When our son Isaiah was a baby, we paid a lot of attention to family dinner: we were careful never to have it. Isaiah ate his premasticated mush early; we ate our toothsome food late. We got to complete our sentences, if we still knew how.
It was because we almost never ate dinner with Isaiah that we decided, someday when he was not yet a year old, that we should eat down and eat together as a family. With impeccable new parent logic, we made Actual Dinner for the occasion. (Leg of lamb: I am not joking.) You know how this ends. At some point during the aborted dinner, I vaguely remember looking at Isaiah and thinking, But this is Special Time! Why are you ruining Special Time?
We went back to not having family dinner.
Isaiah is now four and some. His brother, Samuel, or Mila, is the baby who’s almost a year old. And our life is very different: because Isaiah now always eats with us, we eat early, which means that Mila eats with us too. He doesn’t eat premasticated mush. He eats whatever we eat. (It is never leg of lamb.) We don’t road-test each ingredient first. We don’t even cut it up, really.
This sounds like a disastrous plan. It works brilliantly. We have a solid fifteen minutes of family dinner, before Mila, in some preverbal pagan ritual, starts systemically slaughtering everything on his tray and disposing of the carcasses over the side.
Every baby is different, and aside from Mila’s blood-lust, we got lucky. But I have learned a few things about eating with small humans that I did not know when Isaiah was a baby, and I wish I had. They are:
1) Babies eat food.
This fact is curiously hidden in the literature, which always makes babies sound like very complicated consumers of food-like substances. There is talk of introducing new ingredients in stages, and the phasing-in of difficult tastes, and the super food must-haves with mega-antis and hyper-pros.
In response to the literature, I have devised a single rule for making baby food: at all costs, avoid making baby food. Feel free to write it down for handy reference.
My thinking is basically: Making food for everyone else is hard enough. As I have explained to Mila numerous times, just because he’s an infant doesn’t mean he gets to be infantilized.
The best argument for being Very Cautious and Complicated was always the allergy argument. So it helped that since Isaiah was a baby, the American Association of Pediatrics decided the no-nonsense advice they’d given parents about how to prevent allergies was—and this is a technical medical term—ass-backwards. The old advice, of course, was to postpone introducing potential allergens until later in infancy; the new advice is more or less the opposite. (This month the AAP published a new report about when parents were feeding their babies solid food—and the authors seemed shocked, shocked, that parents were not following the medical advice — waiting until after six months. I am sure the current advice is correct, just as the previous advice was also correct; I am also sure the AAP has forfeited the right to be shocked. The authors were very gently skewered by Perri Klass, a pediatrician herself, in the Times.)
As far as I can tell, the state of the science on allergies is: We’re still figuring it out! We’ll be right with you!
So Mila eats whatever we eat, except when we’re truly desperate and have dinner entirely composed of Isaiah’s leftover Halloween candy. I’m kidding, of course. That rarely happens.
2) Babies eat food the way it looks on your plate.
I was very attentive and semi-paranoid about what I fed Isaiah. For better or worse, I am neither with Mila. It helped that in between their babyhoods, I wrote a book on the history and science of infancy, Baby Meets World, and I learned that babies have survived a lot worse than not having their broccoli pureed. I am not suggesting we revive any of these ancient (and not so ancient) wrongheaded feeding practices. (Dried cow teats for bottles: probably not those either.) But babies are far more flexible and resilient than we think: they can handle a few chickpeas.
This was a major revelation. Cutting up food into neutrino-sized pieces is a hedge against everything else you will do wrong as a parent: at least, you think, at least I never gave you a whole grape. That’s how I felt about feeding Isaiah: I could control very little about the world, but I could control the size of the pear slices on his plate. And I would!
There was a problem, though: after months of feeding Isaiah specks of solid food, he was not especially skilled at eating food that was larger than speck-size. Back when he was about a year old, I still remember my amazement seeing another baby who put O’s in his mouth and then—wait for it—swallowed the O’s. It felt like a magic trick.
I am not the brightest bulb in the pencil case. But eventually I realized that Isaiah was bad at eating food with texture because we gave him so little of it. By the time Mila arrived, we’d seen a primer on baby-led weaning. It has a complicated name to hide the fact that it is extremely simple: It means you pay less attention to what you feed your baby. You let the baby eat big people food in big people sizes. Yes, he did gag occasionally: The first couple times we were apoplectic. Then we calmed down. He did fine.
I still occasionally puree food for Mila; he eats faster than way. But he mostly eats food he can pick up. And it seems emblematic of parenting today that I needed something that looked like a system—that looked like the new way of feeding babies—in order to give myself permission to do this.