Feeding babies and toddlers matters! Breast feeding for the first six months of life (and beyond!) is important for cancer risk reduction. All foods and drinks consumed will impact on healthy growth in infancy and future disease risk throughout childhood and beyond. But, even the most diligent parent, carers and grandparents will be challenged to feed little ones well when eating out and about …and that included babies and toddlers. This guest blog from Dr Helen Crawley (First Steps Nutrition) is the final in our series on eating out with children (see others: from a granny, a mother and a father)  and reminds us that challenges with the catering environment start young.

The baby food industry has focused on convenience in its new product development for many years, with an explosion in the growth of puréed food in pouches and packets and pots of snack foods marketed for babies from as young as 6 months of age. According to the latest consumer marketing reports baby ‘finger foods’ have seen a 27% increase in sales between 2016 and 2018 and recent market research commissioned by Public Health England suggested that 60% of the commercial baby foods purchased are finger foods,  with focus group research among mothers reporting that buying dedicated baby snacks was now normal for all the families involved.

It is easy to see why families would turn to processed commercial baby foods when they are out and about – children are attracted to the bright packaging and sweet tastes of the majority of these foods, and families may well be being misled into thinking these are healthy choices through the use of fruit and vegetable graphics and nutrition and implied health claims on products. The Public Health England research reported a high level of consumer trust in the labelling and marketing statements used by baby food manufacturers. Commercial baby foods are however frequently a poor and expensive choice for families to make: research has shown that many are very sweet even when they have names suggesting high vegetable content, many have a high water content, the flavours of many are unrecognisable and products don’t support children learning about normal food taste and texture. Baby foods are over-packaged and they are certainly over-priced – comparisons with fresh food equivalents would shock many parents.

Many cafés and restaurants may also offer pouches of baby food or snack foods which normalises the idea that babies need these special foods and cannot be Included In the meal that other family members may be enjoying. But Is It really that hard to feed babies when families are eating away from home? Is it really acceptable to give a baby a pouch of food to suck from, dissociating them from even seeing what the food looks like and Isolating them from a normal eating experience? There are simple and easy foods that families can take with them when they are out and about, cafés and restaurants should be encouraged to offer small amounts of simple foods from their menus for little ones and families can share the appropriate food in their meals. Most simple unprocessed and minimally processed foods are fine for babies and young children. Market forces have complicated how we feed our babies, but common sense should tell us that starting tiny babies on a snacking journey of puffs and sweet foods isn’t going to help them make good family food choices as they enter childhood.