As your baby approaches his first birthday—with a good two to four months of solids under his tiny belt—feeding time has gotten increasingly messy and complicated as your budding epicure starts to test limits. Mashed bananas and baby cereal are getting old; your little one is more than ready for some variety in his diet.

His developing "pincer grip" allows him to pick up small items, and curiosity leads him to put most things right in his mouth. It's critical that you have an eagle eye to make sure he's practicing his grasp-and-taste trick on tiny, safe bites of food—not potentially risky eats. Finger foods not only encourage your baby to explore new tastes and textures at his own pace, but playing "Pick-Up Cheerios" helps improve his developing manual dexterity.

In addition to picking things up, ten months is also the age at which babies start poking at everything in sight, including foods. Sure, it's a giant mess when your child dips his fingers into hummus, smears puréed pears around his tray, or finger paints with sweet potatoes—but playing with food is also an important developmental stage.

Feeding your almost-toddler is bound to be tricky, but with a little preparation and a lot of patience you can make mealtime stress-free (and even fun) for both of you.

  • Try a little texture. By now, your tiny eater is an old pro at putting away puréed fruits and veggies. Babies love to explore different textures with their mouths, so mix up your preparation methods! Instead of blending his food, switch to fork-mashing softer foods and cutting fruits and meat up into small pieces. He'll love the chance to try out his new teeth on whatever comes out of the kitchen.
  • Mix it up a bit. Often, baby foods tend to stick to a single ingredient. Ditch the bland starter dishes in favor of some more complex grub. Offer up casseroles, soups, stews and other foods where meat and vegetables are combined for new tastes and textures to keep your little one engaged as he eats.
  • Healthy finger foods. Cheerios are a classic favorite among parents; they're just the right size for little fingers to pick up and they soften quickly for easy chewing and swallowing. Blueberries are healthy baby-friendly eats, as are cooked peas, tiny versions of pastas, and bite-sized bits of cheese.
  • Dips and spreads. You know your baby's going to smear his food around, so why not encourage his artistic side? Let your budding Picasso dip cut-up chunks of fruit or veggies into yogurt or hummus, and paint you a masterpiece on his high chair tray. Alternatively, use baby crackers and a cream cheese spread as a brush and paint.
  • Teething troubles. Painful teething often leaves little ones wanting something to gnaw on. Teething biscuits and zwieback toast—either store-bought or homemade—provide crunchy comfort for irritated gums. Ice-cold melon and even baby biscotti are also healthy, soothing alternatives for fussy, teething tots.
  • Say no to moo juice. Despite popular belief, cow's milk isn't recommended for kids under the age of one, due to AAP concerns about babies' ability to digest the lactose and an iron deficiency. A study by Bristol University reveals yet another reason why it's best to hold off on traditional milk—turns out it's surprisingly high in salt! Their findings, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, proved that seven in ten babies get too much sodium in their diets and revealed that cow's milk has nearly four times the salt found in breast milk and nearly twice that found in formula.
  • Choking hazards. Avoid any foods that might possibly stick in your kid's little windpipe and cause him to choke. Skip firm, round or chunky foods such as grapes, nuts and popcorn. Hard or sticky candies are a definite no-no, and firm, raw fruits and vegetables such as carrots and apples should be avoided—although it's safe to serve these grated or cooked. Don't cut hotdogs into coin shapes; instead cut them into long, noodle-like strips to help prevent choking.
  • Foods to hold off on. Babies who haven't yet hit the twelve month mark should abstain from certain food and drink known to cause allergies or have a high risk of contamination. Dr. Rebecca Unger, a pediatrician at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, recommends that you avoid giving fruit juice, peanuts or peanut products to your baby before his first birthday. Eggs shouldn't make it on to junior's plate until 15 months and shellfish should be skipped until he reaches his second birthday. Honey is also a risk for very young children due to the botulism spores it may contain.

Mealtime offers up an excellent chance for your growing bundle of joy to learn about new colors, tastes and textures. It'll get messy, but don't fret! Your baby, kitchen, and clothes will all come clean eventually, and it's a small price to pay for the new skills and expanding palate he'll develop through variety, edible exploration and your persistent patience.