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“Having a bad day?”

As I wedged myself back into my booth at Pret, the lady next to me gave a sympathetic half-smile.

“Not one of the worst, surprisingly, and up until now it had been going reasonably well…”

The thing is, I have discovered, when you think you’re doing well is often the exact moment everything goes spectacularly to crap. Let me rewind…

This morning, weather being classic English early autumn (cold and damp) I shoved the kids in the car to go to the outlet centre. I do love the outlet; it’s essentially an indoor, pushchair friendly circuit lined with discounted brand-named stores and cafes. There’s a covered playground outside, a food court upstairs and family accessible toilets. Basically, perfect for low effort entertainment when you need to burn energy without actually being outside. Anyway, this morning being what it was and me needing to fill a good 12 hours of parenting time, we headed off.

The signs were all there, if I’m honest. Big wouldn’t stop talking at all the entire 25 minute journey. Little fell asleep, so I was feeling confident. The petrol station had works going on and I very nearly cocked up driving in. Then I lost focus (watching a man on a cherry picker) and the pump sped past the amount I wanted to put in, so I obviously had to get the the next round number. Because hitting exact numbers on the petrol pump is something everyone does, right?

There was a parent & child space available right outside the doors. That should have tipped me off that the universe was coming for me. Lulling me into a false sense of security, if you will. Little woke up. Any parent can tell you that <25 minutes nap is not the right amount of nap for a baby who’s been up for 4 hours already. The low level grumble began. I should have quit, I know this now, but I am stubborn and an idiot.

The first half lap was ok. We got feet measured. We found an apron and mini baking set for Big. She promptly put the apron on and refused to take it off for the rest of the day. We managed a trip to the toilets, no-one opened the door mid-pee. The grumble grew in intensity. Silly me had assumed he’d go to sleep as soon as we got going with the buggy. Silly, silly me.

We made it out of Paperchase with the things we needed and without inadvertently shoplifting anything (and that’s happened before, so it definitely counts as a win). The grumble erupted. Lunch time.

Up to the food court, into Pret (another place I love: they have food that makes me feel healthy, fruit for the fruit bat that is Big and tub chairs I can trap her in at the table). We made our selections, I put back the myriad items Big tried to smuggle in. Life-saving coffee ordered, warm milk for Big and a (free!) gingerbread man to be rationed out over the day. To the table. And relax. Winning.

Except that as soon as Little latches on to eat, Big boots the table and sends coffee and hot milk everywhere. The chap at the next table whispers something to his wife (probably along the lines of ‘Rookie. Never take two out for lunch on your own, you’re outnumbered…’) and then very kindly comes to the rescue with napkins.

Big eats half of half a sandwich (the sandwich she specifically requested, no less) and wants to get started on the fruit pot, which I manage to open, one handed, like a boss. She loudly declares she wants my pasta (note: I highly recommend the ham hock and sprout mac & cheese. Pricey, perhaps, but tasty and filling) and then very dramatically spits it out with an ‘I don’t like it!’ (which is currently interchangeable with ‘I don’t want it right now’). She definitely likes it. Mac & cheese is a top 5 dinner for her in any form.

I refocus my attention on Little, who has cheered up and is giggling at me (and thus spraying milk everywhere like the Trevi fountain). As I do this, the chap at the next table calls ‘watch out!’ just in time for me to look up and see a fruit pot go flying through the air… and scatter fruit across the floor.

Little back in the buggy (cue screaming), me picking up strewn fruit, queue of people looking at me pityingly. Big yelling that she wants fruit. Me, picking up howling baby, explaining she can’t have that fruit, it’s been on a cafe floor and though I’m generally a 5 second rule kinda person I do have my limits. I clamber back round the buggy into the booth and sit down, feeling the zip on my skirt undo itself. Time to make some ‘now we’re out of the first 3 months’ dietary changes, methinks.

I shove some more food into Little. Big consoles herself with her steamed milk and gets chocolate sprinkle foam all over her face. The queue goes down and I go get another fruit pot because I am a Nice Mum (mug). Baby under one arm, because he’s pretty fed up by this point (and apparently me telling him this is his own fault and if he’d just go to sleep he’d feel better isn’t something he’s interested in hearing), wallet under other arm, fruit pot in hand. I am Mumming with great success. We shall save this!

Except that if you’ve been paying attention you’ll remember that my zip has released itself from its sole responsibility.

I reach the counter. Gravity does its job. I somehow manage to save it (well, partly) with a sort of interpretive dance manoeuvre, but you’ve probably worked out I am several hands short by now.

“What can I get you?” asks the barista.

“Just this fruit pot, please, and can someone hold this baby, as my skirt is falling off.”

Just style it out. You are cool and sophisticated.

Fortunately, it turns out I am in line behind everyone’s favourite person when you need a hand with a baby – a Granny. She’s thrilled.

“What an unexpected pleasure!” she beams (Oh, good, glad my dignity could provide that for you), cooing over Little, who incidentally has now moved on his Prince Charming act and is beaming at everyone. Which is a good thing, because it means no-one is really looking at me, as gravity has finally won. Thank the gods for million denier tights. Good job it was only lunchtime in a busy food court or that could have been embarrassing.

Back to the table, baby still feeling good from his surprise Granny cuddle, Big eats her fruit pot. And by ‘eats’, I mean ‘hands over ever other piece of fruit with a loud I don’t like it’. So that was worth it.

I’m pretty sure it was showing on my face at this point, as this is when the lady at the next table asked if I was having a bad day.

We didn’t hang around long after that. Little suddenly realised he was shattered and lost his tiny mind. Big thought she’d join in as he sang me the song of his people, with a rousing (and in a different key) MMMMMMMMMM sound.

I drowned them out with Loud Music. Sometimes a shouty singalong is as good as a rest. Little finally went to sleep, where he remains, pinning me on the sofa as I discover that the mantelpiece – last bastion of Places Big Can’t Reach – has fallen and she can absolutely get the scissors now because she needs a haircut. So that’s something.

If you very closely, you can see the last of my sanity escaping.

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Foods To Start With (and what to avoid)

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This is an in-exhaustive area. Pretty much anything goes here but there is some guidance to pay attention to. Perhaps unsurprisingly, baby diets are not dissimilar to pregnancy diets, so you’re probably more prepared than you might think. If you’re vegan or have other dietary preferences/requirements make sure you check how this will affect baby; you may need to ensure you’re providing essential vitamins, etc, elsewhere.

First up, things to avoid:

  • Nuts. At all in whole nut form. Nut butters can be ok but test for allergies first and be aware that some nut butters are very thick and sticky which can cause problems in tiny mouths.
  • Raw shellfish. Food poisoning is something to avoid. Also, shellfish allergies should be tested for.
  • High-mercury fish.
  • Honey. For the same reason as pregnant women should avoid it — honey can contain the bacteria responsible for botulism. Not a big deal for adults, no fun for babies. Steer clear until over 1.
  • Low-fat foods. Fat is important in our diets, not only nutritionally and as a good source of calories, but also as it helps the body detect that it’s had food and is full. This is good for the grown ups, too – a little full fat yogurt, for example, will leave you feeling fuller than a lot of the low-fat equivalent. Also worth noting that low-fat versions generally have a higher sugar content.
  • Cow’s milk. You may already know if your baby has a cow’s milk protein allergy or is lactose intolerant. Cow’s milk is safe to use in cooking and as an ingredient (so in cheese or porridge is fine) but don’t use it as a ‘proper’ drink until after 1.

 

Next, things to go careful with:

  • Eggs. A surprising amount of babies are intolerant of egg. This doesn’t always last and you can (on doctors instruction) add egg back in over a period but introduce them carefully in the first instance and make sure they’re properly cooked through.
  • Seafood. As above – test carefully for allergies and make sure it’s properly cooked.
  • Sugar. Multiple reasons for this: it’s unnecessary carbs, it’s terrible for teeth and it’s addictive meaning it leads to poor dietary choices later. Don’t add refined sugar to things like porridge, sweeten with fruit instead. I’m not saying don’t ever have anything sweet, but try lower sugar recipes for baking. If you can avoid over-sugaring when they’re small, they won’t feel the need for sugar when they’re big. Watch things like fruit juice (if you give it, dilute with water and follow up with something like cheese to counteract the acids).
  • Salt. You probably know that adults are recommended no more than 6g of salt in a day. For the under 1s, it’s 1g. That’s not a lot. Be aware of what you’re adding to food and create flavour with herbs and spices instead of extra salt and stock cubes.
  • Small foods. I’m thinking along the lines of nuts here: sweetcorn kernels, peas, cheerios… a good rule here is not to give it until baby has a really good pincer grip — that is; they can pick things up, confidently, between thumb and forefinger.
  • Grapes. Don’t give grapes whole under the age of 2. They can be cut in half (longways, top to bottom) when baby is a bit bigger but make sure you’re paying attention.

 

Finally, things that are good places to start:

  • Fresh fruit and veg. Nice and easy as most fruit and veg doesn’t require a lot of work. Some ideas:
    • Steam vegetables like carrots and broccoli ’til very soft in the early days, gradually firm it up as baby becomes more confident.
    • Cut peppers and cucumber into chunky sticks. Cucumber is especially good right out of the fridge for sore, teething gums.
    • Avocado is horrendously messy but has some good fats and baby will enjoy smearing it everywhere.
    • Core apple and slice into rounds (equator way, not pole to pole, if you get me),
    • Cut mango and melon into fingers.
    • Banana splits itself into handy, baby sized fingers if you stick your finger in the end and give it a wiggle.
  • Water. Babies don’t actually really need much to drink when weaning as they’re still getting the majority of thirst quenching goodness from their milk. However, it’s good for everyone to have a glass of water with a meal and there are some good cup options available for baby to practice with.
  • Porridge. Make with whole milk or breast milk. Bake it or microwave it until it’s pretty solid and cut into fingers, like squishy oatmeal bars. Stir in squished berries, cooked apple, or mashed banana with a little cinnamon. Incidentally, most baby porridges are just ground oats so save yourself some money and just use regular oats (which you can then also use in crumble toppings, oat bars, etc). If you’re feeling like you need it to be finer, blitz it in the blender for a few seconds but baby should be fine with it as is.
  • Pasta. The pasta tubes and twists go down pretty well and spaghetti is excellent (horribly messy) fun. Stir in some soft cheese (the garlic and herb ones are pretty good for a quick sauce) or a tomato sauce and be prepared to clean everyone and everything.
  • Rice. Try fruity rice pudding (watch the sugar) or a mild curry (stir in yoghurt to cool any lingering heat).
  • Toast fingers. Some people have said there can be digestive issues with too much wheat too early on. Do your research if this is something you’re worried about or if there’s family history of wheat intolerance. If you’re all ok with it, toast fingers with banana, cream cheese or avocado spread on are good for gumming on. Cut sandwiches into easy to hold fingers, too.
  • Fritters and pancakes. Banana or blueberry pancakes make a good breakfast if you’ve got the time. You can store batter in the fridge if you have time to make it earlier. Pea or sweetcorn fritters can be batch made and frozen, then heated from frozen in the microwave. Make them in the blender, then mix in a handful of whole peas or sweetcorn as baby gets bigger.

 

Baby Led Weaning

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There are very few firsts in life and by-and-large they’re done and dusted early on. Not so with food. Think of the last time you tried eating something new – it probably wasn’t all that long ago. The process of discovering food isn’t something that ever really ends – we are always trying new flavours, new ingredients, new ways of putting things together. For me, weaning is simply the start of this journey; a way to introduce the idea of food that reflects how we continue that relationship for the rest of our lives. Food is a huge part of life. It’s something we go to multiple times a day – hungry, tired, sad, celebrating… the list of reasons we eat is long. So, for me, discovering baby-led weaning was one of the best things in my parenting journey. I’ll be honest; until I was about to wean my first baby I had never heard of it and thought weaning would involve a lot of pureeing and spoon feeding. It turns out this doesn’t have to be the case. The more I found out about baby-led weaning, the more I liked the idea. Friends recommended it. I gave it a try. I loved it.

Why Baby-Led Weaning?

I love food. I mean, not always, but generally. I have days where I don’t want to cook, don’t want to eat, only want to eat take out and ice cream… but I (generally) see food as a positive thing in my life and I really want my children to have a happy, healthy relationship with the food they’ll be discovering and eating for the rest of their lives. Baby-led weaning (or BLW) is one approach to weaning a baby from milk (breast or formula) to real, actual, solid food. It basically is what it says – a way to let the baby take the lead in the process.

In essence, BLW means you give food to your baby and they eat it. Or mash it up. Or throw it on the floor. The idea is to let your baby explore food in their own time and in their own way, learning about flavours, textures, chewing and swallowing. They learn to differentiate broccoli from beans and decide whether they like either, both or neither. They learn to identify when they’ve had enough to eat. They figure out that apple requires more effort than jelly. Experimentation is key.

As far as I can tell, the main aims of weaning are two-fold: firstly, the little ones aren’t going to be little ones forever and at some point will need to eat ‘proper’ food, so they need to learn. Secondly, in defiance of the classic poem, we’re trying to avoid f*&$ing them up as much as we can; let’s not exclude food from that. A person’s relationship with food can affect their entire life, so we want to give our children the best possible start to that relationship. Now, I’m not saying ‘perfect weaning’ will prevent eating disorders, weird reactions to soft fruit, pickiness or what have you (and, frankly, anyone who tells you there’s a ‘perfect’ way to do pretty much anything when it comes to babies is talking nonsense). What I am saying is that it seems to me if we can set them up right they have a fighting chance.  It’s messy, it’s work and it’s not always going to be easy, but we love these tiny people and they deserve our best effort, right?

It’s by no means the only approach, I couldn’t say that for everyone it’s the best approach, nor make any other ‘be all and end all’ declarative. The truth is there’s more than one way to wean a baby and what works for one may not work for another for a variety of reasons. The parenting motto in our family is ‘Do What Works’ and introducing solids is no exception. If, for whatever reason, you can’t get with BLW: don’t do it. Or do it in part. Or have a BLW day and a puree day and a dear-god-in-heaven-what-am-I-doing day. Whatever works. Survival is the goal! (Incidentally another motto: get everyone through the day, sometimes anything more than that is a bonus).

But what actually is BLW?

When I first started weaning Elizabeth, I really, really wanted someone to properly define BLW for me. I mean, surely it didn’t just mean ‘give them a plate of sandwiches and let them get on with it’? Surely a baby can’t just… eat? Turns out they kinda can. And really, when you think about it, of course they can. We don’t have a regurgitation system like birds. We don’t have wild-growing blenders whipping everything into nutrient paste for us. Babies have been weaning since there were babies to wean. The idea here is to help them do what they’re biologically driven to do: put food in their mouths. It’s also fun. Like, really fun. Watching your child discover and enjoy food is pretty incredible, seeing all these firsts anew through their eyes is fascinating and helping them do it is so rewarding. Baby-led weaning has been a real high point for me through the early years of my daughter’s life and I’m really looking forward to trying it again with my son.

Food is easy to control. The trouble with spoon feeding is that the control ends up with the wrong person — you. There’s a temptation to shovel the food in fast to get it done, at your own pace. It can be tedious, feeding a baby, so you might drop into a rhythm and baby has to fit in. You probably don’t eat your dinner like that. When you do things in a baby-led way, you give the control to your baby and they decide what goes in, when and in what order. Now, this may be frustrating as heck for you, but while they’re doing this they’re learning to pace themselves and respond to their own hunger and satiety cues. They learn specifically what they like and what they don’t like. They’ll socialise with you at the table — eat a bit, chat a bit, take a drink, chat a bit — and they get to be like you which, as you’ll increasingly see from them as they grow, is pretty much all they want (more fool them!). They’ll learn that meal times are important, that it’s important to pay attention to what you’re putting in your body and that spending quality time together for a meal is a good thing. (Seriously, if you can train your family into family meal times early, you can use family meal times later to check in with everyone. It’s a really good time to make sure your older kids are doing ok and creates a safe, regular spot for conversation.) The other bonus here is that if you’re taking this approach you only have to cook one meal, one time. Just crib a bit off plates here and there to make up a plate for baby. Easy.

A Word About Purees

Now, I’m pretty sure people will be saying ‘but I was fed purees and I’m fine!’ ‘there are some really good organic purees on the market!’ and other such things. This is fine and true. I’m not going to say purees are the devil. I’m not going to say you’re a bad parent if you use purees. Heck, I’m not even saying don’t use them — after all there’s a fine line between something like soup or mashed potato and puree, isn’t there? What I am saying is that purees aren’t the last word in baby weaning. You don’t have to puree. You can, of course, if you want to (though if you do, you should taste it yourself, first — I have a rule that if i wouldn’t eat it I’m not going to make them eat it and frankly, nutritionally valid as some purees are, if you squeezed some of them into a bowl and tried to eat it with a spoon I don’t think you’d get very far.)

Purees can be excellent ways to get extra food into a child that won’t (or struggles to) eat. If you need the calorie content, a pouch of fruit and veg can be a life-saver. Do try and let them manage it themselves though, if you can. The benefits there still apply. And, if you really want to incorporate purees into your weaning program, try and make them yourself. That way you can adjust the texture and contents as you go along and you can make batches to store in the freezer for convenience.

 

You’ll never regret time with your children.

Seriously, you’re not gonna get to 90 and wish you’d not spent that time with them at the dinner table. They’re going to drive you mad in a million ways as they grow up – they’ll make a pile of mushrooms on the table despite telling you they only wanted mushrooms, they’ll feed half their dinner to the dog and then scream that they don’t want the dog to have eaten it, they’ll have a complete meltdown because they don’t want the food to be that colour (and yes, these things have all happened to me). In the end, though, you want to love them, to raise them as well as you possibly can and to take all that crap now so that when they’re grown they can face the world with confidence. It’ll be worth it.