I am frequently approached for information about how to start infants with solid foods. While there are a variety of books about making your own baby foods and different food mills and devices and recipes available, I think keeping things as simple as possible is the best thing for a busy, young family. Make it easy, keep it real (real foods, that is): this is the foundation to giving your child lifelong healthy tastes.
When my son was starting solids, I believed it was important not only to recognize the latest in research on allergies, but also focus on digestible food combinations, the same way that we ourselves do in consideration of Ayurvedic and Chinese Medicine principles. I didn't want to give the usual first foods that were offered to my generation, which were principally carby warm cereals like rice porridge; I didn't want my child to develop a habit of reaching for the sweet taste preferentially so early in life. After all, though breastmilk is quite sweet, it is balanced with protein and fat in a way that rice cereal is not.
The Traditional Signs
It is ideal to begin solids when a child shows the traditional signs:
- over 6 months old
- has broken the first tooth
- shows awareness of and eager interest in eating
When I say "interest in eating," I mean the child will watch the parents intently and excitedly while they eat. This is probably the most important sign. They will reach out and grab the utensils. They will drool and hunger not only to eat, but also to engage the social mealtime ritual.
The best first foods are mashed or pureed root vegetables, but not white potatoes, which are vata-provoking and may cause gas. Think carrots, sweet potatoes, taro, parsnip, celery root. For added minerals and nutrients, offer homemade bone broth separately or mix it into the mashed roots.
After a few weeks of this try bits of your dinner, straight from your plates, or even better, mom's mouth.
The "Mama Bird" Method*
"Mama bird" feeding is a practice used in many cultures, but may be unfamiliar to many in the West. I first saw this when I was out for dim sum and was sitting across from a new family who spoke only Chinese. The mother mimed had a 6 months old baby boy in her lap. She would eat a little veggies and noodles herself, then offer baby some by chewing it for the child, then spitting it back on the chopsticks and giving it to the baby in her lap. A bite for her, then a bite for him. The boy sat in mother's lap facing the table, pleased join the group and eat as the grownups did.
I tried it with my child and it worked very well. A dear friend who grew up in Romania says that they feed children the mama bird way in her homeland. Another friend of Mexican decent says that the Mamas and Grandmamas from Mexico fed babies this way, too.
I checked in with Liu Ming about this and he gave a huge thumbs up to being your child's own food processor. His opinion is that when parents ignore a child's desire to grow up and eat real food, they do it a disservice. He okayed a wide variety of food relatively soon after introducing food. Obviously, he meant in proper combinations and real food forms (fresh, home cooked, warm, balanced, combined using the basic tenets of Ayurveda or Chinese Medicine and some understanding of season and personal constitution): rice, veg, meats, fruits, everything. Kids are people, too; the specifics for infants and children are really few.
For parents who are concerned about an allergy, introduce foods one at a time and stick to them for long enough that you can trace any potential reaction directly to the food source (a cycle of several poops, for instance). There is definitely value in taking a progressive step-by-step introduction of food substances in cases like this. With many extreme allergy cases, there are often other signs of sensitivity long before the child tastes solid food (on the skin, in the diaper, the behavior, etc.). Listen if your doctor is concerned and use your intuition (common sense).
The main benefit to a more old world approach (regardless of whether you will actually chew for your kid or not) is that the child learns to eat and accept and even like a wide variety if tastes (provided that you include them in your diet). Your kid WILL pick up your food habits.
Yes, there will be food struggles here and there that you will guide your child through. Kids will use food like anything, to press boundaries learn limits. But, by and large kids will chow on anything: unsweetened yogurt, sauerkraut, olives, bitter greens, all manner of veggie and meat, if introduced to them young and frequently. No hiding greens in a smoothie. No begging a child to eat or negotiating or bribing. Every kid is different, but eating habits and varied tastes are absolutely natural and every bit trained. It is convenient for parents to have a child who will eat a varied diet and also one of the best gifts for lifelong health that you could give.
*Note: Modern dentistry's view on the baby bird spit swapping: babies end up with the bacteria present in mom's mouths no matter what, but not dad's. It is best to limit the introduction of different strains of bacteria so as to prevent future gum disease later in life. Therefore, it is better for children to share a cup with mom, but not as much with dad and dad's parents, etc.