When Babies Rule the Dinner Table

When I was pregnant with my son, I took slow, blood-circulating walks around Prospect Park and thought about feeding him lemons. Not just lemons, of course. Also roast chicken and broccoli florets, their edges nicely charred from the oven; sweet, juicy peaches and tart Cortland apples; curried egg salad and garlicky Greek yogurt whipped with olive oil; fat, unctuous sardines and crispy schnitzel served with silky mashed potatoes, peppery arugula, and August tomatoes. These were foods that I loved, and I wanted him to love them, too. There were other parts of the human experience that I hoped he might grow, in time, to enjoy: reading a novel in a shaded hammock on a hot summer’s day; riding a bicycle (wearing a helmet, please, God) through the streets of a new city; dancing with abandon when his song comes on. But those pleasures were not available to a baby. Food would come first.

Until quite recently, this would have been an unusual, if not frankly heretical, way for an American parent to think about feeding her progeny. In 1894, the pediatrician Luther Emmett Holt published “The Care and Feeding of Children: A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children’s Nurses,” an enormously influential guide that ushered babies into an age of abstemious blandness. A child’s first non-milk food should be gruel, Holt instructed in one edition. Beef juice could be offered at five or six months if the infant was sickly and anemic, at ten or eleven months if she was hardy and robust. Next might come coddled egg whites and a few sips of orange juice. At eighteen months, some prune pulp or baked apple could be allowed, along with stale bread; at two years, baked potato. If flavor was bad for babies, Holt believed texture to be even worse. “No child can be trusted to chew meat properly,” he warned. “All omelets are objectionable.” As for green vegetables, they must “be cooked until very soft, and mashed, or preferably put through a sieve.”

Since Addie Cha-Beach, who is ten months old, started eating solids, she’s been able to enjoy the same meals as her family. Addie’s mother, Yeji, wanted to introduce Addie to the Korean foods that she grew up with. When Addie tasted her first bulgogi, Yeji says, she went at the chunk of marinated beef “like she was born to gnaw on it.” Addie also enjoys pork-and-chive dumplings, and, here, udon noodles.

Children’s chewing, declared a problem, eventually found a commercial solution. In 1927, a Michigan mother named Dorothy Gerber, following the Holtian advice of her family doctor, began straining solid foods for her seven-month-old daughter. Her husband worked at his family’s canning company, and Dorothy’s efforts gave the couple an idea. Gerber’s first baby foods hit the market the following year. Few innovations in culinary history have been more consequential for the collective imagination. When Americans think of feeding a baby, we picture mush spooned from a jar and pushed into a tiny, passive mouth—and it’s not just Americans. Today, the baby-food market is worth roughly a hundred billion dollars worldwide, and growing fast.

In the past two decades, though, another approach has begun to emerge. According to this method’s proponents, babies do not need to be served baby food, because just about any food can be for babies, and the more variety the better: sour, sweet, and savory; crunchy and chewy; tender and tough. As for spoon-feeding, forget it. No more treating mealtime like an attack on a fortified castle, the spoon wielded as a battering ram against closed lips. Let the baby touch her own food, pick it up herself, and put it in her own mouth. Let her move it around with her tongue and chomp on it with her gums. She might gulp it down; she might spit it out. Not to worry. Soon, she will try again.

At nine months, Mae Gooch-Richtsmeier has a taste for seafood. She often eats sardines, which, as her mother, Courtney Gooch, notes, are packed with nutrients and in convenient tins. Mae has also eaten trout, salmon, and even caviar. “She loved it,” Courtney reports. “I told her, ‘It’s all downhill from here.’ ”

Myles Kao Yong Henderson’s mom, Kai-Ti Kao, wants to introduce him to a hundred foods before he reaches his first birthday. She consults an app for suggestions, but some of them are over the top, she says. “Who is feeding their baby king-crab legs?”

Charlotte Kondub loves bananas, especially cut into sticks. Her mother, Stephanie, says that one nerve-racking part of baby-led weaning was understanding the difference between choking, which is dangerous, and gagging, a normal reaction as babies learn to chew and swallow.

This way of feeding babies has come to be called baby-led weaning. (The “weaning” part refers to the practice of introducing solid foods alongside breast milk or formula, rather than just replacing them.) As the name suggests, it requires following a baby’s lead, which some adults find challenging. Babies are, well, babies. What do they know that we don’t?

A few weeks ago, I Zoomed with Judy Delaware, a pediatric-feeding specialist and occupational therapist, and Megan McNamee, a pediatric dietitian, who together run Feeding Littles, a company that offers online courses to help parents get the hang of the method. Delaware is sixty-six, with close-cropped hair and a sunny, youthful demeanor; on the Feeding Littles Instagram account, she often plays the part of a baby or a toddler, smearing her face with yogurt or gleefully tipping over her plate to show that she is all done. McNamee, a generation younger, is still in the thick of parenting her own kids. She first heard about baby-led weaning in 2013, while teaching at a birth center in Phoenix, Arizona. “My co-workers said, ‘You should look into this. It’s a huge trend in Europe,’ ” she told me. She decided to try it with her infant daughter. By the time she and Delaware were introduced, the following year, she was all in. “I was probably one of the only dietitians in the U.S. talking about it,” she said. “Had you even heard of it at that point?”

“I think I knew of it,” Delaware said. “But because my background is so, you know, neurobiologic and really focussed on swallowing and inter-oral strength and everything, I was, like, ‘How’s that going to work?’ ”

Great, it turned out. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a client come to us and say, ‘I wish I didn’t do baby-led weaning,’ ” McNamee said. “But we’ve had thousands say, ‘I wish I had done it, and not what I did.’ ” Babies love to explore with their hands and their mouths. Contrary to Dr. Holt’s convictions, they like seasoning and flavor, just as adults do, and they are remarkably open to encountering new textures and tastes. This is particularly true in the period between six months and a year, when the whole world is ripe for discovery.

For parents, feeding babies real food can make mealtimes easier. There’s no need to prepare a whole separate breakfast or dinner for the baby, which means spending less time cooking and less money at the grocery store. But the main thing that changes with baby-led weaning is the balance of power. Parents don’t renounce theirs; they just wield it more judiciously. One motto in the baby-led-weaning world is that the parents decide what the child eats—no short-order cooking, hustling to mix pancakes because your toddler rejected his eggs—and the child decides how much. “My role is not to make him eat,” McNamee said. “My role is to provide the environment so that eating is a pleasant experience.” If a baby wants to ignore his carrots while having a second, and then a third, helping of pasta or meatballs, so be it. He’s more likely to come around to a new or suspect food when he feels that he can choose on his own.

Alexandra Schwartz’s son, Benjamin Blitzer, shares roasted carrots with his stuffed monkey.

When his parents began offering him purées, Dayaan Haris-Taucher seemed more interested in what they were having. They hoped that he would develop a well-rounded palate, and, at thirteen months, Dayaan loves bok choy, chole, and smoothies with leafy greens and mango.

No feeding method—or any other kind of method—works for all babies, but some worries are easily allayed. One common reason that parents might want to stick with purées is the fear that their children will choke on solids. Babies do, in fact, gag on food as they are learning to eat—but, as Delaware, McNamee, and other experts in the field explain, this is not dangerous; actually, it’s a good thing. Choking happens when an airway is blocked. Gagging is a protective reflex to keep the airway clear, and it usually doesn’t distress the baby in the slightest. When my son began eating solids, I was astonished to see him gag up a piece of food he’d been gnawing on and then calmly reach for more. Most babies will gag as they learn to chew and swallow, but babies who are introduced to food through baby-led weaning can become proficient faster, by virtue of early exposure and practice. “They learn so much more about their oral sensory-motor movements, how the tongue moves back and forth,” Delaware told me. “We want them to have all that sensory feedback and opportunity to get things on their hands and in their mouths and really develop more skills.”

Another term for “sensory feedback” is mess. There’s a lot of it with baby-led weaning: hair encrusted with oatmeal, clothes covered in blueberry stains, neck folds that hide smears of tomato sauce—and that’s to say nothing of the table-and-floor blast radius. (McNamee suggests, in all seriousness, that petless parents consider getting a dog to help with the cleanup.) You can invest, as I did, in a pack of eating smocks with puffed sleeves that make your child look like a page in a medieval court; you can say to hell with clothes altogether, strip the baby down to a diaper, and let bath time do its work. Anyway, hovering over a busy eater with a wipe at the ready is irritating for parent and child alike. Imagine if you were sitting at the table, peacefully enjoying a meal, only to have your face rudely scrubbed every time you put a morsel in your mouth. You, too, might feel like biting the hand that fed you.

When I mentioned to people that I was writing about baby-led weaning, some reacted as though I were unwittingly wading into shark-infested waters while swinging a bucket of chum. Navigating the judgment of others has always been a part of parenting, but the Internet has taken that annoyance and made it a scourge. There is always someone in the comments of a post bragging or berating, telling you that because you’re doing it differently, you’re doing it wrong. McNamee referred, darkly, to baby-led-weaning “extremists,” guilt-trippers and concern-trollers who take a my-way-or-the-highway approach to particulars like the proper order in which to introduce certain foods, or imply that a child’s picky eating is the fault of a parent who preferred purées.

The one downside to baby-led weaning, Dayaan’s father, Nick, says, is the cleanup: “Every single meal is a total mess. Disaster. Food-fight-level mess.”

Spaghetti Bolognese, another Dayaan favorite.

This kind of censorious attitude is antithetical to what I love about baby-led weaning, which is how flexible and non-prescriptive it really is. There are, of course, certain guidelines to follow to insure safety and success. A baby is considered ready for solids when she can sit upright on her own and starts bringing her hands and various objects to her mouth, generally around six months. She should be placed in a high chair with straps and support for her feet, ideally one that can be pushed right up to the table so that she can take part in family mealtimes. Bigger pieces of food, like a skinless drumstick or a fleshy mango pit, are, counterintuitively, safer for novice eaters, and smaller pieces are more appropriate for later, when the baby can use her thumb and forefinger together—the pincer grasp—to pick up objects. But, in the words of the baby-led-weaning pioneer Gill Rapley, there is “no program to follow and no stages to complete.” You simply go where your imagination and your child’s palate lead.

Don’t be surprised, though, if those paths sometimes fork. There’s a special joy in watching a baby delight in food that you have prepared for her, and a pitiful deflation in presenting her with a plate whose contents she tosses to the floor. When this happens—when the same stir-fry that was lustily demanded last week is met with an offended shriek, or when the rotini with spinach and ricotta is devoured but ravioli with the same ingredients is treated as an indignity not to be endured—I try to remind myself that pickiness is nothing personal. “They’re learning free will,” McNamee told me. So, I guess, am I.

Taste wouldn’t be taste if it could be taught. Still, the temptation to try to mold it is strong. “Let us preserve to the child as long as possible his primitive taste,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in “Émile,” his treatise on education. “Let his nourishment be common and simple, let not his palate be familiarized with any but mild favors, and let no exclusive taste be formed.” For Rousseau, a dogmatic vegetarian who suggested that eating meat could be the first step on the road to committing murder, the food that a child ate set the tone for his moral formation. Many contemporary parents would agree, substituting sophistication for simplicity. “I didn’t want a buttered-noodle kid,” the culinary impresario Julia Sherman told me. Sherman, who on social media goes by the moniker Salad for President, has published cookbooks, created “salad gardens” at museums, and spent five years as the creative director of Chopt; she approached the project of feeding her children with comparable ambition. The first food that she gave her daughter was foraged nettles. “Bitter was an important thing for me, because I feel like that’s a really crucial end of the culinary spectrum that some people are just not into,” she explained. Now her daughter is four. “Her favorite foods are sardines, anchovies, olives, umeboshi plums, capers,” Sherman said. “I mean, they’re all salty, which is funny, because I was really restrictive on salt.”

Benjamin, who is fifteen months old, enjoys the social elements of mealtime, and does his best eating when in the company of a group.

Last April, I was scrolling through Instagram when I was stopped short by a video of a toddler dining on scallops—and not just any scallops but, the caption noted, “seared sea scallops with cauliflower puree, quick pickled cucumbers, microgreens, radishes, and tobiko.” The clip, which shows the preparation and presentation of the dish in a manner that calls for a Michelin star or two, catapulted the account, @cookingforlevi, to celebrity among people who like babies, good food, and babies eating good food.

Levi, who recently turned three, is not merely a voracious and adventurous eater—recent meals include slow-braised oxtail with jicama slaw, salmon Wellington with lemon beurre blanc and pomegranate reduction, and hoisin-glazed meatballs with scallion-cream drizzle, for which he cracked the eggs himself—but also an astonishingly articulate food critic. (“Pretty tendah” is a favorite assessment.) His personal chef is his dad, Jack Zhang, a self-taught cook who got his bachelor’s degree in geology before cutting his teeth in fine-dining and catering establishments in Buffalo, New York. (Before taking on Levi as his main client, Zhang worked as a cook for the Buffalo Bills.) Zhang begins each of his videos by asking, “Hey, Levi, what do you want to eat?” Levi is involved throughout the cooking process; Zhang discusses ideas for upcoming meals with him, and they go to the market together to shop for ingredients.

Zhang told me that he hadn’t heard of baby-led weaning when he introduced Levi to food, but his own ideas followed a similar line. “We never bought purées from the store, ’cause I feel like they don’t have much substance to them,” he said. He made his own mashes for Levi, leaving some chunks in to accustom him to different textures. Levi soon developed a particular yen for seafood. “Sometimes I’ll ask him what he wants, and he’ll keep saying salmon or shrimp,” Zhang told me. “I’ll say, ‘Let’s try something else tonight.’ I like to make simple things, complicated things. I just really love food.”

Kira Cintron-Wu’s mother, Weige Wu, was drawn to baby-led weaning as a way to foster good decision-making—learning to eat until one is full, instead of feeling pressured to finish what’s on the plate.

Niles Kumar, six months old, has been doing baby-led weaning for about a month. Before that, he was obsessed with watching people eat; his mother, Lauren Kiel, remembers him gazing longingly at his father’s birthday cake.

When Kira, who is eleven months old, feeds herself, a good amount of food ends up on the floor, where the family dog Bobbie joins in. Bobbie’s veterinarian recently recommended that she be put on a diet.

Zhang’s family emigrated from China to the United States when he was two years old. “I was raised in a traditional Chinese household, where my grandma would go and buy fresh produce almost every day, and then she would come home and make a meal,” he told me. “I remember bone broths, fresh leafy greens—just a bunch of stuff that now, looking back on, I’m very glad that I was raised like that, because it does shape your appreciation of food, and your understanding of food as well.” The terminology around baby-led weaning may be new, but it’s good to remember that the core of the concept—eating food together with family—is a return to the way that things have always been.

I, too, love food, though my own cooking habits are more workaday than Sherman’s or Zhang’s. My son, who is fifteen months old, likes nothing more than bellying up to a plate of pasta drenched in pesto or munching on a whole apple. He is skeptical of rainbow chard, which he enthusiastically gobbled when he was smaller, though he can’t get enough of a certain vinegary spinach pie that I buy for him ready-made. With apologies to poor Dr. Holt, he is a passionate omelette fan and none the worse for it. What will he crave tomorrow? It’s impossible to know. Let him eat quesadillas; let him eat cake. (Well, maybe not quite yet.) The wide world is full of food to discover at his own pace. A lifetime of meals stretches before him, but at the table, it’s always now.

Rachel Riederer contributed additional reporting.

Ava Rhinesmith, who is five months old, had her first bites of food—banana and avocado—a few weeks ago.

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