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 (although I argue homemade baby food can be very convenient if you take a simple approach) 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”).
First let’s look at the food nature designed for babies and use it as our guide for which solid foods to introduce and when.
Begin With Breast Milk (If Possible)
I truly believe (and the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics agrees) that the healthiest first food for babies is breast milk. It is a truly perfect and complete food for babies.
Breast milk is full of fatty acids, antibodies, nutrients, protein, fat, and protective bioactive molecules. The fat and protein content adapts to baby’s needs as they grow and breast milk contains a much higher whey to casein ratio that cows’ milk and formula which makes it more digestible.
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.
Unfortunately, in the United States breast feeding until at least 6 months as the AAP recommends only happens about 35% of the time.
What If You Can’t Nurse?
I completely understand that there are cases when breastfeeding is not possible and I don’t ever want to make any mom feel guilty for needing to feed formula. Breast feeding may be best for baby but there are cases when breast feeding may not be possible or best for Mom.
Thankfully, it is possible to make a real-food substitute for formula that comes close to imitating at the least the nutritional profile of breast milk. This is what I would use if I’m ever unable to nurse a baby.
Radiant Life even makes it easy to purchase the special ingredients to make it with this formula kit.
When to Feed Baby Solid Food (& Common Mistakes)
While breastfeeding is the perfect food for baby, at some point baby will want or need solid food. This may happen around 6 months or when baby can sit up well, grasp small objects, and shows interest food. (They have their ways of making it obvious!)
Motor development of course varies for each baby, so follow baby’s signs that he/she is ready to eat solid food rather than waiting for a certain day on the calendar. This post from Mama Natural is a great guide and takes some stress out of the process of knowing when baby is ready.
With my last few babies, I waited until at least 6 months before introducing solid food.
Problems With Conventional Baby Foods
Ask your mother what you ate for a first food or ask most pediatricians what they recommend as first foods for babies and most will say oatmeal or rice cereal.
After that, the usual recommended choices for the next stage are often fruit purees, starchy veggies like squash, various watered-down mixtures of processed meats, over-steamed veggies and eventually a nauseating array of fluffy, puffy, sweetened grain-based snacks.
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 U.S. is iron-fortified rice cereal. This seems logical at first glance, because babies naturally need more iron than they receive from breast milk 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 breast milk, 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!
Need for Iron Gives a Clue
As Heather of Mommypotamus 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!
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. 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 U.S. (along with corn and soybeans), but that is a (long) post for another day.
A Different Approach to Healthy Baby Food
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.
That being said, here are some good choices for introducing real food to babies:
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.
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.
This is the order that I personally introduce foods now. At first I don’t mix foods but introduce them one at a time for a period of a week or two to see how baby reacts.
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!
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. Broth seals the intestinal wall as a great source of gelatin, amino acids, bioavailable 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.
What I Do: Serve small amounts of warmed broth in a bottle or with a spoon. I made my own broth for my babies but now there is a quality brand of pre-made broth on the market that is shelf stable and has all the good stuff homemade broth does. Find out why it’s different here.
2. Meat + Liver
Next, I’ll introduce pastured grass-fed high quality meats and liver that have been 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.
If it seems strange to feed a baby meat as a first food, think about this:
Meat is a natural source of iron, which babies naturally need. It also 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 U.S., meats are some of the last foods to be introduced. “Kid-friendly food” given to growing toddlers may even often be processed foods like hot dogs!
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.
What I Do: Cook grass-fed or pastured meat or liver and let cool. Grate into small pieces with a grater or baby food grinder. Mix into broth and serve. Can also freeze in small portions to add to other foods as baby grows. I get my meat and liver from U.S. Wellness Meats or Butcher Box when it’s not available from a local farm I trust.
3. 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 are a natural source of folate, iron, fiber, potassium, and even magnesium. It’s one of the best first fruits (or vegetables) to serve baby, plus it’s soft and easy to cube or mash.
What I do: Serve diced or pureed, or mix with a little banana for the amylase.
4. Butter + Other Vegetables
At this point, I will add in a 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.
What I do: 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.
5. Present Mixed Foods, Textures, and Finger Foods
By this stage, baby is able to share most the meat, veggies, and fruits we’re already eating at the dinner table. I’m not a big fan of feeding purees for long (feeding a baby with a spoon is not a quick process) so I tend to just make a quick “hash” with small enough pieces to be safe for baby but thick enough to pick up and eat on their own.
Here are some ideas for healthy finger foods for older toddlers to keep the real-food tastebuds going!
Update: Why Early Allergen Introduction Is a Good Idea
Some landmark studies (that came out well after I had my babies) is changing how we think about childhood food allergies. The latest research suggests introducing allergenic foods starting at 4 months to lower a child’s chances of developing an allergy to those foods. Peanut, egg, and milk represent >80% of the most common childhood food allergies, so these would be foods to introduce early rather than delay.
I know it may seem scary to offer a baby peanuts since this seems like the opposite of what doctors have advised in the past, but think about this way: in many countries such as Israel where peanut is a staple in their meals, there’s a much lower incidence of peanut allergies because infants are introduced to peanut-containing foods much earlier on.
Of course, you should check with your doctor to make a plan that’s right for your situation, but make sure to reference the LEAP, EAT, and PETIT studies and get their thoughts on the new American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations as a result of these studies.
What I Would Do
Leave it a mom + allergist to develop a convenient and safe way to act on this research. She and team of allergists developed a product called Ready, Set, Food! that contains safe amounts of the top allergenic foods in a convenient powdered form. Simply open the packet and add to baby’s formula or expressed breast milk. I’ve looked in-depth at the science and the team behind this product and I’m very impressed. It’s organic and non-GMO as well. Get all the details about how it works here.
Reasons to Make Homemade Baby Food
At this point, you’re probably getting the sense that I recommend most if not all of baby’s first foods be made at home rather than store-bought. It’s not as much trouble as it sounds!
Here’s some compelling reasons to make homemade baby food instead of buy it:
Not Processed = More Nutrients Intact
Nutrition is so important at this early age and unfortunately, the convenient jars and squeeze packs of baby food on grocery store shelves don’t have anywhere near the nutrients of fresh steamed vegetables and meats made at home.
Know What’s in It
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. Plus even if the label has real food ingredients, there is no way to know the ratio of vegetable to fruit used in the formula (except maybe to look at the grams of sugar!).
Economical and Convenient
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 vegetables and water or broth to steam or boil them. If you’re having meat and vegetables for dinner, chances are you don’t need to make anything special for baby. Just mash, cube, or puree.
Want convenience? There are many convenient reusable containers on the market now that make storage and freezing of homemade baby food a snap, even without plastic. I loved these stacking and freezer-safe baby food jars or this reusable silicone version of the squeeze packs you see in the store.
Limits Contact with Plastic (Endocrine Disruptors)
Much of the baby food packaging today has moved toward convenient squeeze packs instead of jars. I have concerns about using plastic especially around food. Making it at home skips the plastic packaging (and saves the Earth!).
The Baby Food Bottom Line
There are, of course, many ideas of what makes a correct “first food” as there are so many 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. Hopefully, this will help set up a lifetime of healthy eating habits for kids!
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What type of baby food do you use? Share below!
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