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The stage 2 foods aren't really different from the stage 1...they just come in larger containers. The stage 3 foods have a slightly lumpier texture. I pretty much jumped right to stage 2 - but we didn't stay on "baby food" for long - he was pretty much getting lots of table food by the time he was 8-9 months old.
I agree about the difference between stage 1 and 2. The difference between the textures is minimal. The only thing different is that they have combinations of fruits and veggies. We started Trinity at 6 months after she had tried most of the stage 1 single ingredient foods.
We didn't use a lot of stage 3 foods (simply because there really aren't that many, honestly!), mostly I just used the meals for when I worked late and needed something quick to prepare for Ben. I would say that Ben was pretty much on table food for most of his meals by the time he was about 8.5-9 months old. So we probably did stage 3's during the early part of his 8th month.
The choking thing is scary, but as long as you give them small bits, they really will gum everything without any teeth. The first teeth they get aren't really for "chewing" anyways - the molars come in later.
I haven't decided when we'll start stage 3 but I've been thinking about it alot lately cuz she seems to be "over" the thin, runny purees and liking the thicker textures. Most of the time I end up mixing her stage 2 food with cereal to thicken it up for her, or I just mash up fresh fruits/veggies. I guess she'll let you know when she's ready to move up.