Jenna Helwig, a local mom, cookbook author, and food editor of Parents magazine, firmly believes that mealtime should be fun for everyone—even those still figuring out how to chew. Her new book, Baby-Led Feeding, hits shelves on March 13, and it guides parents through making their child’s first experiences with solid food both fun and delicious, creating lifelong healthy eating habits in the process.
What is baby-led feeding?
Baby-led feeding is based on baby-led weaning, a practice especially popular in the UK. Both methods start babies on solid finger foods immediately, skipping the transitional purée-only phase. But although baby-led weaning has many advantages, it’s often practiced strictly. Adherents of baby-led weaning sometimes claim that a parent has failed if their child ingests a single bite of purée. “There’s not a lot of room for flexibility on the part of the parent,” Helwig, whose previous books include Real Baby Food and Smoothie-Licious, says.
Baby-led feeding, on the other hand, is designed to be adaptable. It’s a blended approach, emphasizing solid finger foods like baby-led weaning, but allowing parents to be flexible by supplementing their baby’s diet with purées. “Some babies have different needs—they might need a little extra nutrition or they might not be great at picking up finger foods yet, so purées can be helpful,” Helwig explains. Unlike baby-led weaning, baby-led feeding allows parents to give purées without feeling guilty about breaking the method’s rules. (The name change also avoids linguistic confusion—”weaning” means different things in the US and the UK).
What are the benefits for babies?
Because it offers them exciting new tastes and (especially as they get older) a variety of textures, baby-led feeding encourages babies to explore food and, most of all, to enjoy it. “Eating should really be a very tactile, fun, exploratory process for babies,” Helwig explains. “They learn so much about the world from smushing their fingers through sweet potatoes or, unfortunately for parents, sometimes smearing things on a tray.”
If giving your baby finger foods seems dauntingly messy, consider that it may make your life easier in the long run. Because baby-led feeding accustoms babies to a wide variety of foods early on, it can make them less fussy about food later. “You can also think of baby-led feeding as a little bit of insurance against pickiness. There are no guarantees, but more likely than not it’s going to help babies become more accepting of a wider variety of foods,” Helwig explains. Although Helwig didn’t try baby-led feeding with her own daughter (who will be 12 in March), she hears from parents with multiple kids that their more adventurous eaters are the ones who started on solid foods earlier.
Baby-led feeding can also be a great way to get babies involved in family dinners earlier by giving them a baby-friendly variation on adult food. With this in mind, Helwig designed many of her recipes to appeal to eaters of all ages, with one small exception. Babies can’t have salt until they’re about a year old, so Helwig provides instructions for adding it separately. The lack of salt added an extra wrinkle in creating the recipes, Helwig notes. “Sometimes I would taste some of the baby food recipes and I’d go: ‘Wait a minute, this should be delicious!’ And then I’m like, ‘Oh it needs salt.’ But a baby will think it’s delicious.”
Baby-led feeding also helps babies become attuned to their own hunger cues. They determine when they’ve eaten enough (that’s why it’s baby-led feeding). Helwig encourages parents to pay close attention to their child and stop feeding their babies when they start turning away or throwing food on the floor. “It’s about being responsive to your baby,” she says. This means no pushing the spoon into the baby’s mouth when they’re distracted, no forcing the baby to eat just one more bite, and definitely no airplane noises. But parents shouldn’t worry that their babies won’t eat enough. “We can rely on babies to eat as much as they need if we’re offering this food and they have the skills to eat it,” Helwig says. “They are learning to be responsive to their own hunger cues, and when they’re full they’re not going to eat anymore.”
How do I know it’s safe for my baby?
There are legitimate concerns that, because babies are just starting to feed themselves, they won’t get the right nutrition. But that’s where supplemental purées come in handy—they can help fill nutritional gaps. And as long as parents are paying attention to the kinds of foods they’re feeding their baby, there shouldn’t be an issue, Helwig says. “It can be really easy to just give fruits or vegetables or grainy, carby things, but it’s important to that parents offer babies proteins and healthy fats.” She suggests hard-boiled eggs, omelets, or “even little meatballs!”
Parents have also expressed concern about the choking hazard solid foods can present. “But as long as things are the right size and shape and texture,” Helwig says, “then it can be safe. For sure.” She spends a great deal of time in Baby-Led Feeding discussing how to properly cut and cook food so babies can easily eat it, and each recipe is reviewed by pediatric dietitian Natalia Stasenko to make sure it’s safe and healthy.
Helwig also reassures parents worried about the extra effort required to prepare finger foods instead of purées. “Oftentimes you can just cut up fruits and vegetables and lightly cook them, or even cut up what the family is eating, so there doesn’t have to be a whole lot of extra cooking,” she says, adding, “By giving [babies] these finger foods, we’re training them to be able to feed themselves, which is a huge benefit to busy parents because they don’t have to literally put a spoon into their baby’s mouth every few seconds.” She also emphasizes the adaptability of baby-led feeding. Even parents who want to rely primarily on purées can still reap the benefits by including finger foods with just one meal a day so babies can experience new tastes and textures. “Think about it even as play time,” she says. “If they eat it, great, if not, they’re still exploring and having fun.”
Regardless of the method, Helwig wants to help parents introduce babies to the wide world of food in ways that will encourage them as future eaters. “To me, food and eating is really one of the best parts of life, and I want to help other people experience that even from the very earliest age,” she says.
For more information on her baby-feeding philosophy, visit jennahelwig.com!