Feeding the baby. It sounds simple, right? But to most parents, it’s one of the most challenging parts of welcoming a new little bundle!
From nursing to bottle feeding to picking the right formula, the early months are both a whirlwind and an obstacle to overcome. From that point, it’s starting solids successfully, teaching the baby to try new things, and hoping beyond hope that at the toddler stage, they’ll finally start eating what’s on their plates instead of flinging it on the floor.
But beyond that, there’s the preschool stage, when kids get pickier than they’ve ever been and moms begin pulling out all the stops to get them to eat something, anything with nutritional value. Because in general, most 4-year-old children tend to ignore broccoli and zero-in on chicken nuggets and whatever’s ground into the carpet instead.
So, what’s a parent to do when they have a baby they need to feed, but little to no experience actually doing the thing?
There are plenty of brilliant hacks that can help parents get their babies to eat properly and healthfully, and it’s not really as hard as it seems. Here are 20 perhaps forgotten tactics that are actually really smart for getting food into babies’ bellies.
20 Take Small Breaks
When a baby is brand-new, breastfeeding advocates often say that’s the best route. However, for mamas who don’t nurse their babies, what’s the best way to ensure proper nutrition and set them up for future feeding success? Most experts agree that paced bottle feeding is the best way to encourage healthy habits. Paced feeding means mimicking breastfeeding in that you offer small amounts more frequently. It also means using slow-flow bottles so that the baby isn’t passively chugging whatever amount is in the bottle. Pacing their meals helps babies recognize when they’re full — a great habit that even we as adults could benefit from learning!
19 Don’t Overschedule Meals
Starting when babies are brand-new, most parents learn that they’re supposed to follow some sort of a schedule. From every two hours to nursing the breastfed infant on demand, parents are told that it’s about timing. But really, when was the last time you spaced your own meals or snacks exactly two hours apart and felt satiated? The thing is, every baby will have different habits, and whether it’s mom’s milk, a bottle, or a plate full of something savory, not every kiddo will be hungry at the same interval or for the same amount of food. Essentially, overscheduling meals usually leads to feeding problems, not healthy patterns.
18 Let The Baby Make The Schedule
Instead of forcing a schedule that’s not necessarily ideal, it’s a better tactic to take the baby’s cues as far as feeding routines. Besides, most nutrition experts tell grownups that eating smaller meals throughout the day is better than having three massive ones. So doesn’t it make sense to offer our kiddos small servings of healthy stuff more often? Plus, even if your kiddo is a picky one, having a bite or two of a healthy snack is way better than refusing an entire meal because they’re over-hungry and grumpy already! When babies get to pick when they eat—whether it’s rooting to nurse or reaching for something on dad’s plate—they’re learning to feel hunger and respond to it.
17 Skip Store-Bought Snacks
Store-bought snacks are absolute lifesavers in many cases, so I’m not one to suggest cutting them entirely. But if you think about all the sugar-filled and other junky foods that line the baby food aisle, you’ll see what I mean here! Instead of buying lots of packaged stuff, you can opt for easy to serve and healthy foods, like cubed and cooked sweet potato, a freshly sliced avocado, or even some defrosted and slightly warmed peas from the freezer. There’s no reason why babies can’t eat “real” foods that are infant-sized, instead of something from a package that grownups would turn their noses up at!
16 Waiting Until They’re Really Ready
Although most baby food jars say to start feeding little ones pureed foods at the age of five months or so, what’s really the rush? According to most doctors, babies are supposed to be able to sit up independently, pick up food using a pincer grasp (pinching their fingers together), and move food around in their mouths without spitting it out. But for some reason, most mamas still see eating table food as a huge milestone. Honestly, though, delaying it a bit can be good for babies, especially when you consider all those studies on babies’ gut health and how milk is best for the first year.
15 Offer Milk Before Solids
If you’ve never heard the saying “food before one is just for fun,” well, there it is! While lots of families start serving their infants food before age one, most pediatricians agree that milk is the most important part of their mealtimes. Whether it’s formula or mom’s milk, the baby should always have milk before starting to nibble on solids at a meal. This way, they get the most nutrients and calories possible before snacking on table food, ensuring that they’re still getting everything they need before potentially just playing around in the pureed food. Besides, they’re more likely to nosh on something new when they’re not totally starving when it's served!
14 Pass On Jarred Purees
Again with the convenience food bashing here: pureed foods are total lifesavers sometimes, but they’re not necessary. And while you can go the homemade route and mix and jar your own pureed foods, why bother? With the somewhat new concept of baby-led weaning, you can just mash up whatever you’re eating and feed it to the baby, easy peasy! There’s no reason why babies can only eat bland pureed food from jars when everyone else is having steamed broccoli or scrambled eggs, right? Besides, it’s often easier for parents and better for babies since they learn to adapt to the foods their families regularly eat.
13 Letting Them Help Themselves
Most parents are eager to start serving table food to their babies because they can’t wait to make airplane noises and man the spoon! But letting babies serve themselves is not only more fun, but it’s less stressful! Instead of convincing the baby to open their mouth to try something off a spoon, letting them grab it with their hands or use the spoon themselves is way more appealing. Even as infants, babies like to do things themselves — and this way, they get to play in it a bit, too. So sit back and get your camera ready, and don’t stress about spoon feeding!
12 Pick Small-Sized Plate Options
Another technique that’s both fun and nutritious is giving babies small-sized options for feeding time. When you hand them something they can feed themselves, it’s super fun and tasty to eat. Think of Cheerios — those are like a finger food staple for babies! But instead of bland grains, consider things like flavorful lentils, plain or flavored beans, peas, and even rice. Those small bits are fun to pick at, but they’re also more likely to get into the baby’s mouth than something that can easily slip off a spoon, like a puree. Plus, grains and proteins are highly nutritious, so you know that every bite counts when the baby is having lentils with a side of rice.
11 Serve Small Portions + Big Variety
This is one of the most fun ways to serve a baby that I’ve ever heard of. It involves picking a handful of foods and giving the baby (or toddler or preschooler!) a small serving of each. The fun part is that you can serve it in a mini muffin tin, ice cube tray, or other sectioned plate. This way, the kiddo can try new things, but there’s also no pressure to eat a huge serving of something new. A few bites of each flavor and you’ve made a perfectly rounded meal for any age baby. Plus, parents can see just how much the baby has eaten, too.
10 Don’t Skip The Spices
Parents often think that babies prefer bland foods, but do they really? Sure, a formula fed baby might be used to having the same flavor all the time, but breastfed babies get hints of what their moms have eaten in their own meals. And the more flavors they try as young babies, the more likely they are to have an adventurous palate as preschoolers and adults, too! So using some mild spices for your baby’s food is a great way to introduce delicious menu items while also not having to make a separate meal for the baby apart from what everyone else is eating.
9 Freeze Baby Food In Bits
This is one hack that I wish I had seen when my kids were little! Those little yogurt and other flavored puffs are really appealing to babies and toddlers, but they don’t always have the best ingredients. Plus, they’re expensive! Parents can make their own pureed puffs by taking baby food puree (or making their own) and then piping them into small dots on some wax or parchment paper. Just freeze them, and you have an easy to grasp snack for little babies that are just as nutritious as real food, but as convenient as store-bought. And you can even get creative with the shapes, making little stars or other shapes depending on the piping bag you use.
8 Prep Single-Serve Spoons
Another smart tip both for getting babies to try new things and helping them to feed themselves is sample spoons. You can use either jar or homemade purees and scoop a spoonful of each one, then lay the spoons out for the baby to pick up and eat. It’s easier and less messy than giving them a whole bowl of something, but you get the benefit of letting them feed themselves while making it easier for them to actually get the food to their mouths. And above all, you control what goes on their spoons, so you can mix up flavors or introduce new ones as you like.
7 Introduce Veggies First
While lots of parents go with a standard puree for their baby’s first food, like bananas or prunes, there is something to be said for starting with veggies. After all, we all want our kids to eat more vegetables — so why do we start by feeding them super-sweet fruits? It doesn’t have to be a bell pepper, of course, but picking something like zucchini or peas or carrots might help your baby to be more open-minded when it comes to veggies later. Plus, lots of foods, especially things like butternut squash or sweet potatoes, have complex flavor profiles that babies can learn to appreciate, especially since they’re sweeter than traditional veg.
6 Stick With The Classics
We’ve touched on how Cheerios are often top on parents’ lists of first finger foods, but why is that? Most people try to balance their grains out and not let them dominate a meal, but we hand our babies cups full of Cheerios at six months old? It’s a little weird, to be honest! Instead of using packaged or processed finger foods, we can just as easily drop a few sliced berries or chopped veggies on the little one’s high chair tray. Think stuff like peeled and chopped cucumbers, small bits of tomato, and even some lightly steamed or otherwise cooked apple. These classic options make great finger foods that are healthy, too.
5 Meal Plan For Easy Prep
If you have major meal prep goals but can’t seem to get it together, this tip might not help much! But if you’re a meal prep guru, consider prepping your baby’s meals, too. I remember seeing a tutorial from one mama who prepped her little one’s meals each week for daycare, freezing them in single-serving packages and then sending them on ice to the daycare center. This industrious mama cooked plain chicken breast, rice, and veggies for her baby, then packaged it all up in single plates for each meal. This is a great (and inexpensive) alternative to prepackaged baby meals, if you have the time and patience, of course!
4 Encourage Eating Together
Whatever it is that you eat, doing it together is one of the best ways to not only encourage babies to eat, but to create healthy habits. After all, sitting down and spending mealtime together is something that’s promoted for school-age kids, so why shouldn’t we start early? Besides, babies are always reaching for what’s on mom’s plate, so it only makes sense to have him or her seated with a bit of grub, too! And if they only play in it, what’s the big deal? At least everyone is sitting around the table together, starting a tradition that will no doubt carry on through their teen years.
3 Try, Try, And Try Again
Whatever tactics or techniques you use to get your baby to eat, the truth is that babies and toddlers (and beyond) change so much over time. Just because they refuse a certain food doesn’t mean they always will, and just because they’re reluctant to start solids at all doesn’t mean they’ll never wean! The bottom line is that even if a baby starts his foray into solid food with a birthday cupcake, that doesn’t mean he’ll never learn to love fruits or veggies his whole life! You can always try, try, and try some more when it comes to offering new foods and getting your baby to accept them
2 Make Feeding Time Fun
This one’s a bit of a tricky approach, but it’s worth mentioning because, for some kiddos, it really does work. Selecting a special tableware set, or just a unique cup or plate option, can help some younger tots to enjoy meal time all the more. They might not be tempted by a regular sippy cup, but hand them something colorful with an open top, and they just might be all over it. The same goes for utensils, too — sometimes a softer spoon or a non-metal fork can make the difference between a fun mealtime and a frustrating one. Oh, and plates that suction cup to the table or tray help too — you’re welcome.
1 Let Them Make A Mess
Most parents who are neat freaks, myself included, are reluctant to let their kids get super messy at every meal time. That’s like six baths a day when you’re a baby who eats often, right? But there is a method to the madness in this case. Odds are, when you let your baby get messy with their food, eventually, some of it will wind up in their mouths. So after some time, if your kiddo is hungry, they’ll stop making such a mess and start savoring the flavors of what’s on their plate… and in their hair… and on the floor… and everywhere else.