Most babies start their food experience at mother’s breast or on a parent’s lap. After they can sit, they will soon find themselves in a highchair. From there, they graduate to a booster seat at the family meal table, and then by preschool, a real seat at the table.
There’s no need to separate baby from the family for feedings or meals, yet it’s not uncommon to see baby eating alone in the corner of the kitchen in a highchair. The transition to the family meal table doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out process, either. The truth is, baby can come to the meal table at any time! Here are some of the benefits of bringing baby to the table early on in their life.
Learning to eat—Baby’s brain and taste buds are open to everything new. Seeing food, watching others eat, and smelling the aroma of food all feed the brain with information. Your baby learns what to do with food simply by watching others eat! And best of all, baby is socialized at the meal table, associating meals with family togetherness and community.
Early exposure—Children learn to prefer food based on the food they are exposed to. For example, if young children are offered sweets frequently, they will learn to prefer those. If offered vegetables as part of the meal routinely, they learn to like those too. This is partly why it’s important to continually offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables at meals and snacks. Bringing baby to the table allows early exposure to the healthy foods we want children to eat and like, and this can set the wheels in motion for a healthy weight.
Self-regulation—In the context of the family meal table, there are many dynamics going on—talking, laughing, eating, drinking—all of which potentially take the pressure and focus off of what and how much baby is eating, allowing your child to self-regulate intake. This means your baby can eat at their own pace, enjoy food, and request more or stop based on their appetite.
Self-regulation is an inherent quality of babies, but it can be lost when caregivers push baby to finish food, eat more, or stop the feeding. Specifically, when parents push baby to eat two more bites, they may be teaching the child to overeat. We want to preserve that inherent self-regulation in children, as this has been shown to support a healthy weight in the long run.
Bring baby to the table when you gather for a meal. If a feeding (breast or bottle) is timely, feed your child while the family eats. Otherwise, let your baby sit on your lap for food exposure and learning.
Pull the highchair up to the meal table when the family sits to eat. Even if baby isn’t having a meal or snack at that time, your child can be part of the social gathering. This is a good time to offer new foods the family may be eating and let your child explore.
- Baby learns about food and eating through watching others eat.
- Baby is never too young to come to the family meal table.
- Early exposure to a variety of nutritious food can increase the likelihood of eating and liking those foods.
- Your baby learns family togetherness and community while at the table.