Getting to grips with finger foods

As a parent I think we like the idea of our child eating everything we put in front of them as we beam with pride and perhaps breathe a sigh of relief. As my children embarked on their culinary journey, I soon realised they couldn’t care less about the nutritional value of their food and that it was as much about how they explored food – tough for a Dietitian to cope with at times but I had to remind myself building a good relationship with food is just as important as it’s nutritional credentials.

If we can support them to develop eating skills that eventually see them through to enjoying a varied diet independently, we have set them up for life.

Finger foods are a fantastic way to build independence and can be offered to babies after 6 months of age, although in reality it may be closer to 7 months before they show an interest, especially if you are also offering foods on a spoon.

At 6 -7 months, babies are able to grip food with their whole hand so large, soft, finger shaped foods are ideal for them as they explore different tastes and textures. Self-exploration really helps to develop a baby’s jaw muscles as they chomp up and down as well as mastering hand to eye coordination as the dog eagerly waits for the missed bits to fall!

Tips for first finger foods:

  • They should be finger shaped but longer than your baby’s clenched fist so some of it pokes out the top!
  • Food can be slippery so creating some ridges in it can help them grip it
  • It should be soft to avoid hard pieces breaking off but not too mushy. For example, banana sliced length ways, bread (without crusts), avocado or roasted vegetable ‘chips’.

Developing skills

From 7 – 9 months babies will be able to use their forefinger and thumb to pick up smaller foods; this is known as the pincer grip and opens up a world of opportunities. These foods should still be soft and squishable taking care to avoid hard pieces that could block their airway, for example chunks of apple or nuts. Slice foods length ways, for example grapes. I remember Sam at 9 months was quite partial to an edamame bean and popping them out of their shells caused quite a lot of hilarity, especially when they hit unsuspecting people on the head! Other foods that work well include berries, sweetcorn, peas, grated cheese and veg or pasta shapes.

Getting to grips with finger food

Over 9 months of age, foods can be become firmer as with the development of teeth and hardened gums, their ability to manage smaller, harder pieces improves. Over a year, finger foods become even more valuable as they joyfully exert their independence. If your child has had practice in the earlier months, they will by now be quite proficient at landing the food where it’s supposed to go and if they’ve had variety, they are less likely to turn their noses up at what’s being offered and continue to have a try. This can support them in meeting their nutritional requirements at a time when receiving food on a spoon might not be as appealing.

  • Always supervise – gagging is a normal response as babies learn how to handle bits in their mouths, but it can be quite scary to witness. If there’s noise they are clearing their airway and as their gag reflex is quite far forward it can happen quite often. If foods get stuck and there is no noise, this is a sign of choking. If you wanted to build your confidence in this area, you could have a look at a baby first aid course such as this one run by NCT but there are many others, this is just an example.
  • Finger foods can help to boost fruit and veg intakes, for example broccoli even comes with a ready-made handle! They can also be used as a dipper for other dishes and sauces, for example banana dunked  into yogurt.
  • It can feel daunting to relinquish control and sit back a little more and you have to be prepared to embrace the mess (don’t wear a white shirt!) but in doing so, we are supporting them to become proficient, confident little eaters, which is good to remember.

Don’t beat yourself up though, refusing foods, even those previously devoured is a normal part of development and as long as we act like we don’t care, it is usually a short-lived phase. Offering different types of finger foods, and re-trying things previously rejected is key, whether it be large pieces of exotic fruit at the kitchen table, or smaller shapes in portable snacks, it keeps things interesting and entertaining for them and is a reminder food should always be seen as fun – even if we’re not the ones having fun sometimes!  

Laura