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Beyond the Cereal Box: Wholesome Finger Foods For Babies

By Amalah

Photo by kona99

Hi Amalah,

I’ve been following your column for about 6 months, and have picked up some very helpful stuff, Thanks! I read with interest your columns on feeding baby, and was converted. 2 months ago I ordered Lisa Barnes’ Cooking for Baby and my 9 month old has been chowing down quite happily since. Not that he wasn’t before, he didn’t mind Gerber at all. In fact Aidan has been the poster boy for good eating since his second week of life. Friends and bystanders have gathered round and watched him gobbled down whatever was offered to him in awe.

Well, that is until last week, when he slowly started rejecting food offered by spoon. By the end of the week all he’d take from a spoon was his breakfast cereal, and only at breakfast time. The only way to get him to eat anything else is by his own hand. But his own hands just aren’t that good at getting food to the mouth yet. I’m concerned that he’s not getting enough eat, surely 3 carrot sticks and 3 potato wedges aren’t enough for dinner? And he’s stopped sleeping through *sob*. “Cooking for baby” has some great finger food recipes which we are putting to use, but even that lovely book is geared toward a 9 month old that is still getting the bulk of his solids by spoon.

So guess what I’m asking is: what else can I try? Aidan can’t yet pick up small pieces of food. Even if they make it into his chubby fingers, they usually fall short of his mouth. And we have a limited amount of happy time in the high chair to spend with bread fingers and carrot sticks. What are the chances he’ll make friends with the spoon again? I have a freezer full of nicely frozen and packaged minced veg and meat going to waste.

Oh, any solutions need to be product neutral, because I’m from South Africa, and we don’t get all the cool stuff here that you do. No Philosophy for me.

Now what do I feed him?

Oy, the dreaded spoon boycott. We went through this with Noah. He just refused the spoon one morning and that. Was. That. And everybody told me it was a PHASE! Don’t worry about it! It’s a PHASE PHASE PHASE.

So it might be a phase. Unless we’re talking about Noah, who is currently attending his super-expensive fancy-ass summer camp, where one of his “Learning Goals” for the summer is to EAT WITH A SPOON.

So before we get to the finger food stuff, let me detail a couple things you should NOT do, when confronted with a spoon boycott:

1) DON’T FORCE IT. I admit I was terribly guilty of thinking that if I could just make Noah TRY what was on the spoon, he’d realize that he liked it. So I would wait until he was distracted and then shove the spoon in his mouth. Yeah. Brilliant parenting, there. Didn’t solve anything, made it worse, totally duh-ville move.

2) Resist the packaged foods of convenience. Once the spoon was out, I admit I really lacked any creative thinking when it came to alternative foods. So…okay, have some Cheerios. Have some cereal puffs. Have some crackers shaped like bunnies. If it came out of a box or was sold in the baby aisle, it became a diet staple, and I simply stopped challenging Noah’s palette all together. Because why would he eat steamed vegetables when he KNEW I had a container of puffed rice snacks that contained a ton of sugar (and a few stray atoms of dehydrated sweet potato, which TOTALLY made them healthy)? And why would I waste PRECIOUS SECONDS steaming veggies in the microwave when I know he’d just reject them? I have a container of sweet potato puffs! Done! In hindsight, I should have kept pushing the steamed and fresh fruits and vegetables, because he STILL won’t touch them.

3) Remember that solid food is still only practice food, for now. Up until 12 months, breastmilk and formula is your baby’s primary source of nutrition. Obviously we want them to eat a range of good, healthy, wholesome “real” foods as well, but if you’re concerned that he’s not eating enough and going hungry, up his milk/formula consumption while you figure out a new approach to solids. (The waking at night could be caused by a number of other things around nine months: teeth, growth spurt, etc. And for some reason sleep goes downhill in the days right before a baby masters a new skill like crawling or cruising, and will then regulate itself again afterwards.)

Okay. So. Ezra does not yet reject the spoon outright, but he is MUCH more enthusiastic about self-feeding. And he wanted to self-feed long before he had the coordination and skills to actually get much food in his mouth. But with practice, they get it, and they can get it fairly quickly. So let your baby feed himself as much as possible and you’ll see improvements and a good pincher grasp in no time. To cut down on looooooong messy marathon meals, put him in the high chair between meals for extra finger food snacks. That can cut down on your worry that he’s not getting enough WITHOUT having to spend another 20 minutes trying to ensure that the ratio of food on the floor vs. food in the mouth is even.

Here’s some of the finger foods we’ve had success with (of course ALL of this stuff is fed while he is sitting, closely supervised and cut up into appropriate sizes) (oh, and he has two top and two bottom teeth, for reference):

* Sweet potato, baked until soft but not mushy (I make one big one so I have leftovers)
* Defrosted fruit purees spread on bread (like jelly)
* Single servings of frozen veggies, steamed in the micro or boiled for a few seconds in Baby’s Veggie Stock (from Cooking For Baby). I like the peas-carrots-green bean medleys and broccoli florets.
* Fresh or frozen spinach, steamed and rolled up into little mushy balls — it sort of sticks together and to little fingers
* Polenta (we get the semi-solid tubes of it, though it does contain salt)
* Small pastas like orzo, elbows, cut-up rotini (a dusting of Parmesan cheese or breadcrumbs makes them easier to grip)
* Meatballs (there’s a recipe in Cooking For Baby that I modify a little and then I freeze them and reheat one or two per meal, cut up nice and small) (excellent for hiding leftover veggie purees!)
* All kinds of torn-up waffles and pancakes (again, Cooking for Baby has recipes that hide fruits and vegetable purees in them)
* Mini pita rounds with hummus or other spreads
* Hard-boiled egg yolks (crumbly and messy, but he LOVES them) (He’s officially a better eater than I am, because YUCK)
* Very ripe fruit, bananas, peaches, pears, etc. (I tried dusting these in crushed-up Cheerios at first but didn’t really notice that it made them any easier to eat. Mostly just made more of a mess.)
* Disaster risotto (we made it for ourselves but overcooked it — I pounded it flat on a baking sheet, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated it, and the next day it was solid enough to cut into small squares and serve — am going to try it again on purpose with some brown rice next time)
* Pizza crust snacks (Whole Foods sells this frozen pizza dough? That I twist into little breadstick shapes, brush with olive oil and bake? And the result are these awesome little chewy snacks that are good for gumming and teething? WHO AM I AND WHERE ARE MY SWEET POTATO PUFFS?)

Anyway, I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, and I’m sure there are lots of other great ideas that our intrepid commenters will provide — the key really is to look at EVERYTHING you eat as a potential finger food, maybe with just some modifications, and get creative. Feed, supervise, remain on high choking alert (with EVERYTHING, even the mushy stuff marketed for babies), experiment and HAVE FUN. If there’s anything better than watching your baby happily eat vegetables from a spoon, it’s watching him eat broccoli with his hands, by his own choice, and then bang on the tray to demand MORE BROCCOLI.

(My current mission is to make something with Brussels sprouts that Ezra will eat, because I am insane.)

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Lar

    July 17, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    It’s been a while since my girls were that small, but we had a lot of success with sweet potato fries (baked from frozen) and really soft steamed carrots. As they got older I relied less and less on “baby foods” and just gave them smaller, less-seasoned versions of what we were eating for dinner. Now that they’re 10 and 7, they’ll eat just about anything (or at least give it an honest try).

  • Della

    July 17, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    TOTALLY on the money. I LOVE THIS COLUMN.
    Let me just chime in that we started giving the munchkin [currently 17 mo] small stuff (cheerios, peas+diced carrots, etc) the second he showed any interest in it, to DEVELOP his pincer grip and fine motor skills. In other words, we gave it to him for practice in GAINING those skills, rather than after he had already mastered them.
    But before that, we were giving him things he could hold and gnaw on. The brand name version of this would be the Gerber teething cookies, or zwieback bread – hard stuff that is easy to hold on to, but which dissolves easily enough that a toothless wonder can eat it.
    Finally, let me add that letting the baby have the spoon to play with – when he is in his high chair – has been really helpful. Without any help from us, he found the familiar (correct) end of the spoon and learned how to put it in there. The down side is that sometimes now when I’m feeding him, he wants to do it himself. So, I fill up the spoon, place it into his hand in the right direction, and hold on to the tip end. At first, I would basically still do it for him while his hand rested on the center of the handle. Now, I just hold on to make sure he doesn’t flip the spoon over or shake it everywhere.

  • Sheila

    July 17, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    My baby is just starting solids, but this question reminded me of one of my favorite bloggers, Julie from alittlepregnant. This post describes one of her standbys: lunchblock.
    Even if the idea doesn’t work for you, it’s still funny to read about.

  • Michelle

    July 17, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Ah, my champion eater did the same thing. The spoon was fine for yogurt or cereal but he wanted only finger foods the rest of the time.
    In addition to Amy’s suggestions, here are some other foods that worked well for my little guy. Chunks of avocado…slippery and messy but he loved it. I would overcook some elbow pasta, cut it up and toss with a little butter. He also liked really soft shreds of roasted meats so a chicken or pot roast with lots of moisture and sort of chopped up. Frankly, I stopped being so much of a nervous nelly at this point when my kid grabbed some pulled pork off my husband’s plate and shoved it in his mouth. 🙂
    Black beans were also good. I just smashed them a little so it wasn’t so much of a round little choking hazard.
    Amy: Have you tried roasting the brussel sprouts? I personally am not a fan of the brussel sprouts but my 3 yr old LOVES roasted cauliflower and has since he was a wee babe. Seems like it might work?

  • Marnie

    July 17, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Fresh is obviously better, but when mine boycotted the spoon at exactly the same age, we had a lot of luck with canned veggies. One of the grocery stores here (not all of them, only one, but I can’t remember) carried canned, diced carrots, which she absolutely loved. The canned, diced sweet potatoes were a hit, too. Someone already mentioned black beans, which my daughter never liked, but my niece could go through a whole can in one sitting (side note: that’s a mess later).
    She wouldn’t even let me feed her the grain cereal with a spoon, so I would make it super, incredibly thick, then let her eat it with her fingers. Messy, but most would find its way into her mouth.

  • Liz

    July 17, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    You can also spread those veggie purees on bread or crackers for a more grabable dinner. My 10-month-old loves that option and usually doesn’t catch on to the veggie part of it until later. Fruit is great. He’s big on blueberries and watermelon. He also really likes frozen peas and carrots that are just defrosted, not warm. I recently made some vegan banana bread that he gobbled right up…quick breads are good vehicles for hidden fruits and veggies, too!

  • Stephanie

    July 17, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    I used to give my kids frozen peas straight from the bag. I know, sounds weird, but they both loved them (and still eat them that way 7 and 10 years later!). They could pick them up pretty easily and the cold aspect was a big plus when they were teething.
    I also used to peel, chop and steam apples (either in water or juice–white grape juice worked, so did apple, of course). Just cook them until they’re as soft as you think is appropriate. I’d do a fairly large pot and spoon portions into an ice cube tray, then pop them out into a ziploc bag after they’d frozen solid. It was easy to pull out a single portion and thaw it in the fridge, or even in a small container in the diaper bag if we were on the go.
    My son insisted on feeding himself right around this age, too, and he quickly caught on. He was an expert self-feeder (with a spoon, as well as fingers) well before he learned to walk.

  • kakaty

    July 17, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    I hate to sound all holier then thou but for the life of me I can’t beleive there are books for cooking for babies…or rows of food at the grocery for babies. Cook real FOOD and give it to your kid. When my girl was at this age I did the jar foods for about a month, then fussed a bit about what’s “okay” then said the hell with it – she’ll have what we are having – all before she even turned one. Take what’s on your plate (with a little common sense, of course. don’t give a 9 month old a whole grape) and give it to your kid. Mash it a bit with a fork if you need to. At 9-12 months black beans with cumin and plain blueberries were huge hits. She still (at nearly 3) loves brocolli, black beans and fava beans. Lentils are great, cooked carrots, chicken that’s been smashed with a fork, etc. Honestly, just give the kid what you are having – he’ll be fine.

  • Jen

    July 17, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    We skipped the purees completely and just went straight to finger foods. Green beans (whole) are great, she just holds them and bites chunks out. Same with broccoli and cauliflower. Pasta is a huge hit. I do penne and noodles, it gives her something to grab.
    You can try a self feeder too, if you have one over there or can order one. We have these: I put soft things like bananas or peaches in there and she just gums them.

  • Erin

    July 18, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    My son just turned 10 months old, and we just went through THE EXACT SAME THING. He even stopped sleeping through the night at 9 months, just like your little guy.
    I’d say keep trying the smaller pieces of veggies and fruits, he’ll get him to his mouth with a little more practice…
    As for your purees in the freezer, thaw them out, spread them on some whole wheat bread or toast, and cut them into strips. My son will ALWAYS eat a “sandwich,” even if all it has in it is an avocado carrot paste, or some hummus. I make them long and skinny so that they’re big enough to be interesting, but small enough so that he can grip them. He loves it, and I feel like I’m getting in good proportions of whole grains, veggies and proteins this way.
    Another little trick, if you still have lots of baby cereal left over that he won’t take anymore, use it to make lean meatloaf or meatballs. I used turkey and make a some meatballs, and my son loves ’em. Gobbles one or two up with his whole wheat pasta for dinner.
    Don’t worry, he’ll sleep through the night again! I think it has less to do with eating than we think….

  • Kimba

    July 19, 2009 at 2:46 am

    Thank you!!! Mine just turned 8 mths and I’ve started to try and figure out more finger foods besides Cheerios and fruit puffs. Perfect timing! 🙂 Thank you!

  • Alex

    July 19, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Oh Thank You!
    I’m obviously missing a creativity chip, I couldn’t have come up with half this stuff, and that’s excluding the suggestions in the comments!
    Whoo hoo, now we have stacks more try try, which is a good thing, because I’m sure the carrots sticks won’t work forever!

  • Mindy

    July 22, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Oh thank you thank you thank you!!! I’m in the exact same situation – and I’ve had two kids before this one, so you’d think I might know the answers already! My mind just seems to draw a blank when it comes to what to feed him as he was doing so well on all the homemade meats, veggies and fruits (that are still overflowing my freezer so thanks for the ideas for using those up). I know it seems like a DUH kind of thing, but oh well… with three kids around I think I’m allowed to be a bit DUH sometimes! Thanks for all the ideas both in the post and in the comments! And now I’ll stop with the exclamation marks already. (it was hard not to end with one you know)

  • Katy

    July 22, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Cook some oatmeal with as little milk or water (if under a year) as possible to cover it and then pop it in the freezer to cool down. It makes the oatmeal more solid. You can cut it in little cubes and they can pick it up. Both of my first two refused the spoon at about 8 months and they were both able to fill up on oatmeal. I used the packets of the instant kind.

  • Claire

    July 24, 2009 at 10:11 am

    How does the wheat bread work? Can a baby who has only three teeth on the bottom (none on top) eat the toast? Or do they basically just suck off the purée? My 9.5 month old has been a bear with the spoon this week (unless it is yogurt with cinnamon Рwith any fruit/veggie too), and I just reloaded the freezer with lots of new food cubes!

  • Athena

    April 26, 2014 at 5:26 am

    In fairness to point number #1… actually, I think some kids need that now and then. Toshy just seems to have this huge aversion to people putting things in his mouth that has only grown worse with time, but SOME things are acceptable. Once he realises what it is and oh, actually, I want more of that. Pumpkin soup and basically anything I make the sauce for myself (I use cup-a-soup as a base so I’m still cheating there really) is a big hit and acceptable spoon material.

    And especially after having to get medicine in him in the evening (melatonin in jam is acceptable and even calming – again, once he realises what it is – when something else he dislikes, like being changed is going on. Paracetamol is NEVER acceptable) he’ll work himself into a tizz, and really I actually do sometimes need to just shove that damned teat in there before he realised OH, IT’S MY MILK NOM NOM NOM and after that I’m not allowed to take it back *out* without a screaming match until he’s done with it. Not even just quickly to shift his position because dude, you’re tired and getting shitty anyway because you can’t lean back on me and just zonk out when you’re sitting there like that.

    Maybe that seems really bad or whatever, but he really loves some foods that just can’t be made into finger foods (like sauces) and other things just really need to be gotten in there anyway little man, sorry (medicine, bedtime bottle).

  • LeAnn

    March 13, 2015 at 11:22 am

    My daughter just went on a spoon strike, too. It only lasted a few days. The answer for us (and this so silly) was to give her a spoon. She couldn’t feed herself with it yet but she WANTED it. If I let her hold “her” spoon I could feed her with “my” spoon.