x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

BLW can play a minor part in an Arab home, not the starring role

What’s not to love about teaching your child to eat in a way that allows you to trust your baby's innate sense of hunger, of want, of self-knowledge, of self-limitation? I’ll tell you what: the mess.

Arabic food is not just hummus and kebabs, falafel and shawarma sandwiches, or the Lebanese mezzes you order at your neighbourhood’s Middle Eastern restaurant. In fact, those usual suspects are rarely ever whipped up in the cosy kitchen of an actual Arab’s home.

At home, Arabs cook stews. We simmer green beans in fresh tomatoes with large chunks of lamb and serve them atop a steaming heap of rice with vermicelli. We sauté an obscene amount of spinach leaves until they wilt, then top them with minced beef, chickpeas, broth, garlic and red pepper paste and let it all stew before serving it with rice, cooked with vermicelli. We make okra stew with lamb, mloukhieh (also known as Jew’s mallow) stew with chicken, green beans stew with coriander and meat. All served, of course, with rice.

Have you ever watched a baby try to eat rice with chubby, clumsy hands? Out of every 20 grains of the dish, how many do you think make it into the baby’s mouth? Ten? Three? One? With Baby A, I’d say none.

Baby-led weaning, or BLW, is a movement that promotes eating as an interactive experience for any baby learning to eat. It allows babies to control their food consumption by feeding themselves from the get-go. It begins with the baby playing with the food, squishing it and licking it before discarding it every which way except into the mouth, but eventually, it means the baby will master hand-to-mouth coordination and feed herself until she’s full. BLW is all about finger food.

BLW, I think, is genius, if you’re not an Arab, serving rice with stew, imagining finger food to be nothing more than crudités served at a cocktail party. What’s not to love about teaching your child to eat in a way that allows you to trust your baby’s innate sense of hunger, want, self-knowledge? Maybe even of self-control?

I’ll tell you what: the mess.

Do you know what a catastrophe it would be if I were to let Baby A eat her soft-boiled egg on her own? Or give her a spoon and let her to go to town on her daily cup of yogurt? Or allow her to use her hands to scoop up the rice and stew she’ll invariably be served for lunch?

BLW tells me to give my daughter slices of apples and bits of banana to snack on. But my OCD tells me to turn those apples into applesauce and feed it with the safety net provided by a well-placed bib and mash that banana so it can go down with a minimum of fuss. Feeding herself a handful of raisins or a tiny sandwich is one thing, but how in the world do you let a little Arab baby feed herself shakriyyeh – a stew of cooked yogurt with grated onions and pieces of lamb served on a bed of ever-present rice – without having to contend with warm yogurt in her hair, ears, eyelashes and, amazingly, behind her knees?

On paper, BLW makes sense. The child gets to explore the tastes and textures of food, learns to eat and when to stop eating when satiated. But in practice, BLW is a lot of clean-up that I’m forgoing given everything else I have to do. We’re trying a middle ground – she can feed herself the broccoli florets she loves and play with her Cheerios before popping them into her mouth. But my beloved stews? I’ll spoon-feed her those, thank you very much.

Hala Khalaf is a freelance writer living in Abu Dhabi