6 Strategies For The Impossible Task Of Baby Feeding
An expensive side effect of having children is that you have to feed them. Do you like having a grocery bill under $100 a week? Don't have kids. Sure, breastmilk is free, but unless your kid is the Lord of The Vale or the progeny of hip-hop royalty, you have to feed them real food at some point.
Much like getting your kid to sleep at night, teaching them to eat is a process. Luckily, it's a very fun process! No, seriously, it's fun! Like I did in the sleep training column, I'm focusing solely on my own experience here. There are lots of different methods out there, and every child is different, so before you rush to the comments to point out the myriad ways I'm an unfit parent, let me just say 1) do what works for you and 2) my son's growing at such a rate that my current retirement plan is "He becomes the starting point guard for the Chicago Bulls." Here's how my wife and I got him to eat food …
Holy Shit, I Gotta Try Every Food
My wife and I did something called Baby-Led Weaning. BLW (which is what insufferable people call it) basically amounts to setting food in front of your kid and letting them eat with their hands. They can explore tastes and textures while giving somewhat clear signals about preferences. The appeal is how simple it is on the surface: you set some food in front of your baby and let them go to town. No spoonfeeding pureed carrots that look enough like vomit before inevitably becoming it.
We super lucked out because our little dude was ready to try anything. We even started with the boring, good-for-you foods: broccoli, blueberries, and scrambled eggs (note to Frasier fans, babies will choke on tossed salad). He was all about being buckled in his chair and blissfully chowing down on almost anything we put in front of him. It got to the point where we'd just try things. Like we gave him some California rolls one time (disclaimer: do not feed your baby raw sushi, California rolls are cooked imitation crab meat), and he, after thorough deconstruction, chomped them down like Hungry Hungry Hippos.
There are lots of online guides for appropriate foods to start with (and plenty of foods to avoid), but generally, the stuff I mentioned above is pretty good. A couple of important reminders: 1) serve a wide variety of foods, but keep them separate so you can spot potential allergic reactions, 2) serve food at intervals between breastmilk/formula feedings, and 3) do all you can to make eating fun for both you and your kid. Eating should be fun – be Anthony Bourdain, not Gordon Ramsey.
Here's where I pause and say that if your kid isn't overly enthusiastic about eating, that's okay. Part of baby-led weaning is figuring out what your kid likes and doesn't like. You're going to put something in front of them that they won't touch because they're still exploring. This method is not designed for force-feeding, even if you put 10 solid hours into making this chicken noodle soup, including making the stock from scratch, goddamnit, just take one bite of an egg noodle. You're in a kind of feel-out phase, not a diet-enforcing phase.
Whoops, You Accidentally Gave Your Kid Something Spicy
A quick aside to note something wild: your taste buds are dying. As people age, our taste sensitivity gradually erodes, and our food preferences become more associated with habits and cultural norms rather than "omg what is this? You've been hiding birthday cake from me for a whole year??!" Babies, on the other hand, have very sensitive taste buds. There's a reason fruit and Cheerios are stereotypical baby foods. Even cultures that Americans might associate with spicy foods, like India or Mexico, will start babies off with a combination of bland and sweet.
A lot of raising a kid is in-moment terror and in-retrospect laughter. Here's the scene: my kid's probably 8-9 months old; he's been eating solid food for a minute. Definitely still in the "try everything" phase. My wife and I are newly obsessed with this Vietnamese place down the street. My mom's in town and offering to go pick up lunch for us. And look! They have a papaya salad! That's perfect for a baby!
We set up lunch: Bánh mi for the adults, papaya salad, and some baby-friendly appetizers to share. The salad has some shredded lettuce, carrots, and cabbage in it. Shredded enough that we think the baby can eat it with close supervision. We are ready to have a nice lunch.
SURPRISE, DINGBATS! We didn't try the salad before giving it to the baby … and therefore didn't realize it had the spiciest goddamn dressing possible on it.
It was one of those clear dressings where you can see the salad glistening, but you assume it's like oil and vinegar or whatever. Nah. This was like jalapeños, red pepper flakes, and a thousand other unknown spices in a vinegar-based dressing. My wife and I both have a decent spice tolerance, and we thought it was way too much. I mean, we ate most of it, we're not food-wasting monsters, but it pushed our limits.
The baby, of course, having never tasted spice, flipped the absolute hell out. We could almost see it in slow motion: he tries a bite, he seems to like it, then he gets a super confused look on his face, then he starts shrieking. Shrieking shrieking. Remember those inconsolable screams Florence Pugh had in Midsommar? It was basically that. All three of us — my wife, my mom, and me — took turns pacing him around the room and trying to console him. When he finally calmed down, we put him back in his high chair, and you know what that devious child reached for? Another bite of papaya salad.
We didn't let him have it, of course, not wanting a repeat of the last 10 minutes. But I was perversely proud of him for wanting to try again. Taste buds develop! That's rad! Though it was probably way better for him to opt for shrimp shumai instead of salad, because …
The Mess, Oh God, The Mess
I've spent most of my professional life in food service jobs. I've worked at Taco Bell, Chili's, I've been a bartender on tour boats, I've done freelance bartending at weddings and art gallery openings. I do most of the cooking in my house. Making food and cleaning up messes is second nature to me. That said, I've never cleaned harder or wiped down more tables and trays than when my kid was in the six-to-24 month range. Yes, you read that right: six months to two years, your kid is going to be messier than the worst Taco Bell patrons.
Nothing prepares you for the number of messes you have to clean up as a parent. It takes a long time to teach your baby that strawberries don't have to be squeezed before being eaten, and it takes an even longer time to get those strawberry stains out of your floor. I'm pretty sure my dining room table has so much dried oatmeal and rice grains embedded in it that the old food is part of the structural integrity now. I actually stopped eating avocado for a little while because one time, the grinning demon I sired squeezed a slightly brown slice in just the right way so that it oozed out of his fingers like Wolverine with performance anxiety, and then he smeared it on his high chair without taking a bite. Thanks to whatever mood I was in that day, it grossed me out so much I swore off guacamole.
Fortunately for my Chipotle order, the avocado aversion didn't last. The mess with Baby-Led Weaning is usually more annoying than gross. You're finding rice grains in far-flung places, you're hand-washing high chair tops until the skin on your palms peels off, you've suddenly developed an ant problem because you didn't see that some raspberries rolled under a cabinet. It's exhausting.
There isn't much advice I can give here except "invest in giant bibs and get used to doing more clothes changes." One little "treat yourself" thing, though. After six months of the baby Jackson Pollocking fruit all over our kitchen floor, right before his first birthday party, my wife and I did something we'd never even dreamed of: we hired a professional cleaning service. We're very much "clean-your-own-damn-house" people, and this was before Cracked was paying me princely sums of gold doubloons to be unfunny on a comedy website, so professional cleaning seemed out of the question. But we cobbled together the cash, hired someone, and …? When I saw my kitchen floor, the stained tiles my wife and I had been endlessly scrubbing to no avail suddenly completely spotless? I nearly made like Jesus in John 11:35 and wept.
All of this is to say, parenting is hard, and life's little luxuries are nice. There are no neat tricks or life hacks in this entry. Just prepare yourself, and every once in a while, reward yourself. And for God's sake, tip the person who just cleaned dried fruit salad out of your kitchen floor generously.
Figuring Out Favorites
Let's move on to something fun: your kid has favorite foods! This is genuinely such a blast because food is fun. Once you get past the "serve enough variety to shame a Sizzler's" stage, you start to figure out reliable things you know your kid will go for. This becomes really helpful for both your grocery list and your sanity. Remember how I said it's important to be calm when your kid doesn't touch any of their food? Easier said than done, it turns out, especially if you're worried about them getting enough nutrition or growing properly or maturing the way they should. The anxiety of "You haven't eaten a vegetable in three days, please just have one steamed carrot, please," is real.
After a while, though, you start to get a real handle on what they're into. You can ask them if they want a peanut butter sandwich and see their eyes light up. This is much better than dejectedly begging them to try a little chicken. My kid loves breakfast with the fervor of Ron Swanson and Turk combined, so I can count on at least that meal being fully chowed down upon. Plus, we don't really keep bacon in the house, which gives him a reason to be super jacked about visiting his grandparents.
That brings me to the really fun part: when kids love a food, they love that food. And since kids are so terrible at expressing themselves, it's rad when you, the parent, know that you're doing something that makes them happy (not to mention they're cute when they're happy). Both of my son's grandmothers will make him bacon any time he wants, so when we visit, we wake him up with "Grandma's making bacon!" He shoots out of bed, ready to take on the day with a belly full of pork fat.
It's exciting for the grandmothers, too, because he's still a little shy around them, but he'll happily inhale their food. There aren't many better feelings in life than having someone appreciate the meal you made them.
Randomly Fluctuating Tastes
Ah hell, I knew that last entry had to come with a catch. Remember the "Holy Shit, I Have To Try Every Food?" entry we kicked off with? Well, that fades. With great preferences comes great dislikes, as one of my uncles used to say. One day, your kid just up and quits certain foods, with no real warning or explanation (again: terrible at expressing themselves).
Early on in BLW, this isn't a big deal. It's going to happen. Plus, they're still getting all the nutrients they really need from breastmilk/formula, so until you cut that out, introducing solid foods is mostly transitional anyway. Once they're fully on solid food, though, and they stop eating certain things or at certain times—that's when the ol' parental anxiety demon starts burrowing through your brain like some sort of possessed beaver.
Are they getting enough nutrients? Are they going to bed hungry? Are they eating enough to develop a palette and not grow up to be an adult who only eats French fries? The first two questions you can usually answer by trusting your kid to let you know. If my kid doesn't touch his dinner, I'll take stock of what he's eaten that day. Lots of breakfast? Some snacks? A decent lunch? Okay, maybe he's not hungry. So I'll offer him some fruit, maybe a piece of bread. I don't want to open the door to "kids and adults eat separate dinners" yet, but I don't want him to wake up at midnight with a rumbling tummy. And, of course, regular doctor visits let you know if the baby's growing properly.
It's that third question where I get stupid. See, my wife and I love food. We both like cooking, we like trying new things, we like different eating experiences, we plan holidays around meals, and the number of YouTube cooking channels we're subscribed to can only be described as "too embarrassing to admit publicly." This might sound silly, but a big fear of ours is raising the aforementioned Adult Who Only Eats Fries. Life is simply more interesting when you don't have a picky palette—so many experiences, stories, traditions, and joys come from sitting around a table with other people. To be closed off from that is a shame. Since I want my son to have a fulfilling life, it gives me anxiety when he won't even consider eating salmon.
But then again … see how silly that sounds? He's three. He's allowed to not like salmon, even if he loved it a year ago. He'll probably come back around. I didn't like mushrooms until I was in my 20s, and now I eat them all the time. These are the moments where you remind yourself that child-rearing is a process, not a checklist.
Let's get something non-negotiable out of the way first, at least for our American readers (readers in countries that aren't the most miserable manifestations of capitalism imaginable and actually pay restaurant workers a living wage, you can skip this paragraph): always tip your servers and bartenders at least 20%. I don't care if 10% used to be customary; I don't care if you feel like you got bad service; always tip your servers and bartenders 20%. Then, if you have a child younger than three with you at the restaurant, add $10 cash. Yes, I said cash.
It's honestly fun taking a kid to a restaurant. Mine was 19 months old when the lockdowns hit in 2020, so we had a year and some change to make the occasional jaunt to a local eatery. It's one of those things where you're nervous but excited because your baby is taking their first steps towards being a person. Instead of sleeping in a stroller or strapped to a carrier, your little human gets to sit up and eat some real food with everyone else.
The problem is, again, the mess. Your kid is going to create a whole goddamn landfill under and on their booster seat. Even if they're quiet, well-behaved, and enjoying brunch with the enthusiasm of someone living in a world where Hillary won, they're still going to drop egg crumbles and orange rinds or suddenly forget how straws work. Toddlers are gonna be toddlers, but the amount of mess is kinda embarrassing.
As ex-service industry workers, my wife and I were acutely aware of the burden this put on the staff. So we would ask for extra napkins, and when the check came, one of us paid, and one of us did a quick spot-clean under the baby's chair. Then, on top of the tip on the bill, an extra $10 cash tucked under the ketchup bottle or sugar packet bowl or whatever. It was an idea we picked up from some other BLW parent on a forum, and it made us feel a lot better about bringing our volatile little banshee into an environment where everyone on the clock is overworked and underpaid.
Do you have to do this? No. But it's a kind thing, and kind things are good. Maybe your kid will notice and grow up to be a kind person. One who eats more foods than French fries.
Chris Corlew is probably eating French fries right now, that rank hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter for more thoughts on food and/or fatherhood.
Top image: pxhere