(Hint: healthy babies don’t start with rice cereal)
I am definitely stepping onto the soapbox for this one. 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 kids. I also must confess on this note that I did follow the recommendations for first foods with our first child, and I believe this is part of the reason he is our pickiest eater, though he does eat salad and broccoli quite happily now at age 4.
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. While formula can provide basic food if a mother is unable to nurse, it is no match for a mother’s milk, which can change to suit the needs of the baby as it grows. 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.
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 and over steamed veggies and eventually a nauseating array of fluffy, puffy, and sweet snacks or juices.
For those of you who haven’t already guessed my response to this: forget the grains! If they are damaging to an adult body (and they are), imagine what they can do to the stomach of a small child who has never digested anything but breast milk! Doctors say to try oatmeal and rice first because they are least likely to cause an allergic reaction, which is ironic, since both contain lectins, water soluble proteins that have been linked to formation of allergies. From a previous post:
Gluten’s sidekicks, the posse of Lectins, are mild toxins the inhibit the repair of the GI track. Lectins are not broken down in the digestive process and bind to receptors in the intestine, allowing them and other food particles to leech into your bloodstream. Nothing like pre-digested food circulating the blood stream! The body views these lectins and the food they bring with them as dangerous invaders and initiates an immune response to get rid of them. This immune response to particles of common foods explains the allergy creating potential of grains.
Also interesting, is that starchy and sweet foods like grains and fruits are recommended first. It seems logical that 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. Speaking of vegetables, when is the last time you heard of someone allergic to spinach, or broccoli? It happens, but is very rare and usually associated with other autoimmune problems. I would wager that you have heard of someone allergic to peanuts (they contain lectins), wheat (contains gluten and lectin!), or soy (guess what, also has lectin!). To further confuse things, corn (a grain) and peas (a legume) are some of the first “vegetables” usually introduced to kids, and neither one is a vegetable (but guess what, they both contain lectins!) at this point, some of you are probably ready to point out that most foods contain lectins. While this is true, research has shown that some foods have higher concentrations of more problematic lectins than others.
Grains are not a necessary part of a childhood diet, or anyone’s diet, for that matter. So what foods should you introduce to your baby first? I recommend vegetables. There is a strange mentality among many moms that we should not force vegetables on babies or toddlers (perhaps because this adds to our own guilt for not eating them ourselves?).
Vegetables have a much higher nutrient content than grains and less chance of an allergic response. Unfortunately, the convenient jar baby food on grocery store shelves doesn’t have anywhere near the nutrients of fresh steamed and pureed vegetables. 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 food processor or blender, some vegetables and a little water or milk if you need to thin things down a little. Homemade baby food can be frozen in small amounts for later, making it convenient.
Obviously, a departure from the baby food aisle will require a little more thought, but is actually a simpler option once you adapt to it. Here are some helpful things I discovered when making the switch:
- Give avocado as a first food. It has enough fat to keep baby satisfied longer and a few spoonfulls of avocado put a whole bowl of rice cereal to shame on nutrient content. I always carry a ripe avocado and a spoon in the diaper bag. If baby gets hungry, I just peel a little of the skin off, scoop out avocado and feed him. Any extra can be stored in a ziploc until you get home. No bowl or bottled water needed!
- Other great first foods are sweet potato, winter squash, asparagus, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, carrots, spinach, greens, or green beans.
- Baby foods don’t even need to be pureed. Once baby is 6 months old (earliest you should introduce solids anyway), you can just cook vegetables until soft, cut into small pieces and put in front of baby. He or she will eat when hungry.
- Go organic whenever you can. Even small amounts of pesticides and chemicals can have a damaging effect on little bodies!
- By 7-8 months, you can introduce cooked (but still soft) egg yolks to baby. This is a great source of protein, cholesterol and fat. Also by this point, you can start introducing small pieces of meat to baby… they love protein!
I hoped to include some resources for switching to healthy baby foods, but unfortunately, there aren’t many! If you have any questions, ideas, suggestions, or rants, leave a comment below!