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28 October 2008

The first meal

This is cross-posted on the Observer's Word of Mouth blog.

For the last few nights I have been peeling, chopping, stewing and pulping vegetables because our daughter, Silverbrowlette, has started eating. She's still on the breast-milk wagon, but she needs a top-up of something more substantial. So far, solids have been only part of one meal. From tomorrow however, she moves on to having solids for breakfast and lunch.

We can look at first meals one of two ways: either the po-faced but serious approach of what the hell do we actually feed the sprogs - is the received wisdom of organic baby rice the way forward, or are there other options - or, we could indulge our fantasies and wonder what we would choose for this formative experience if we could travel back in time and keep down more than slop.

First let's be serious. In every possible way I want to give my daughter the best start in life. I want to make sure that everything she eats is good for her.

I also want to do everything in my power to ensure that she isn't a fussy eater and that she appreciates her food. It's not an easy task, especially as there's no agreed theory as to what makes for a fussy child.

So far, she has quite happily scoffed baby rice, stewed and mashed carrots, pears, apples and sweet potatoes. The larger the portion, the happier she is - that's my girl.

To many people, that list of fruit and veg might read like a mishmash of relatively sweet staples, which is true, but for the parents out there who have recently weaned their babies it is as a semaphore signal that tells you a lot about the way we're bringing our daughter up. It tells you whether Silverbrowlette is a Gina Ford baby or an Annabel Karmel baby and those in the know will identify her as the latter.

The approaches of these these two arbiters of feeding are fundamentally different but as parents you become wedded to one or the other. What if you want to plough your own furrow? After all, I rarely eat what an overbearing woman tells me to eat.

From what I can see, unless one follows the strictures of Karmel or Ford, you're on your own - and it's bloody scary. For example, received wisdom dictates that baby rice should be on the menu very early on. Let's dismiss the issue of being a slave to received wisdom and instead focus on the horror of arsenic in baby rice. Yes, arsenic. According to the NHS we shouldn't worry. But it's arsenic ... in baby rice. Does it come much more scary?

In the UK, the NHS baldly states that it's breast milk until at least six months, but the reality in our household and that of many of our friends, is that the baby needs proper food before that. Silverbrowlette started diving for the knife and fork at about four and a half months old. Does that make the NHS advice worthless? Probably not, but trying to get a clear answer to that question is tough, because after all, it's the NHS. They must know what they're talking about ... I think.

There is surprisingly little independent guidance (ie not written by those trying to flog a series of books) on what babies should be fed. There's a mini-industry around last meals, there's a lot of gnashing of teeth about what to give early meals, but first solid meals seem to be overlooked.

Is any meal more significant than our first? For the food obsessed, does it get any more existential than pondering what to pass between our lips for the very first time? I have a gut feeling that the first meal will determine how that child approaches food for the rest of their lives. I'm interested to hear what you fed your baby as their first meal and why.

And what about you? If you could choose your first meal what would it be? For me it's either a beautifully roasted side of beef or bollito misto. Both reflect the type of food I love to cook and eat. They're big and bold dishes but with subtle flavours and are best eaten with a glass of red wine and surrounded by family. Both also benefit from my wife's astoundingly good roast potatoes.


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i guess the 6-month rule is more down to the fact that we have so many food intolerances/allergies these days and the NHS wants to make sure your baby's stomach has enough time to roughen up for what's ahead - build a healthy gut flora and populate it with lots of healthy bateria that'll help her break down her food.
there are no allergies whatsoever in my family, so i didn't take this advice all too strictly - when my first was born, the latest wisdom was still 4 months and she survived, second baby arrived and did nothing but spit out everything until he had his first tooth at 9 months... we were on hols in brittany and got him started on lobster and mussels immediately - not time to waste!
with our third, we became even more relaxed and let him eat/try whatever he felt like (ie what we saw us eating at the table) and he is so far the most adventurous of them all. if they're not ready for something, you'll find out soon enough - and if there's no history of allergies in the family, i wouldn't worry too much about following a strict regime. as long as your food is top quality (in my case preferrably organic), freshly prepared and tuned to the babies palate, you'll be raising a very happy baby indeed!

I think the 6 months rule is more about babies digestion systems and what their stomachs can handle. However, as you say, babies will let you know pretty quickly if they want food before 6 months, and from what I can tell, most need something other than milk at around 5 mths.

I can't abide either approach and I followed no one in the end. I figured that I couldn't go wrong if I fed mine on what I consider a reasonable diet, albeit a bland one to start. He's nearly 2 now and still thriving so I think I did ok. I started with fruit and veg and then added fish and meat, plus plenty of carbs. He had his likes and dislikes (amazing how a baby can turn its mouth inside out and evacuate everything) and still does. I don't argue, bribe and cajole and we get through meals without incident. I can't see any reason why he should like everything and eat everything, I don't know any adults who don't exercise choice. The most exciting thing is when you sit down for your first proper meal together - a roast chicken with all the trimmings worked for us. Lulu
ps We never had any problems with swallowing/choking so I'm fully aware that we had an easy time!

Thanks Lulu. Sounds like you did have a pretty easy time of it, but I've a sneaking suspicion that is a result of parents' attitude to food. The more relaxed Mum and Dad are, the more relaxed the sprog is going to be.

I know what my first meal wud be, scotch ribeye, creamed spinach and potato puree with foiegras sauce if it can be managed.Don't know how it would go down with a baby's digestive system though.

I never really thought about a baby's diet before, was always under the impression that the first few months, a baby needs breastmilk and that should not only provide he/she with all the required nutrients but also supply the crucial antibodies to help build up his/her immune system.

I suppose I'll find out when I eventually start popping out baby london eaters.

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