Friday, 26 November 2010

Feeding little ones

Small children need food.  That's one of the facts of life.

It also seems to be a very contentious issue.  The parenting forum that I am a member of had long debates and discussions about when to wean, what to feed, how hot or cold or lumpy it should be.  There were posts seeking ideas for what to make them.  Others debating whether or not it was ok to give them sweets, or tomato ketchup or....  Now our babies are toddlers with their own minds, the debates have moved on to how to get the child to eat who is refusing everything.  Should they be offered something else?  Is it ok to just give them what you know they will eat?  Why do they keep batting the spoon away?  There are guilt trippers out there who want "to give their children the healthiest start" so will no way ever be giving their child chocolate, or McDonalds, or anything from the potato smiles/fishfingers/chicken nuggets/waffles selection.

Here's my take on feeding a baby and toddler:
  • Start the weaning process as late as possible, and as much as possible allow them to feed themselves.  I read the Baby Led Weaning book by Gill Rapley and I liked a lot of what was written, it does make a lot of sense.  Practically though, while I felt that the "Food is for fun, until they are one" mantra, along with allowing them to explore food and play with it, and not worry whether they ate anything at all for a few months seemed like great advice, it sat much more easily with mothers who planned to respond at any time during the night to their child and to breast-feed until the baby wanted to stop.  I got to a point after he was about 8 months old where I was being woken for a feed every hour and a half in the night, and decided that we needed to do some sleep training.  As a result I wanted to make sure that he ate well during the day (both breast feeding which we did until his first birthday, and food) so that I would be reassured that he wasn't waking hungry.  I've never pureed anything for him though, and have never bought anything from the baby food aisle in the supermarket.  He has always eaten the same food as us right from the start.  It just meant that I would ensure there was at least something in the meal which either he could eat easily, or we could spoon in to help him. 
  • Eat with your baby/toddler.  They learn how to feed themselves, what is ok to eat, and table manners, by watching other people eat.  Why should they trust that this is ok food to eat when they are the only one eating it?  How can you expect them to learn to use a spoon or fork for themselves when their meals are separate from everybody else and they never see them being used?  For us this means that we arranged our evening routine around having dinner as soon as Big C walks through the door from work, afterwards he and Little C have a little playtime and then it's time to start the bed-time routine.  If Big C worked late regularly, then I would eat a small meal with Little C and a small meal later with Big C.
  • Allow them to feed themselves - we don't try to stop our children from walking or talking when they are ready, so why do we insist on holding the spoon for them when they want to use it themselves?  Yes, it does get messy, but it's quite a complicated skill and requires a lot of practice.  If we don't allow them to practice then how will they learn?  Don't be too worried if they insist on using their fingers - even for porridge!  Just praise them when they have a go at using the spoon.  At the beginning it is usually useful to load the spoon for them, and then hand it to them to aim at their mouth.  As they get more proficient and are able to attempt loading it themselves, then just offer to "help" them towards the bottom of the bowl or yoghurt pot, where more precision is required.
  • Don't worry about how much they eat.  Provided that you are offering nutritious meals at least three times a day, with a couple of small snacks to keep them going in between, then don't worry how much they eat.  Children won't starve themselves, and unless they are constantly badgered to "eat it all up", then they won't overeat either.  Offer the food, and when they indicate that they have finished, take it away.  While they are still little, offer a healthy-ish pudding regardless of whether they've eaten much dinner, but cut back on this as they get older if you get the impression that they are just being fussy.  Some days they won't eat much because they aren't that hungry or don't feel like it.  Other days they'll be growing and running about and will eat like a horse!  If they do finish everything in front of them, offer them some more, or something else.  I tend to favour smaller portions, because I can always offer more.  I don't want to overwhelm him with a huge plate of food.
  • Feed a large variety of foods.  I usually home cook our evening meals, so these are usually fairly healthy and are always varied, including Chinese, Indian, Italian and Moroccan cookery (I'll post again in the future about how I do our menu planning).  On the other hand, I'm not religious about this, and will quite happily opt for a freezer-to-oven-to-table meal some nights, or a take-away.  Lunches are less planned and are either left-overs from the fridge, or something on toast, or a jacket or something like that.  I also like to provide varied breakfasts, and will intersperse cereal, toast and porridge with eggy bread, pancakes, nut butter and banana on bread, croissants etc.  I believe that the more varied the food that a toddler is exposed to the less fussy they are going to be.  Little C will have a go at anything.  There are some foods such as stew, shepherds or cottage pie, sausages and so on which he favours, but otherwise he just enjoys food and will tackle it all.
  • Keep it relaxed.  There's nothing more likely to give a child food issues, than a parent who is completely hung up about what and how much they are eating.  Sit down with you child and preferably your partner, enjoy the food and enjoy the company.  Praise your child when they use their cutlery, or ask for something nicely, or join in nicely with the conversation.  If they don't eat much, or they are playing with their food, either ignore it, or gently remind them that it's for eating.  Don't rush them.  They like to look at and feel the food before they eat it, and learning to get it to their mouth themselves is a skill which takes a while.  Give them space and time and just enjoy the time with them.  Get yourself a cup of tea or coffee.

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