Don't forget about safety when it comes to mealtime: "Some solid foods can be life-threatening for small children because kids under 4 have such small upper airways and are still learning to chew properly," says Angela Mickalide, Ph.D., program director for the National Safe Kids Campaign. Here are some tips that are easy to swallow:
Serve the proper foods. For babies just starting to eat solids and cereals (usually around 4 to 6 months), make sure that the jarred or prepared food you serve is puréed or mashed and free of large lumps. Once your baby starts eating table food (usually around 8 or 9 months), all food should be cut into pea-size chunks or thin slices. Instead of offering raw vegetables, steam them until they're soft and then cut them into strips or tiny chunks; mash peas and legumes. Grapes should be peeled, quartered, and served without seeds, and all other fruits should be peeled, seeded, and thinly sliced.
Know what foods to avoid. Babies and toddlers should never be given hard candy, jelly beans, popcorn, nuts, seeds, or any other tiny, round foods. Avoid chunks or globs of peanut butter (a thin spread on bread or crackers is okay, as long as your child's not at risk for allergy).
Don't force-feed. Babies and toddlers sometimes "pouch" food they don't want or don't like, packing it in their cheeks until it's too much to swallow. Force-feeding or feeding too fast encourages pouching, which can block the airway, causing a baby to gag or choke.
Start a mealtime ritual. Toddlers need to sit at the table to eat, either in a high chair or age-appropriate booster seat, with adult supervision. This will keep your child from putting a piece of food in his mouth and running off. It also allows you to teach him to pace his eating and sip (not gulp) his drink, both of which ward off choking.
Know how to save a choking baby. Sometimes even the most diligent efforts can't keep your baby from choking, and you need to act fast to help him. "Your child has a better chance of surviving a choking accident if you've taken first-aid and CPR courses," says Mickalide. Keep in mind that you should not try the Heimlich maneuver on a child younger than 1, and never do a blind finger sweep to remove food from the mouth of a child younger than 8 because you could further obstruct the airway or cause injury. To sign up for a first-aid or CPR course, where you'll learn the appropriate care for choking infants and toddlers, check the White Pages for your local Red Cross chapter or visit www.redcross.org.