If your baby has conquered jarred food but doesn't have the teeth for chicken nuggets—we're talking about "tweens," who are 9 to 12 months old—what are your options? Don't worry. You can come up with fun, simple meals three times a day. The following ideas will get you started.
A little common sense goes a long way—babies need the same variety of nutrients adults do. For instance, they should get five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, though their serving sizes are tiny (for a 6-month-old, a tablespoon or two can be a serving; for a 1-year-old, it's more like 1/4 cup).
Those fruits and vegetables can feel like the toughest things to work into a diet, but they're vital nutritionally. A good phrase to remember is "Eat the rainbow." Over the course of a day, serve lots of different colors, including green (peas, green beans, spinach, asparagus, zucchini), orange (sweet potatoes, cantaloupe), yellow (squash, bananas), and red (cooked tomatoes, red peppers).
Although it's tempting to count a cup of juice as a fruit serving, juice is not as nutritious as you think—there's often added sugar and zero fiber. Plus, if juice replaces breast milk or formula, your child may not get the protein he needs, says dietitian Lauren D. Massey of Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville. Ask your pediatrician for guidelines on how much juice you should serve your baby, if any.
Breads and grains—the base of the food pyramid—are no-brainers. Babies readily eat cereal, cooked noodles, soft breads, and rice. It's just as easy to give them enough dairy, since babies this age are still drinking 16 to 24 ounces of breast milk or formula a day. But don't forget to serve extra protein in the form of chicken, fish, beans, or eggs.
Make things easy for yourself by using the jarred or homemade baby food your child already likes in new ways. For example, instead of spooning a jar of peas into her mouth, you might stir the peas into mashed potatoes or tiny cooked pasta. Jarred peaches can be swirled into unsweetened yogurt, pears can become a pancake topping—you get the idea.
As you add new foods to her diet, continue to watch for allergies, as you did with jarred food and baby cereal. Try to introduce only one new food at a time so you can quickly spot an adverse reaction. Your baby will make funny faces as she experiments with new tastes and textures and will inevitably reject some meals. Be patient—if couscous doesn't go over well one night, it might next week.
It also helps to adopt the motto "Let it slide." Babies this age eat when they're hungry and don't have food hang-ups yet. You can keep it that way by letting your child set the pace. Force-feeding a child may actually hinder her ability to tell when she's full, says Massey. This could lead to overeating as she grows up. Remember that babies have tiny stomachs, and even a few tablespoons of food at any meal may make them feel stuffed.
Prepackaged finger foods for baby are easy to find, but you should use them sparingly to avoid the extra sugar and preservatives. Instead, try using a steamer (which can fold to fit in a saucepan) and a mini-prep or small food processor. To steam fresh veggies and fruits, put the steamer in a pot with two inches of water and bring it to a boil. Then skin and slice the fruit or vegetable, put it in the steamer, and cover the pot with a lid. Steaming only takes a few minutes; watch to see when the food gets soft. You can run the end result—and really almost every food—through the food processor to make it completely baby-friendly.
Once your baby masters this food, you can begin to get more adventurous. For instance, try making pasta with beans and broccoli for you and just toss your baby's portion into the food processor. You can do the same thing with lasagna or cooked chicken and mashed potatoes. (Note: Even though babies younger than 1 aren't supposed to drink cow's milk, which is a potential allergen, they can eat food prepared with cow's milk.)
Make sure everything you serve to a young baby is soft—about the consistency of a ripe banana. As his first birthday approaches, you can start offering foods with more texture, such as sandwiches. Keep in mind all the allergens to avoid (egg whites, peanut butter, honey, strawberries, shellfish, and raw tomatoes, for instance) as well as choking hazards (grapes, nuts, raisins, and chunks of meat, as well as sweets like hard candy and marshmallows).
You get to build the foundation of your child's eating habits—you've got the power! Make healthy, tasty, and convenient meals, and your child will be on his way to a lifetime of good eating.