I was listening last week to the Food52 podcast episode “Why you should feed your kids pizza for breakfast” (a series I highly recommend), which discussed cooking with and for kids. This area is such a minefield of conflicting information and theories, and this prompted me to share here some of the lessons I’ve learned with feeding E over the past year or so.
First a disclaimer (one that should come with all baby advice): YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary. Kids are different, parents are different and the combination of the two is unpredictable. What works for me (and daughter number 1) won’t necessarily work for you and your child. That’s OK. I’m not intending here to judge your choices and what you have done with your child. Work out your own rules, your child’s preferences, and find a way through. And remember that as soon as you think you have worked out a pattern, it will change again.
A baby is one of the most satisfying and most frustrating people to feed. As I cook, I feel great delight and satisfaction when my baby picks something up in a chubby fist and tucks it into her mouth. Equally, there is a measure of despair that creeps in when you’re tired at the end of the day, and everything you present ends up on the floor. Their tastes are changeable, they have no way of communicating what they need, and they seem to grow in bursts, so it’s a difficult guessing game trying to satisfy their appetite. Here are a few hard-won principles that have kept things relatively sane at mealtime around here.
- Make a plan It helps to have a meal plan for the week. I still struggle with this, but usually I can at least sketch out meals for most of the week, even if I end up amending it later. I definitely notice that our eating is more haphazard if I haven’t done any planning. The main thing is to notice when we’re going to be eating something that E can share too, and when she will need something different (which usually means something from the freezer). For me, it helps to have a calendar on the fridge that I write things on, then it’s there staring me in the face when I come to make something to eat. (I use this sticker from Amazon with whiteboard markers).
- Get prepped Having some almost ready-to-go foods in the fridge simplifies dinner when I don’t have a plan. It especially makes it easier to provide some extra veg on the side of whatever else is on the table. For us (at the moment), this includes sticks of roasted butternut squash or sweet potato, plain boiled potatoes that can be converted easily into mash and plenty of fruit. I also keep some prepared food on hand: snacks like baby crisps, which I often use to buy me a bit more preparation time, and mini malt loaves and snap pots of baked beans to microwave.
- Use the freezer It’s so obvious, but having a stash of meals for E in the freezer saves us from panic-cooking many times a week. I have a stack of 8 cm tupperware pots which hold bolognese, vegetable bolognese, sometimes dal, and various leftovers from our meals. I also have a stack of these spinach pancakes, which can quickly be reheated in a frying pan with a bit of grated cheese to make a quick lunch (and make me feel better when I don’t present another vegetable). But do try something new with your child a few times before making a batch to freeze – there’s no point in sacrificing freezer space for something they won’t eat. I have frozen carrot muffins, vegetable fritters and mini quiches, all of which have been rejected every time.
- Think in weeks not hours If she’s had a lot of fruit at lunch, I offer yoghurt for dessert at dinner. If lunch was mostly bread, I try to give her something fairly protein-laden for dinner. But in general, I try not to worry if she doesn’t get a balanced meal for every meal. As long as we’re getting fruit, dairy, protein, carbs and fat in some combination across the week, I don’t struggle to cram a bit of everything into every meal. Vegetables are (of course) the biggest challenge – there’s some idea that toddlers have a greater sensitivity to bitter flavours, especially those in things like brassicas, which accounts for their repeated rejection.
- Trust their tummies There are meals where E will eat only fruit. At others, she just wants bread. I don’t want food to be a struggle for power (at least, not yet) so I try to encourage her to try (or even to notice) all the things she has in front of her, but I don’t press her to eat anything. I try to keep preparing food that is good, and reasonably balanced, and she gets to choose what she eats. This can be really hard when she just doesn’t want to eat much, or feels like eating nothing but cherries. But I try to remember that this will be balanced out at another meal. And she still gets a bottle of milk before bed, so that will help to fill in any hungry gap.
I’m really looking forward to when E can help cook, and we can bake together. For now, I try to enjoy the cherry juice dripping down chubby arms, the days when she sits on my lap and crams meatballs into her mouth with her fingers, and the look of bliss as she glugs her milk.