Christmas lunch or dinner is a big deal for most families. And if you have a baby starting solids or small toddler then it can be exciting and terrifying in equal measure. There’s none of the usual routine, the table looks very different, there might be extra family members, more noise, music, laughter and crackers. Lots to distract and cause stress if you’re weaning a baby or have a fussy toddler.
But I think Christmas dinner is one the best examples of how we can provide a perfect environment for children to learn to eat well. There’s family around the table eating and enjoying food, often there are dishes in the middle for everyone to serve themselves, there is conversation and engagement with each other and not focused on screens, and there are lots of delicious foods to offer.
Here's a quick run down of how to make sure your Christmas dinner is baby or toddler friendly.
As a vegetarian and veggie lover, this part is extra important to me. We have honey and cumin roasted parsnips and carrots, the obligatory brussels sprouts (this year I've bought frozen ones with bacon bits, not for me!), braised red cabbage with apple, and this year I'm also roasting a butternut squash.
Most veg is absolutely fine for babies and toddlers, you might just need to tweak how it's prepared:
- avoid cooking in heavily salted water
- cook until soft and squashable for finger foods
- avoid honey for under ones
- if mashing or pureeing for very little ones, use cooking water or milk, rather than gravy
Hasselback, dauphinoise, mashed, or just the classic roast, it isn't Christmas dinner without potatoes. Depending on how you cook them, you may need to put a few aside to avoid too much salt for your baby or toddler, but otherwise roast potatoes in particular are a brilliant finger food for little ones.
If you need a reminder on making roasties, I like Jamies classic recipe here.
Now I'm not an expert on cooking meat, as I don't eat it - this year there is lamb being cooked in our house, along with the pigs in blankets. If you do eat meat and want to offer some to your baby or toddler this Christmas, make sure that it is cooked through and not rare, is soft enough for them to chew easily, or has been pureed / minced until smooth. Pieces of cooked meats can be great finger foods if you are baby-led weaning, or for toddlers, just be mindful of any fatty or gristly bits that could be a choking hazard. Like with all food, avoid adding any extra salt to the pieces your baby is going to be given, and take off any skin or crackling that they might find more difficult to chew.
When it comes to sausages and bacon, these foods aren't recommended for young babies as they are generally high in salt and difficult to chew, making them a choking risk. Without looking at every brand of sausage or bacon available, I can't give a recommendation on which may be ok for a toddler to have - keep an eye on the salt content, adapt the food if necessary so that it is safe and not a choking risk, and consider offering an alternative if necessary.
The yorkshires, the sauces, the gravy, the stuffing - there are so many additional elements to consider at Christmas! Many of them will be ok for you baby or toddler to have, but there are a few that might need to be adapted or avoided completely.
Yorkshire puddings - I can think of no good reason not to have Yorkshire puddings with a Christmas dinner. Whether they are homemade, or frozen, yorkshires are just flour, eggs and milk cooked in hot oil, so the only consideration here is how many you are willing to share! If you're adapting food for you cows' milk allergic baby or toddler, then there is a great recipe for dairy (and gluten) free yorkshire puddings from Becky Excell.
Gravy - most gravy is high in salt, so not suitable for babies and toddlers. For very little babies, their kidneys are still developing, and any added salt in their food can put pressure on them. Even for toddlers, the recommendation is for no more than 2g of salt a day - that's less than half a teaspoon. You can use the cooking water from your veg to make a baby and toddler safe gravy, just add in some cornflour to thicken. Or look for low salt stock cubes to make your gravy - I use the very low salt ones from Kallo but Piccolo also make some very low salt baby stock cubes too.
Sauces - we'll be having mint sauce and bread sauce on our table this year (note, both of these are for my husbands benefit!). Obviously there are too many to review individually, so check the salt and sugar content of any you do have - if they seem very high then considering if it is really necessary to give them to your little one. Also watch out for the texture - some sauces are very chunky, e.g. cranberry sauce, and may need to be mashed slightly to be a more suitable texture for little ones.
Of course, there is more food on your table over Christmas than just the main event itself. If you're anything like us, breakfast is a little more fancy than usual, there are extra snacks lying around, and more than a couple chocolatey nibbles.
We'll be having some smoked salmon on Christmas Day morning. Smoked salmon is quite high in salt, so should only be offered in moderation for toddlers. We'll be having ours alongside bagels and scrambled eggs. Most other fish is fine for babies and toddlers to have - just make sure to avoid anything raw or undercooked. And of course, watch out for any little bones. You might be having a more traditional prawn cocktail - prawns, and any other shellfish, are fine to offer your baby from 6 months as long as they have been cooked through. Follow basic food hygiene, especially when it comes to defrosting or reheating fish and shellfish.
Eggs are a great food from around 6 months - as long as they have the red lion stamp, then you don't need to worry about cooking them thoroughly, so runny eggs are on the menu! If you are making any sauces or desserts which have raw egg in, these are also ok to have as long as they are red lion stamped. If you aren't sure whether the eggs have the stamp, it's best to make sure the egg is well cooked before serving to a baby.
Is it Christmas if you don't have a cheeseboard? Of course not! Very much like during pregnancy, there are some cheeses that it is best for small babies and toddlers to avoid because of the potential for listeria and other food poisoning. Here's what the NHS says about cheese for babies:
'Babies and young children shouldn't eat mould-ripened soft cheeses, such as brie or camembert, or ripened goats' milk cheese and soft blue-veined cheese, such as roquefort, as there's a higher risk that these cheeses might carry a bacteria called listeria.
Many cheeses are made from unpasteurised milk. It's better to avoid these because of the risk of listeria.
You can check labels on cheeses to make sure they're made from pasteurised milk.
But these cheeses can be used as part of a cooked recipe as listeria is killed by cooking. Baked brie, for example, is a safer option.'
Grapes and figs on a cheese board, satsumas in a stocking, fresh cranberries with the turkey, baked apples and poached pears. Whatever fruit you are serving this Christmas, make sure it is baby safe by considering whether it poses a risk to choking and adapt it accordingly. Depending on the age of your baby, halve or quarter grapes and other small round fruit. For bigger fruit, you might need to soften it by baking, or slice into finger length pieces.
It's not unusual to find a bowl of nuts lurking in many living rooms across the UK around Christmas. Peanuts, mixed nuts, chestnuts, pistachios - they all make an appearance more so than at any other time of year. For children under 5 years old, it is recommended to avoid whole nuts because fo the risk of choking. You can adapt them to be child-friendly by crushing them into smaller pieces. But to be on the safe side, make sure that they stay out of reach of little fingers.
Whether it's a box of Quality Street, a bag of chocolate coins or a selection box of your favourites, there is bound to be some chocolate in the house over Christmas. How and when you choose to introduce your little one to the joy of chocolate isn't something I can advise on as it is very personal, however there are a few things that I would be keeping in mind when considering whether to offer chocolate this Christmas.
- is it freely accessible to all (i.e. on the coffee table)?
- is it restricted for everyone in the house?
- is it safe for younger children (e.g. contains no alcohol or whole nuts)?
- is it kept for certain times of the day?
- how would you feel about your child consuming it all at once?
- can you find a way to include it as part of meal times?
- is it seen as a treat or on a level with all other foods on offer that day?
Tips for meal times
Remember that Christmas Day is only one day of the year. It doesn't have to make or break your child's eating habits. Focus on