to start with really bland porridges, like from rice bran? I tried feeding this to my son once, mixed in with expressed breastmilk. He didn’t like it at all! We had heard about this method called baby-led weaning or ‘Rapley’ in the Netherlands. It sounded easy and very healthy, as it involves feeding your baby what you eat yourself: steamed or raw vegetables and fruits, but letting him eat it himself.

People seem think babies and young children only desire sweet tastes. I believe this is only because of conditioning. We didn’t feed Jet sweet things until he had a wider variety of culinary experiences. Now of course he gets very excited about ice cream and pie, like the rest of us. Yet apparently those first few bites really opened up his taste buds so he still enjoys bitter vegetables too. The other day he was preferring to eat ‘witlof’ on the beach over crisps!

First-time parents insecurity

Actually, the time to start introducing solids was quite a stressful time for us. As first-time parents, we didn’t have a clue to what we should do. The prevailing knowledge is all so conflicting and like all parents do, we really wanted to do ‘the right thing.’ So we read up so much about this method, and of course the book knowledge was challenged by concerned family members who were brought up in a different era with other knowledge on ‘the right thing’ was supposed to be. We might have taken things a bit too extreme, than we would now that we have more experience.

For example, we have chosen to never really mash up Jet’s food. In retrospect, I feel that this was a bit of an exaggeration. I followed the baby-led weaning method like some kind of religion. While actually dieticians such as Stefan Kleintjes whom popularized the method in the Netherlands and Belgium says: you can mash it, you just don’t always have to. And if we ever have a second child, I definitely will try some of those delicious sounding recipes my mom gave me. 😉

If you’re insecure and want to figure out what to do to make your child a future Master Chef. You can try to benefit from our humble experience. Maybe his taste for veggies are just in his genes, but we think baby-led weaning is definitely worth a try.

Here’s what worked for us:

1) We hardly ever spoonfed

Although my mother shared all kinds of nice baby food recipes, part from the taste of bland rice porridge, the only thing I ever made specifically for him to spoonfeed was cooked lentils.

Amazingly enough he even tastes bitter vegetables like arugula eagerly. Scientific research shows that children who eat very bitter foods as first foods, will grow to love these tastes for their entire lives. (Someday I’ll add the link, or I’ll look it up if you ask me.)

Also, when children regulate their own food-intake, such as they do when they breastfeed, they learn how to feel when they are full more easily. But if you’re bottle-feeding you can introduce baby-led weaning as well, it will be a great way for your child to experience more power over how much they eat.

2) For first time foods, we chose the bitter the better.

The bitter the better, I believe. Always present vegetables first to your baby.

This greatly goes against the grain of all or most commercial baby food products offered. As all are appallingly sweet, and containing the same amount of sugar as most candies or sweet foods for adults. They might contain vegetables, but they also contain huge amounts of fructose. Ella’s Kitchen is a brand that we actually really like, but we definitely didn’t feed Jet this at the beginning.

3) We chose joyful play over nourishment

The first year is for developing taste, playing with food and experiencing textures and the great colorful spectrum of vegetables and fruits that modern life has to offer. For nourishment, infants from 4 to 12 months are still mainly dependent on milk. Actually research shows that up to two years, (breast)milk is still a very important part of toddler’s nutrition.

We set up the stage by putting Jet into his high baby chair, while covering the floor with newspapers. The first thing we fed him was a branch of steamed broccoli. Up to this day, even as a toddler, he absolutely adores broccoli. It’s become his favorite. His first fruit was pear.  Cucumbers and steamed sweet potato followed. Avocado wasn’t his favorite, even though we introduced it soon enough.

We were amazed by how easy it was to incorporate in our family. Now at breakfast, lunch and dinnertime, Jet would simply join us at the table and eat something fresh. Of course, sometimes it took a bit more time as I’d had to steam vegetables while we would be eating a simple sandwich. But oftentimes I could just give him part of what we were eating, without flavorings and salt. So he would eat the same food as us from the start.

5) We also let him have meat and fish.

Do infants need meat? This is a question that we have asked ourselves. As I was a vegetarian for a long time, I got meat cravings while pregnant so I gave into them. And I also still ate meat while breastfeeding. Since my husband’s family is Cantonese, we couldn’t really stop him from discovering it. And he absolutely loved it. I fed him vitamine D infused fish oil too since he was around 8 months. The unflavored fish oil was delicious to him, and he is still an avid fish eater.

The reason why infants need to start eating other foods besides breastmilk at six months, is due to their need for iron. The iron stores in their blood from after birth are getting low, so they need to raise it. Meat, eggs and fish are excellent sources of iron. But if you are a vegetarian or vegan, there should definitely be ways of feeding your child. It is important to keep your own health and body in check. When you don’t eat meat or animal products, you need vitamine B12 which can be hard to absorb from non-animal products. And young children’s nutritional needs are very high. Vitamine A, D and K can be low and contribute to infant caries and teeth rot.  These things can better be prevented than cured, so remember to start brushing teeth as soon as they show up. And consult a professional about your diet if your family is vegetarian or vegan, and make your diet as healthy and nutrient-rich as possible. Stefan Kleintjes says that children can easily be vegetarian in their early years. So that’s one view on the matter.

6) Growing up and using utensils

If your child uses her hands to eat always, rather than being fed, it’s easy as pie to learn how to use a spoon or fork. Since our son often saw us eating as an example and was used to feeding himself, we simply had to put a spoon at his side and he would start using it. Of course, his first experiments failed as he’d usually pour the soup off the spoon before it had reached his mouth. For us, his culinary journey in the beginning should be about fostering autonomy, fun and confidence.

7) Allow him to decide how much and what as much as possible (within reasonable limits)

Learning how to self-regulate your food intake is a skill that will benefit you for your whole life. This is part of the reason why breastfeeding will probably inhibit obesity as well, since the baby decides when to drink and when to stop.

How did you start feeding your child solids? Has it worked for you?

Anthropologist, Mother, Yogi, Chocolate addict and writer

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