I'’d been planning it for at least a week beforehand: finessing the finer details, writing lists and buying things on Amazon at midnight. My baby had turned six months the day before, as noted in my diary in biro with a smiley face and the words FIRST FOODS! He’d woken from his morning nap at 11am, as planned. Tick. He was calm and happy as I dressed him in his brand-new plastic long-sleeved bib, with its pictures of boats and seagulls. I positioned him in his gleaming new high chair, his chubby thighs wedged tightly so there was no escape. I laid out his box-fresh little plastic bowl and three plastic spoons (one for me, two for him). I had baked a whole sweet potato, scooping its soft orange flesh into the tiny dish, mashing it to a perfectly smooth puree, and blowing on it until it was barely tepid.
Until this moment, nothing other than milk and Calpol had ever passed his lips. Well, that’s not strictly true. There had been a few fistfuls of sand from the sandpit and plenty of earth from the garden; and there was that time when he took a tiny bite out of a bar of soap. But now it was time from some actual food. Some lunch. I was ready. Was he?
I scooped a bit of potato on to the spoon and gingerly drew it towards him. I hovered the spoon close to his face. He didn’t open his mouth so I dabbed a bit on his lips. His tiny tongue came out for a taste. He scrunched his nose. I put the spoon towards him again, he opened his mouth and without stopping to think, I put the whole spoon in. The WHOLE SPOON. An enormous mouthful of bright orange potato. He clamped his mouth shut around this strange, alien morsel, looking at me silently, his cheeks bulging chipmunk-like. He then opened his mouth wide and the entire mouthful dropped to the floor, splat.
Weaning – like all the milestones in your baby’s life – can be both thrilling and intimidating. When your baby exists just on milk, things are pretty straightforward. You know where you are. Breast or bottle, or both, there’s just one thing to think about. But food ushers in a whole new era – a time of discovery and change for your baby, but also a new set of things to freak out about for you. I can see now that I definitely overthought the weaning process with my first baby. I made a giant fuss of it and consequently made it a lot more complicated and stressful than I needed to. I was sucked in by every marketing gadget and gizmo going, reading blogs and searching for weaning recipe hashtags on Instagram. I bought quite a few expensive reimaginings of the ice cube tray – sucked in by cool, Day-Glo colours and cute packaging, certain each model would revolutionise our lives. I was on a constant (and financially crippling) search for an ever-soslightly-better-than-the-last spoon, bib or sippy cup. Whenever a friend and her baby came over I would look longingly at her weaning kit, “ooh, where did you get that re-fillable puree pouch!” and then add it to my arsenal.
I made strange and inedible combinations of fruit and vegetables (pear and courgette, anyone? How about some slimy potato mashed with a banana?) and swooned over mums who fed their children wild and wonderful recipes of kale and quinoa, grilled mackerel and Jerusalem artichoke. I had always loved cooking, and we had always eaten perfectly healthily at home before our son came along, but something about this strange new landscape of weaning made me abandon all my knowledge and instincts about food. Instead of just giving him delicious morsels of what we were eating, I found myself cooking everything for him specially, an entirely new culinary repertoire I found quite revolting. I didn’t feed him things he would find yummy – it barely occurred to me – no, I fed him things I thought were appropriate and contained the right amounts of vitamins. Pureed turkey mince, for example; a dish I made quite regularly for him even though I physically gagged at the sight of it. Pale pink and grainy: truly, it’s a thing of nightmares. No wonder he spat most of it out.
By the time my second child was born, I had wised up. I’d found there was another way, and that was because my sister told me about Baby-Led Weaning. It was a revelation and I cannot recommend it too highly. I am Evangelical about it. The theory behind baby-led weaning is very simple: basically, baby feeds himself normal food. You wait until they are six months old (by which time most babies are developmentally able to manage it) and you just put the food in front of them (in suitable sized pieces) and step away. That’s it. No repulsive purees, no ice cube trays, no blending and sieving, no jars of processed baby food, no baby rice, not even any bowls or spoons.Just a naked baby with a lamb chop in its chubby claws.
Truthfully, even if I had wanted painstakingly to make purées for my second child (as I had with my first), I simply had no time. I had two babies under two. There’d be no perfect frozen cubes of steamed fish for one, no carefully labeled Tupperwares of mulched mince and chicken paste stacked neatly in the freezer this time around. My reality now was that I was making supper whilst holding one crying baby on my hip and simultaneously preventing a toddler from leaping off the top of the sofa. While also on the phone to the bank, stirring the pasta and answering the door to the postman. So food for the baby would be some pieces of whatever the older one was having. Ideally it would be something that my husband and I could also eat later on (with some extra salt scattered over and accompanied by a large glass of red wine). By then, I had generously started feeding my toddler delicious rather than disgusting things – mashed potato with heaps of melted butter, slow-cooked beef stews, roast chicken with crispy skin, comforting fish pie with a rich white sauce, strong cheddar cut into cubes. The baby would wrestle with a whole slice of watermelon, crush a piece of banana in his fist or suck on a strip of chicken breast. My goodness, it was messy. With baby-led weaning, I soon realised the only way I could stay on top of the washing pile was if the baby only ever ate in just his nappy. Sometimes I felt perhaps we should all be in our pants; such was the range of his splattering and scattering of food. At one point I swear there was yoghurt on the ceiling. He would have raspberries in his eyes. Pumpkin soup in his ears. I often had to put his whole highchair in the shower after he’d finished lunch, and hose it down like I was decontaminating toxic waste. It was carnage, absolute chaos, but it was liberating for me and thrilling for him. And he has, ever since, been brilliant about eating – curious, interested and with a pleasing appetite and love for good food.
The waste sometimes felt eye-watering, though. On my hands and knees on the kitchen floor after mealtimes I would mop up what seemed like every single piece of food I had provided, filling an entire dustpan tray three times a day. I would slide the contents solemnly into the bin with a sigh. And yet, his nappies told a different story. It might not have looked it to whoever had to clean the floor, walls and ceiling after supper, but he was eating, even if it appeared that most of it would end up in the bin.
The urge to fatten up a baby is strong, inbuilt into our psychology as parents. We want them round and rosy, bonny and blithe. You always want them to have just one more mouthful. I often felt a strong impulse to shovel extra food into my baby’s mouth, just so the plate could be empty, or because I didn’t want to have to throw it away. You want to give them as much food as you possibly can, beef them up – as if they might waste away without this Olympic athletesized portion of Bolognese you’ve cooked. It is deeply satisfying to see a child of any age really polish off a plate of food, to lick the plate clean and ask for more. It’s a great feeling putting them to bed knowing they’ve had three helpings of chicken casserole and 14 green beans; you’re work here is done, you did good.
Throughout the weaning process – and, indeed, into toddlerhood – I have had to keep reminding myself that children are quite good at knowing how much they want and when. When they start pushing the food off their high-chair tray and onto the floor, it’s probably because they’ve had enough. They’re actually just full. “Food is for fun until you’re one” my health visitor reminded me once. I wrote this down on a piece of paper, and pinned it to the fridge, to remind me not to worry about how much he was eating. Because mealtimes shouldn’t be a battleground. Throughout out lives, from the very first foods to our very last supper, food should be joyful, delicious, sociable and fun, even if that means we start by splattering most of it on the walls.
For further info on baby-led weaning see babyledfeeding.com
Illustrations by Rachel Suzanne