Early Healthy Eating
There’s nothing like becoming a parent to cause an immediate shift of one’s attention to all of the requisite baby basics – all of the eating, sleeping, peeing and pooping, to name but a few. As basic as they may seem, they also have the ability at times to cause even the best of us to feel a bit overwhelmed.
This feeling certainly can hold true for the task of feeding one’s baby. It’s understandable that at times, the process of making sure one’s child gets off to a healthy start can seem a bit all-consuming. After all, what starts as a multiple-times-a-day necessity that involves establishing and getting comfortable with a breastfeeding and/or formula-feeding routine within a few short months (4 to 6, to be exact) leads to the much-anticipated introduction of solid foods.
With the arrival of baby food comes a whole new set of practical supplies (think rubber tipped spoons, high chairs and bibs), procedures and preferences. Yes, this makes feeding your baby an inevitably time-consuming task in the early months (and even years) – especially until she can take over the logistical aspects for herself. But one of the most important things to remind yourself is that it also can be enjoyable. By approaching it with a sense of joy and purpose, it’s entirely possible to enjoy setting your child on a path – albeit messy at times – to lifelong healthy habits.
The following are a just few overarching approaches to keep in mind as you commit to establishing your child’s healthy eating habits right from the start.
Make fun of food. Sure, infant nutrition is serious business. But it’s also lends itself to a big helping of fun – a rainbow of new tastes and textures, and lots of opportunities to spend interactive time with your baby. Instead of letting the importance of your baby’s nutrition and your responsibility to provide it cause you heartburn, take heart in knowing that the mealtime environment you create is thought to have as much of an impact (if not more so) on future healthy eating habits as the food itself! The various ways to make eating time “fun” changes as your baby gets older but simple ways to start in the 5-6 month range are to make exciting facial expressions and sounds to get them interested. As they grow older, making food into fun shapes and playing the “airplane game”, continues to make the eating experience a fun and exciting time for the whole family.
Think of it as a learning experience. I’ll be the first to admit that not every feeding session with my three children when they were young was fun. Sometimes they were messy. Sometimes they were frustratingly long. And sometimes they were just plain exasperating. But what I’ve found really helps to reduce the potential frustrations of feeding is to simply change how we, as parents, look at the process. Rather than thinking of it solely as a nutritional necessity that must be accomplished at all costs, consider the feeding of your baby as a learning experience – one that inherently takes time, practice, and your caring support. You can also use the actual food as a learning experience for your little one as they are ready. For example, different color foods can be used to teach the colors of the rainbow, or teach them shapes by cutting food into various forms.
Eat by example. It’s clear that healthy habits are established early, often much earlier than parents realize. While this has many implications for how and what you feed your baby, it most definitely involves being aware that your baby is watching and learning from you long before he/she is able to feed herself. You want your toddler to sit down at the table when he or she eats? Do you want, them to eat slowly and mindfully? Take note if you are practicing this now yourself.
Be adventurous. Once your baby has successfully made the transition from an all liquid diet to eating “solid” foods, this opens up a whole wide range of new tastes, flavors, and nutritional opportunities. Yes, it is absolutely important to first and foremost take seriously all of the health and safety recommendations regarding such important food considerations as choking hazards, food allergies, and the nutritional needs of young children. And it’s definitely a good idea to avoid added processed salts, sugars, and other unnecessary ingredients. But beyond that, don’t forget to be a bit adventurous as well by exposing your baby to a growing number of colorful, healthy foods such as kale, blueberries, carrots, beets, and avocado. Also, herbs and spices such as mint, cinnamon, and vanilla are great for spicing up palates. For my own daughter, this broadening of food horizons approach resulted in her early, uncommon and entertaining love of lemons and onions!
Read all about it. Your food adventures with your child don’t need to be limited to time spent at the table. Your efforts to instill a fun and healthy approach to your child’s diet can be greatly enhanced simply by making a habit of also turning to any one of the many children’s books out there – including board books such as Eating the Alphabet designed specifically for those who still drool and lack teeth. Also feel free to take a look at the book I co-authored called Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor and a Bottle of Ketchup. In it, you’ll find a literal smorgasbord of additional food-related children’s books, practical parenting approaches, tips and tricks to help you on your mission to get your baby off to a nutritious start in life.
-Dr. Laura Jana