Babies: You can’t eat with them, you feel guilty eating without them. These keep-it-simple strategies help you share mealtime and enjoy what’s on your plate.
The first few months of parenthood, Amy Palanjian found “dinner” to be something of an abstract concept. “Sitting at the table for a meal was more like taking two bites, then bouncing, rocking, and passing the baby back and forth, then taking another bite,” she notes. But by the time her daughter, Linden, was 6 months old, Palanjian, a food writer in Des Moines, was ready to reclaim mealtime: “Dinner started to feel like a turning point—it meant we were headed toward bed and had made it through another day!” she recalls. “And my husband and I wanted to use that time with our daughter to connect as a family.”
Although you may have filed family dinners under “things to worry about later”—your baby might not even be eating solid foods yet!—the benefits start as soon as you’re up for the challenge. “Family meals give our days structure and predictability, which is important, since little ones thrive on routine,” says Palanjian, who is the creator of the blog Yummy Toddler Food.
Starting family meals early is also the best way to expose your baby to a variety of foods and set her up for a lifetime of healthy eating. “There’s a window between the ages of 6 and 12 months when most babies are very open to trying new flavors and textures,” explains Jenny Hyatt McGlothlin, a pediatric feeding therapist in Dallas and coauthor of Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating. “Family meals are the perfect way to capitalize on this natural curiosity because in addition to feeding Baby, you’re feeding yourself—and so you’re leading by example.” Still, mastering the art of the family dinner takes practice. Use these solutions to create your own recipe for success.
Your Baby Goes to Bed Before Dinner is Even Ready
The Fix You’ve worked hard enough to get your baby on that sleep schedule—don’t rock the boat now! Instead, start with whichever meal will be the easiest to get everyone together for. Don’t stress if work and sleep routines mean you only pull off one or two family meals a week when you start. “This is about laying a foundation,” says McGlothlin’s coauthor, Katja Rowell, M.D., a family doctor in St. Paul, Minnesota, who specializes in feeding issues. You’ll be able to add more meals as your baby’s schedule evolves. And even a casual opportunity to share a snack with your sweetie counts: “I’ve had parents tell me they can’t do family meals because one spouse works a split shift, or they’re single, or their baby eats most meals with Grandma,” says Dr. Rowell. “But a ‘family meal’ is any loving adult eating with a child. Encourage all caregivers to participate.”
Baby Hates Her High Chair
The Fix Nothing sends family dinner south faster than a little one squirming and screaming to be set free. Ditch the tray, so you can bring the seat right up to the table with you. You can also use a booster or a seat that clips on the table. If he’s still too young for a high chair, put him in a favorite bouncy seat on the floor but close to the table. Or wear him facing forward in a carrier while you eat, and don’t sweat it if a little quinoa lands on his head! “I often see babies positioned off in a corner. I’d want to get down too!” notes McGlothlin. “He’ll stay interested in the meal much longer if he can see what you’re doing and interact with you directly.”
Yes, Baby will constantly reach for your food, fork, and plate. Keep a few related items like plastic spoons and cups on hand that he can safely grab, teeth on, and explore. Once he is starting to eat what you eat, serve meals family-style: “Studies show that babies who eat mostly table foods do better nutritionally than those who eat only baby food,” says Ellyn Satter, R.D., the Madison, Wisconsin, author of Feeding With Love and Good Sense: The First Two Years. “This is likely because they’re encouraged, but not pressured, to explore new foods, which exposes them to a wider variety of nutrients.”
It's Too Hard to Feed Baby and Yourself
The Fix Mealtime is about bonding, not how much your baby eats at this age. “If she’s still breast- or bottlefed, then her nutritional needs are being met,” says Satter. “As long as you continually offer opportunities to explore food, sooner or later she’ll get the idea.” If you are spoon-feeding, McGlothlin suggests alternating between offering her bites and taking your own bites. “You’ll enjoy the process more if you’re eating as well, and it gives your child time to consider each bite and decide when she’s ready for the next,” she says.
As Baby gets used to solids, she may start insisting that you feed her faster, or start to reject the spoon altogether. She’s not refusing the food—she’s saying she wants to do it herself, notes Satter. Mash a bit of your food with a fork and give it to her to self-feed. Keeping her busy will also free you up to enjoy your food.
Baby Seems to Dislike Food
The Fix “I had romantic ideas about sharing meals, but it took my baby a while to actually swallow her first bite of banana,” says Palanjian. “That’s not so strange when you consider what a new experience this is for them!” It’s perfectly normal for babies to reject, spit out, or even gag over new foods. “That ‘yuck face’ means he’s thinking about and processing this new experience,” says Dr. Rowell. “Just keep offering the foods you’d like him to have.” If, however, your baby gets upset while eating, seems in pain, or gags frequently, talk to his doctor.
It's Just Too Much Work
The Fix A quick weeknight dinner can be soup and a turkey sandwich for the adults, and some shredded turkey, crackers, and sips of soup for Baby. “Don’t overthink it; too many moms feel guilty about whether a meal is good enough,” notes Dr. Rowell. “Even if you’re eating takeout and he’s eating from a jar, you can still enjoy it together.”