Healthy baby food is a topic I feel very strongly about and will definitely step onto the soapbox for! Like many aspects of life, convenience doesn’t equal quality and many of the current pre-made baby food options are definitely NOT the best first foods for babies!
What do Babies Need?
Nutrition for the wee ones is a favorite talking point of mine, mainly because it is so important. Since babies and kids have much smaller bodies, any harmful foods can do much more proportionate damage, but this also means that healthy foods can do wonders for them.
I also must confess, on this note, that I did follow the recommendations for first foods with our first child, and I think this is part of the reason why he was our pickiest eater for a long time (though he now happily eats most foods thanks to our “food rules”).
I truly believe that the healthiest first food for babies is breast milk. Recent research supports this and even formula companies agree that breast milk is best. Breast milk is full of fatty acids, antibodies, nutrients, protein and fat and is a truly perfect and complete food for babies.
Research also shows that breast feeding drastically reduces the instance of SIDS (of every 87 deaths from SIDS, only 3 are breastfed babies). Studies also show numerous benefits to the mother, including decreased risk of cancers (breast, ovarian, cervical, endometrial), lower incidence of postpartum depression, and reduced chance of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
I completely understand that there are cases when breastfeeding is not possible, and thankfully, there are some great organic options for formula in times when breastfeeding is not an option (this is the what I would use if I’m ever unable to nurse a baby).
Moving to Solid Foods
While breastfeeding is the perfect food for baby, at some point, baby will want or need solid food. Ask most mothers you know what their pediatricians recommend as first foods for their babies and most will say oatmeal or rice cereal. After that, most parents get the recommendation to add in fruit purees, starchy veggies like squash, various watered down mixtures of processed meats, over-steamed veggies and eventually a nauseating array of fluffy, puffy, and sweet snacks or juices.
This is what I did with my first child because I didn’t know any better, and this is the advice that many new moms get daily for baby food. It turns out that not only is this not what mothers do in many parts of the world (including countries with much lower rates of obesity and allergies) but research may not even support it!
Don’t Start with Rice
The most common recommended first food in the US is iron-fortified rice cereal. This seems logical at first glance, because babies naturally need more iron than they receive from breastmilk at around age six months. At the same time, iron-fortified processed foods are a relatively modern invention and many moms question the idea of giving a fortified food rather than a food that naturally contains iron and other nutrients.
It also seems logical that the fact that babies have an increasing need for nutrients like Iron at around 6 months should be a clue both to what first foods should be and as to their actual need for these nutrients. If a baby is going to need a certain nutrient at a certain time that isn’t supplied by breastmilk, it makes sense that there would be a built in way for baby to get this nutrient that doesn’t involve modern fortified foods.
And it turns out that there is…
As Heather explains in this comprehensive post, there are several important reasons for the iron need at this age and a logical and natural way that babies get it:
- Many pathogenic bacteria (including E.coli) need Iron to survive and the missing Iron may be a way of protecting baby from these bacteria as he or she starts eating solids.
- Babies also at age 4-6 months start wanting to spend more time on the ground on their bellies in preparation for crawling. In a non-sterile world, this put babies in contact with dirt on a daily basis and dirt is a natural source of Iron and Zinc.
It also makes sense that as a baby does have a dietary need for more minerals like Iron and Zinc, we should give them foods that naturally contain these nutrients without the need for fortified and artificial nutrients. As rice is not naturally a source of these nutrients…. perhaps it isn’t intended to be a first food for baby!
All About that Amylase
Another reason that rice cereal and other starchy foods aren’t the best first choice for baby is that at age 4-6 months, babies don’t make enough of an enzyme called amylase to break down most carbohydrates. This means that starchy foods like rice can be irritating to baby’s digestive system and lead to discomfort in some babies.
In fact, without enough amylase, these foods can literally sit and start to decompose in the gut, which may increase the likelihood of allergies to this particular food! Interestingly, allergies to rice are on the rise in recent decades, along with allergies and intolerances to fruits, peanuts, wheat and dairy (there is some speculation that adding these foods too early may even facilitate a dairy intolerance because it aggravates the immune system).
Given the lack of amylase, it seems odd that starchy and sweet foods like grains and fruits are recommended as first baby foods. Logically, habituating a baby to the taste of sweet foods first would make it difficult to introduce less sugary (yes, fruit does have sugar) foods like vegetables later (and this is one reason that in countries like France, these foods are introduced later after baby has learned to like a wide variety of healthy foods).
So, if rice and other starches aren’t a natural source of Iron and babies don’t have the enzymes to digest them properly… why are we encouraged to give them as a first food? As a wild guess, I’d suggest that it has more to do with rice being one of the most subsidized crops in the US (along with corn and soybeans), but that is a (long) post for another day…
Healthy Baby Foods I Recommend
In many parts of the world, starches and sweet foods are not given as a first food at all. Instead, in many places, they give animal foods like broth and tiny pieces of meat.
Think about this… meat is a natural source of iron, which babies naturally need, and doesn’t require amylase to be digested, making it a logical first baby food and the choice of many cultures around the world.
Meats are a complete source of protein, unlike rice, beans and vegetables and provide more calories and nutrients per ounce than other foods. While this is common sense in much of the world, in the US, meats are some of the last foods to be introduced and first meats are often processed foods like hot dogs!
If we look at the enzymes in a baby’s digestive system at the age of first foods, proteins and fats are a logical and much safer choice. After much research, the first baby food that I’ve given to all of my children has changed drastically over the years. I wait until at least 6 months to introduce any solid foods.
This is the order that I personally introduce foods now:
This was never suggested with my first child and while I am grateful he doesn’t have any allergies and is a great eater now, I wish I’d known what I know now to be able to give him more nourishing first foods.
Broth may seem like an odd first food for a baby, but after my third child struggled with eczema and dairy intolerance (after being born via c-section) and we used the GAPS diet to help reverse his problems, I realized that the same reasons broth is a superfood for gut health during GAPS makes it a logical first baby food as well!
Broth is recommended for those with gut problems to help “heal and seal” the gut and improve the symptoms of leaky gut. Babies are naturally born with a leaky gut because this allows beneficial antibodies and enzymes from mom’s milk to pass into the bloodstream and increase immunity. Eventually, the gut needs to seal so that particles from foods and pathogens don’t enter the bloodstream as well.
This is another part of the wisdom of giving broth as a first food, and perhaps one of the reasons that this is a first food choice of cultures around the world.
Broth is also a great source of Gelain, amino acids, bio-available minerals and other nutrients. As a liquid, it is also an easy transition for baby! I typically feed my babies broth as their only “real food” for about a month before adding in any other food to help make sure the gut is ready.
Meat + Liver
Next, I’ll introduce pastured grass-fed high quality meats and liver that have been lightly cooked and very finely grated to the broth. Again, this seems counter-intuitive as a first food, but meat is a complete source of protein and amino acids and liver is nature’s multivitamin.
Of course, you want to make sure that these are extremely high quality meats from ethical and healthy sources, but even a small amount of these foods will help provide baby the Iron and Zinc they need at this stage and these foods are less likely to be allergenic than many other foods.
Mashed Banana + Avocado
At this stage, I’ll add in some low-allergen fruits and vegetables like bananas and avocados. I often mash these into the meat or broth. Bananas (though I don’t personally like the taste of them) are one of the few fruits that contain amylase, making them easier to digest for most babies. I don’t like to give them straight since they are sweeter, and mix them with meat or liver so baby doesn’t get too used to sweeter flavors right away.
Avocado is packed with beneficial fats and another good first fruit or vegetable choice.
Butter + Other Vegetables
At this point, I will add in grass-fed pastured butter (for the healthy fats and Vitamin K2) and other non-starchy vegetables. I add vegetables one at a time and usually about a week apart.
Vegetables have a much higher nutrient content than grains and less chance of an allergic response, so I introduce almost all vegetables before any grains, including rice, are introduced. Unfortunately, the convenient jar baby food on grocery store shelves doesn’t have anywhere near the nutrients of fresh steamed vegetables (and I’m not a fan of pureed food- see below). Ever read the labels? Besides the token vegetable or fruit, jar baby food contains mostly water and small amounts of added fillers to keep everything the same consistency.
This is one case where it truly is, hands down, cheaper to make your own baby food. What you pay for in the store is so much water and filler that you could make huge amounts of fresh vegetables for your baby for less. All you need is a vegetables and water or broth to steam or boil them. Homemade baby food can be frozen in small amounts for later, making it convenient.
The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to start adding tiny bits of chopped veggies to baby’s broth and boiling until soft. At this point, I strain out the soft veggies, let them cool and let baby feed herself.
A Note About Eggs
Egg yolks are often recommended as a first food (even before broth) in many real food sources and I know many people who introduced egg yolks with great results. After much research and consideration, I decided not to introduce eggs as a first food for my babies because I personally have reacted to eggs in the past and showed antibodies to eggs in blood tests.
Either way, egg whites are not recommended at a young age, as they do have the potential for an allergic reaction, but for my personal situation, I decided to forego eggs altogether until an older age. Of course, this is not to say that eggs are not a good first food for some babies, I just felt that there were better first foods for mine.
Baby Led Eating
Another thing that I think has contributed greatly to my kids being adventurous and independent eaters is that I don’t puree things. I did with my first, and soon realized that he just wanted to grab the spoon and do it himself anyway. With our other kids, I made sure that all foods were cut into small enough pieces that they were not a choking hazard and were cooked extremely softly so that I could just place them on the table for baby.
Not only does baby love feeding himself the little pieces of food, but this usually also keeps him busy enough and happy enough that I can serve the rest of the family and even eat something myself!
The Baby Food Bottom Line
Baby food doesn’t have to be complicated, and in most places in the world, it isn’t. Many cultures don’t have entire corporations devoted to producing watered-down purees for baby, or a whole market for machines, containers and gizmos to make your own baby food.
In some cultures, mom just chews a bit of her food and feeds to baby (sounds gross but it can actually help digestion). In countries like France, babies are given non-starchy foods first and it is said to spoil baby’s taste buds to give starches first. Many foods in France are broth based, and baby receives quite a bit of broth and meat as first foods.
There are, of course, as many ideas of what makes a correct “first food” as there are food options. Mine is simply this: Start with nutrient-dense and non-starchy whole foods that have a low chance of causing an allergic response and let baby be as independent as possible when eating.
What type of baby food do you use? Share below!