How to Raise a Foodie

Matthew Amster-Barton is an award-winning food writer turned stay-at-home dad. His book “Hungry Monkey” offers a humorous and inspiring account of how he turned food into a shared adventure for himself and his baby daughter. “Hungry Monkey” is sprinkled with the baby, toddler and kid recipes he came up with as Iris grew. Age four at the time of this interview with Dad, Iris had just started using her own electric frying pan.

When Matthew Amster-Burton’s baby, Iris, was 6 1/2 months, she suddenly became very interested in what was on her parents’ plates. Papa, a food writer and stay-at-home dad, didn’t particularly want his daughter’s first taste of solid food to be bland cereal; instead, he peeled some fresh fruit and mashed it to a pulp. Next up: nibbles of whatever was on the family table. Within a couple of months, Iris and her dad were sharing tasty dishes like Chicken and Mushrooms. Forget about introducing solids food by food!

Some experts say that you can avoid raising a picky eater by raising an adventurous one. Matthew isn’t so sure (“Parents should not hold themselves responsible for whether their baby is a picky eater,” he says. “Let yourself off the hook.”). For him, sharing the food he loves with his baby is simply a way to enjoy her.

“Food is an opportunity to have fun sharing something with your baby,” Matthew says. It’s something my daughter and I can enjoy in the same way and on the same level – it tastes good to both of us, and so we’re enjoying the same experience. Parents need to figure out where they’ll connect with their kids; it could be music or sports, but food is in its own special category. You’re both going to have to eat anyway, and having fun with it keeps it from becoming a chore. ”

According to Matthew, the best time to start giving your baby everything you love to eat is at the very beginning. We asked him to tell us more – and to share some recipes!

Were you ever worried about going against popular wisdom on babies and solids?

[Feeding authority] Ellyn Satter’s book Child of Mine reassured me that our approach was okay. And Iris was helpful because she enjoyed  all the things we fed her. Also, she exclusively breastfed until she was 6 months and then was still getting breast milk and formula afterward, which helped us feel good – we knew that that until age 1 the core of her diet was breast milk and formula. The only thing I worried about was choking hazards. Anything we shared with her, we chopped very fine.

What about allergies and condiments like salt and spices?

The allergen thing is a popular myth – there was an American Pediatric Association recommendation for a long time to avoid nuts and shellfish, but that was reviewed last year and the APA now says it’s okay to start your baby on these beginning at 6 months. Serving them won’t provoke an allergy.

Salt is an issue for babies too young to be eating solids  – they have a lot of trouble metabolizing salt until they’re 4 or 6 months. After that it’s fine. Babies love spicy foods just as they like brightly colored things – they don’t like bland. [Editor’s note: Reactions to allergens can be severe and potentially life-threatening. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expose your baby – in fact, early exposure might protect children from allergies – but plan the exposure and be prepared, just in case.]

Your top tips for raising a foodieSee suggestions from our mom community.

•    Start early to have fun with food: Take advantage of the months between first solids and that moment when babies start expressing strong preferences about what they want to eat.

•    Remember that young babies are adventurous when it comes to food. They’ll eat anything. They’ve been dying to put things in their mouth for months, and their parents have said no – and now it’s okay! When Iris was 12 months her favorites included spicy enchiladas, Brussels sprouts, Belgian eggplant gratin, and any kind of stew. On the other hand, toddlers have a sixth sense for being manipulated; if they think their parents are trying to manipulate them into eating something, they will rebel.

•    Don’t worry if you rarely do more than heat a frozen or prepared meal. You can do that and still share food with your baby. There’s a wide variety of frozen and prepared foods totally suitable for sharing. I was getting ethnic and gourmet frozen foods and sharing them with Iris by the time she was 1. [Editors note: See Hungry Monkey for Matthew’ and Iris’s favorite convenience foods, including frozen potstickers , polenta and freeze-dried gnocchi.] It’s all about sharing the foods you love with your baby.

•    Exploring ethnic markets is really fun – it’s one of our favorite pastimes. We’ve discovered new foods together and both ended up liking them.

•    Some babies don’t like food with lumps and need it blended. You have to get to know what your baby likes. Little gums are really powerful and those first teeth, the incisors, don’t make much difference. Iris liked having the practice of chewing things up. She could eat vegetables like green beans, carrots and snow peas cooked not too soft, and she loved chunks of sweet potato and kidney beans. But stew is the ultimate baby food. You can make it ahead, it lasts for days in the fridge, the texture is perfect for someone who has no teeth, and you can use so many different proteins, you can flavor it any way you want.