Weaning 101 With Annabel Karmel

Weaning 101 With Annabel Karmel

For three decades, Annabel Karmel has guided millions of families through their weaning journeys. Her first book – the Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner – was born out of her own frustrations with feeding her fussy son and remains a global bestseller to this day. To celebrate the release of the 30th anniversary edition, she agreed to answer some of the questions she’s asked time and again.

How do you know your child is ready for weaning?

Most babies are ready to start weaning at around six months of age. Generally, we say 'around' because all babies develop at their own pace and some will get there sooner and others a bit later. Most importantly they must be ‘developmentally ready’ for eating solid foods.

Do you need to sterilise everything before you start?

At six months old you don’t need to sterilise feeding equipment. By this time, your baby’s digestive and immune systems are more mature, so they are less likely to pick up an infection or have a bad reaction to food. You still need to be careful about hygiene, though. Always wash your hands thoroughly before preparing food for your baby. When your baby has finished his food, wash the bowls, plates and spoons in hot, soapy water, and rinse them afterwards. Even though you don’t need to sterilise feeding equipment, you should carry on sterilising your baby’s bottles, teats and bottle-feeding equipment. Make sure you wash and rinse your baby's bottle-feeding equipment thoroughly before you sterilise it. You’ll need to keep doing this until he is a year old.

What's the best first flavour to introduce?

Start with a single vegetable. The reason for this is so your baby can identify the foods they’re eating. Once they have accepted these single flavours, you can then go on to combine flavours and introduce fruit. With babies only having sweet milk until this point, it’s important to expose them to more bitter and sour tastes at the start of weaning. Try introducing those bitter and sour green veggies in the first few weeks alongside those sweeter root veggies. With repeated exposure, it’s likely they’ll be more receptive to the foods that will set them up for the future.

Sweeter vegetables like butternut squash or carrot will be more readily accepted as your baby's sweet taste buds are more mature, and bitter vegetables like spinach or courgette may take a little more getting used to. So it makes sense to get them used to these first before moving on to the sweeter tastes such as fruit. Once you have offered a week or two of vegetables and providing your baby is over six months old, you can start to offer meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans and pulses, fruits, bread, pasta etc. Your baby will need these for nutrition. 

How smooth should food be blended?

If you are puréeing food, in the early stages I would advise aiming for the consistency of a runny yoghurt. As time goes on and your baby becomes more confident with different textures, you can start thickening up the purees and food combinations. Tackling lumps, bumps and texture is a really important milestone within weaning. Obviously, if you’re including finger foods from the outset, then texture will be on the menu from the very start. But even if you’re spoon feeding, don’t delay in starting to make meals less smooth, and more textured within a few weeks. 

How much should they be eating?

There are no official baby food guidelines on weaning portion sizes. The reason for this is that all babies are so very different. Some take to weaning really quickly and you can be on three meals a day by the end of the second week and others take tiny amounts, gradually getting there. At the start of weaning, babies tend to eat very little. Weaning is about getting them used to the taste and texture of something other than milk, so it’s important to offer a variety of different tastes and textures so that your little one experiences all kinds of flavours. Don't worry about quantities.

​How often should you introduce a new flavour?

There is no hard and fast rule here. The most important thing is to be patient and keep offering a variety of foods, even the ones they do not seem to like. It can take up to 15 attempts for your baby to accept certain foods or tastes, so give them plenty of chances to try again. 

And what if they only want sweet stuff?

This is actually a very common problem – and it’s not surprising when you consider that infant milk (breast milk in particular) has a very sweet taste. If milk has been your little one’s sole source of nutrition for much of his first six months, then a little resistance to an entirely new flavour is natural. I recommend trying to nip this in the bud as early as possible. Tempting though it may be to keep your baby happy by offering fruits and sweet veggies, in the long term it may limit the range of nutrients he receives and lead to picky eating later on. Try serving one of their favourite sweet foods with a small amount of a bitter veggie. Over the next few days, continue to increase the amount of your bitter veggie you are adding to the dish, until it becomes the dominant flavour. Eventually, you should be able to serve it separately to the sweeter food.

What should you do if your baby spits it out?

These first days and weeks of feeding are an exciting time, but initial challenges like rejecting food, only eating small amounts, and gagging are common and completely normal. This is a new experience, after all. Chances are your baby will forget and may respond differently next time they taste the same food. Perseverance is the key to this particular weaning issue. Try not to worry if your baby gags and spits out food. This is a completely normal reflex as your baby gets to grips with solids. That said, if you notice that your baby always becomes upset after gagging or avoids certain foods that cause them to gag, consult with your GP or health visitor.

Remember, your baby will still be getting most of their nutrients from breast milk or infant formula. As long as they continue growing and putting on weight, there’s no need to worry. The important thing is to offer a variety of foods, of different tastes and textures, and avoid showing frustration if your baby refuses foods or only eats small amounts. They will gradually increase their food intake over time. And most importantly, don’t force your baby to try a new food. If they reject it, simply try again at a later time, or another day.

How do you get them used to lumps? 

My advice is to take a gradual but swift approach when it comes to introducing texture. If you go from offering a purée-like consistency to straight-up mashing, chances are your baby will find this too much of a big step. A gradual increase in texture will encourage your baby to adopt a more lateral tongue movement, which is another key learning step in mastering the art of eating. There is evidence to suggest that those who wait until their baby is over ten months are more likely to have a child that develops an aversion to certain textured foods, or simply become a bit fussy

“Your baby will still be getting most of their nutrients from breast milk or infant formula. As long as they continue growing and putting on weight, there’s no need to worry.”

Regarding choking, what food should you be careful of?

Choking is a big concern for parents. Foods that increase the risk of choking are those that are roughly the same size as your baby’s airway or a £1 coin. Common choking risk foods include things like cherry tomatoes, whole grapes, popcorn, whole nuts and large blueberries. You shouldn’t necessarily avoid these foods, you just need to make them safer by chopping them into smaller, manageable pieces.

Should you force your baby to finish what’s in front of them?

Babies are clever, and it’s important to listen to their cues as they instinctively know what and how much they need. I would never advise forcing a baby to eat more than they are willing to. Remember, they only have tiny tums which will fill up quickly at the beginning. That’s why it’s important to pack plenty of nutrients into each mouthful to ensure that they’re getting maximum goodness. Your job is to make it as fun and relaxing as possible for your baby. They won't know what to do with food initially, so provide them with plenty of reassurance and guidance. 

There will be days when they eat more, some when they eat less, and then days when they reject everything. Do not worry, this is perfectly normal. Go at your baby's pace and let them show you when they're hungry or full. Stop when your baby shows signs that they've had enough. This could be firmly closing their mouth or turning their head away. If you're using a spoon, wait for your baby to open their mouth before you offer the food. Do not force your baby to eat. Wait until the next time if they're not interested this time.

When can you introduce finger foods?

At six months, you can introduce soft finger foods into your baby’s diet. They are the ideal way to introduce your baby to different textures and handing over the reins to your baby will allow them to work out how to get food to their mouth, break pieces off and chew.

Can you just give them a banana to try to eat or do you have to mash it up?

Bananas are such an easy, nutritious no-cook first food for baby – and portable too. Parents sometimes worry about offering bananas in case their baby becomes constipated but as long as you steer clear of those that are green in colour and opt for riper bananas, they can actually help to relieve these symptoms. From six months, you can give your baby a small banana, peeled and broken or cut in half. Alternatively, try these preparation tricks:

Mashed: if you are wanting to give purées from the outset, simply mash a ripe banana with the back of a fork.

Banana lollipop: Some babies will squeeze a banana and it turns to mush so it’s often a good idea to leave some of the skin on. Simply run a knife around the peel (about 3cm from the open end). Gently peel back the skin leaving just the 3cm deep handle at the end for your baby to hold – like a banana ‘lollipop’.

Banana split: Peel a banana and then push your forefinger down into one end. As you continue pushing, it will split into three – simple but effective.

How do you look out for allergies?

With childhood food allergies on the increase, it’s natural that some parents might be nervous about introducing food that have the potential to cause problems. The Department of Health and Social Care recommends that potential allergenic foods such as eggs or peanuts be introduced from six months of age. In fact, for babies who don’t have parents or siblings with allergies, or who don’t have early-onset eczema, start introducing allergenic foods in the same way you would with any other food. This is because delaying the introduction of these foods into the diet may increase the risk of allergies developing. If there are allergies in the family, or you think that your baby may be at risk because they suffer with eczema, then you should discuss this with your health visitor or GP.

What is an absolute ‘no’ food-wise for babies under 12 months?

Although baby-led weaning provides a window of opportunity to introduce your baby to a variety of tastes and textures, there are some foods you will need to leave off the menu for babies under 12 months: 

Honey: Occasionally, honey contains bacteria that can produce toxins in a baby's intestines, leading to infant botulism, which is a very serious illness. Do not give your child honey until they're over one year old. Honey is a sugar, so avoiding it will also help prevent tooth decay.

Rice milk: This dairy-free alternative contains a high level of arsenic.

High mercury fish: Such as shark, swordfish and marlin.

Smoked or cured meats: Such as bacon, as they are high in salt.

Whole cow’s milk: Such as goats’ or sheep’s milk, as a main drink. However, you can introduce a little into your baby’s foods in cooking from six months.

Low-fat or diet versions of foods: These are low in nutrition and likely to include sweeteners.  

Unhealthy and processed foods: Such as chocolate and caffeinated drinks.

Added salt and sugar: Or unpasteurised foods.

Any tips for batch cooking?

Batch cooking freezer-friendly, homemade meals will save you time and money. It is especially handy for family meals perfect for your weaning baby. Here are my top tips:

  1. Prep in advance. Decide on three or four recipes you are going to make in one session and double-check that you have all you need.

  2. Ensure you have the right food containers to store your meals safely. If you are batch cooking purées, be sure to invest in a food cube tray with a lid, or a silicone ice-cube mould with a slid – then you can pop out your purees as and when you need them.

  3. After cooking, make sure you cool any leftovers and pop into the fridge or freezer as soon as possible. Never allow food to sit out on the side for more than two hours after cooking.

  4. If defrosting baby purées, the best way is overnight in the fridge and use within 24 hours. You can also cook baby purées from frozen. Make sure you increase the cooking time and stir regularly (every 20-30 seconds) to ensure there are no hidden hot spots and that the purée is evenly heated so it is piping hot throughout.

“Weaning is about getting them used to the taste and texture of something other than milk, so it’s important to offer a variety of different foods.”

How long can the food be frozen for?

After cooking and processing your purées, vegetables and fruits can stay in the refrigerator for up to 48-72 hours and in the freezer for a maximum of three months. Be sure to refrigerate freshly cooked baby food within two hours, as bacteria will start to grow at room temperature. If you’re making baby food with meat, poultry or fish, refrigerate any leftovers and dispose of them if not eaten within 24 hours of cooking.

Do you have to warm things up? 

Baby purées are often best served at room temperature, but don’t be tempted to partially reheat food for your baby to avoid having to wait for it to cool. Unless served cold straight from the fridge, baby purées should always be reheated until piping hot, which means steaming throughout, to kill off bacteria. Remember that foods can only be reheated once so make sure you divide your purée into baby friendly portions before storing in the fridge or freezer.

Any good ideas for snacks on the go that you can make at home or buy from the supermarket?

Typically, babies won’t need the addition of a snack until they reach at least around nine to ten-months. Try to make sure that snack time is made up of two different food groups or two essential nutrients. That could be a healthy fat such as avocado slices on a few fingers of toast, or some full-fat yoghurt with berries.

How can you incorporate weaning with other members of the family, such as older children?

Whether your baby is enjoying a purée, or eating a small portion of what you have cooked for the rest of the family, I always encourage baby to be a part of family mealtimes. They soak up so much from their social surroundings and from watching you or a member of the family eating a range of healthy foods.

If they want to feed themselves, should you let them?

Absolutely, and give them the opportunity to feed themselves too. At six months, I’d recommend introducing soft finger foods into your baby’s diet. Let’s dispel the myth that babies need teeth to chew. Not true! Your baby’s teeth are sitting under the gums (if they haven’t already started to make an appearance), and their gums are actually very hard and will be able to tackle all kinds of textures. When it comes to first finger foods, start with pieces that are big enough for your baby to hold in their fist with some sticking out. Fairly long pieces, roughly 5-6cm in length, stand a better chance of being picked up.

Does food replace milk? 

For your baby’s first year when introducing complementary foods, their usual milk still provides the mainstay of nutrition. However, from six months, you can offer water alongside meals in a beaker or open cup. You do not need to boil the water. Giving your baby water is important during hot weather to help them maintain fluid levels and avoid becoming constipated. Make sure your baby doesn’t fill up on drink, as this might make them less likely to eat. Just a few sips of water are advised and not even well-diluted fruit juices a good idea, as these can encourage a taste for sweet drinks. Infant squash and herbal drinks are usually very sweet, so it’s best to avoid them too.

Can you overfeed them?

Your little one will know how much food he wants. Do not force your child to eat if he is not hungry or interested – he does not need to finish everything on the plate. Offer smaller portions of healthy food and let him choose how much to eat. Don’t worry, your baby will eat up during the next meal if he is hungry.

Annabel Karmel celebrates the 30th anniversary of her bestselling weaning cookbook with a new, fully updated and extended edition. Filled with over 200 quick, easy and healthy recipes for weaning and beyond, a well as essential advice, simple meal planners and a pull-out guide, it’s the go-to guide for giving your baby the best start. You can buy it here.


Visit AnnabelKarmel.com

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