by Alan Greene, MD, FAAP

It’s hard to overestimate the enormous potential of a family sharing meals together. Family meals are associated with better nutrition, better health, better behavior, and happier children, parents (and grandparents). Experts today are wringing their hands about the obesity epidemic in children and depression in teens; citizens are concerned about violence; educators are distressed by falling school performance. (I wish I could write a prescription for families): find a way to enjoy as many meals together, especially at home, as often as you can.

Parents of babies often find it challenging to have a peaceful meal with an infant at the table. Babies can be unpredictable in regards to whining or crying, and the inevitable throwing of food. But, it doesn’t need to be a struggle and it’s great to start family meals young.

Follow these tips to make mealtime with baby the best it can be:

1. Make your baby’s first meal a family meal. Start when your baby is clearly asking for some of your food. Bring your baby as close to the table as possible and share some of the same food. Shared meals are better than kids’ meals. Babies can eat many (but not all) of the same foods you can.

2. Give your baby a seat at the table. When choosing a highchair or booster seat, look for something that can be brought close to the table so that your child can feel more included in meals.

3. Make your baby’s first food a real food. Choose an avocado, banana, or sweet potato (cooked until soft). Let your baby handle and smell the food first. Then mash some up and enjoy together. You can add some breast milk (or formula) to thin out your baby’s portion. Whole grain porridges, such as oatmeal or brown rice cereal have also been used for generations as first foods for babies, and even meat or egg yolk.

4. Give your baby a broad variety of taste experiences. The time between starting solids and starting to walk is an unrepeatable window when it is easiest to learn to like new foods. Once babies start walking, neophobia – a fear of new foods and new food sources – often starts to build. This makes sense. Historically children might have toddled outside and picked a berry or leaf that was terrible for them. Toddlers are designed to be suspicious of new fruits and vegetables. Now is the time to introduce lots of healthy flavors that you’ll want your child to enjoy later.

5. Don’t give up. It takes an average of 6 to 10 tries (and up to 15 tries) before a baby likes an unfamiliar food. When feeding babies, 94% of parents give up on foods before 6 tries, and only 1 or 2 in a
hundred would try 10 different times. If your baby doesn’t like it today, try again soon.

6. Engage the senses. In my book, Feeding Baby Green, I talk about how important it is to involve all of the senses in developing nutritional intelligence and a healthy relationship with food. Whether or not your child is eating everything you are, encourage her (and everyone at the table) to smell, touch, and really look at the food. Try to describe it - which can also be a rich communication experience for babies and toddlers who are going through the language development phase.

7. Relax. Babies, and even older children, feed off of your energy. If you come to the table stressed or anxious, they’ll reflect that emotion. Try to treat the table like a haven - a place you all come to relax and enjoy one another’s company (forget if the house around you is chaos!)

Each family meal can be a place of calm in the sea of busyness that roils around us. It can be an oasis of connectedness and simple joy. Family meals offer routine and consistency in the midst of change. They are opportunities to learn together about communication skills, manners, nutrition, and good eating habits.

They build family identity and unconscious memories to last a lifetime. Bon appetit!