Your baby will be ready to expand his diet beyond breast milk or formula when she has reached some key developmental markers. Those usually include being able to sit up with support, holding her neck upright and steady, having good head control, and doubling her birth weight. You might notice that as your baby approaches 4 to 6 months she’s more interested in reaching out and grabbing the food that you’re eating. Since most babies lose the tongue-thrust reflex (when infants push their tongue against the roof of their mouth when a spoon is inserted) at about 4 months, you’ll find it easier to spoon-feed her. The process might take awhile; introducing a variety of solid foods is a gradual process.
During your baby’s first year, his menu will still include breast milk or formula before switching to cow’s milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breast-fed exclusively for around six months. Solid foods can be started at around six months, but the AAP recommends that breast-feeding continue until your child is 1 year old, even after you’ve introduced solid foods. Be sure to consult your own pediatrician about what to feed your baby, when to introduce solid foods, and how to introduce new foods.
Your baby’s first solid food will probably be a mixture of a tablespoon or two of dry infant cereal combined with breast milk or formula. The cereal should be iron-fortified. Many parents start with rice cereal, but it can be a source of inorganic arsenic in a baby’s diet. Too much inorganic arsenic can cause adverse neurological effects. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a limit on inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereals, and both the agency and the AAP point out that rice cereal should not be the only source of nutrients in a baby’s diet, and that it does not have to be the first food you give your child. Other iron-fortified cereals include barley and oat.
Assuming your baby doesn’t have an allergic reaction to the cereal—rashes, repeated vomiting, diarrhea, or constant fussiness—after three to five days, you can gradually make the cereal thicker. Once your baby tolerates cereal, you can introduce other foods, one at a time, such as puréed fruit, vegetables, and meat that you buy in jars or make yourself, waiting two to three days before adding a new item. Once your baby is around 7 to 10 months old, you can introduce soft foods such as well-cooked pasta, bread, avocado, cheese, fruit, and meat that are cut up for easy chewing. Always supervise your child when he’s eating. The AAP expressly states that small infants not be given raisins, nuts, popcorn, or pieces of hard food because they could be choking hazards.
Your pediatrician will be your best source of advice about what to feed your baby and when, as well as what to do if your child refuses to eat certain foods or starts to eat less (which is not unusual when a baby is teething or unwell). She’ll probably give you lists of foods your baby can eat and tell you what to avoid (such as honey, until age 1). You might be told to introduce foods one at a time to make sure your baby isn’t allergic to them.
When shopping for commercial baby food, compare the ingredients and nutritional value of different brands. Always check the “use by” dates on the label or lid. If the date has passed, don’t buy or use the food. Baby-food jars have a depressed area, or “button,” in the center of the lid. Reject any jar that has a popped out button; that indicates that the product has been opened or the seal is broken. And avoid jars that are sticky, stained, or cracked. If budget is the bottom line, buy the cheapest baby food according to your baby’s age and stage by comparing unit prices in the store and stocking up when they go on sale, or try making your own (it’s really not difficult).
What Food to Feed When
6 to 7 months
Single-grain cereals; puréed or mashed fruit and vegetables.
9 to 12 months
Soft foods like well-cooked pasta and finely chopped meat or poultry.
One Year and Older
After consulting with your pediatrician, you can introduce cow’s milk.
There is increasing concern in the pediatric and public-health communities about childhood obesity and its role in the early onset of diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, and other conditions. But it’s important to provide babies and toddlers with age-appropriate food that supplies the nutrition they need as they grow. Babies also need a certain amount of fat for their growing bodies. The AAP says parents shouldn’t put babies under 2 on any kind of diet or give them low-fat or skim milk. The early months and years are critical for development, and calories from dietary fat are necessary for a baby’s brain to grow and mature normally.
One reason that pediatricians want you to introduce new foods gradually, generally one at a time, is to make it easier to identify anything that might trigger an allergy in your child. Common allergens are eggs, peanuts, cow’s milk, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. But 80 to 90 percent of the children allergic to eggs, milk, wheat, and soy outgrow the condition by the time they’re 5.
How to Introduce Solid Foods
Follow your pediatrician’s guidelines about which foods to introduce to your baby. The idea is to go slowly. Have your baby sit as upright as possible, strapped into a bouncer seat, perhaps, or a high chair. Your pediatrician might suggest you start with infant cereal mixed with breast milk or formula. It should be smooth and runny, with no lumps. Use a baby spoon with a small, oval bowl and no hard edges, to bring the food to his mouth. (Your baby probably won’t have teeth yet, and her gums might be sensitive.) Offer new food for three to five days, and if she accepts it, you can add the new item to the list of foods your baby enjoys.
Don’t be dismayed or discouraged if your baby initially rejects a particular new food. Be patient, and keep trying over the course of the next few days, weeks, or months. If your baby shows no interest in eating something after a few attempts, don’t push. You don’t want to make feeding time a battle.
Commercial makers of baby food in jars usually divide their product lines into three stages: beginner (stage 1), intermediate (stage 2), and toddler (stage 3 and/or stage 4). It also comes in traditional and organic versions.
Here are the types of baby food to consider for your growing child.
Stage 1 Foods
Stage 1 foods are made for babies just starting on solids. They’re usually a single ingredient, puréed for easy swallowing. Vegetables include peas, carrots, green beans, squash, and butternut squash. Fruits include apples, bananas, peaches, pears, and prunes. This stage has the plainest formulations, without sauces or additional flavorings.
Stage 2 Foods
These have a smooth texture but are not as finely puréed as beginner foods. Intermediate (stage 2) foods are for more experienced eaters, about 7 to 8 months old. At this point, the choices are more interesting because two or more ingredients may be combined to improve taste and offer new textures, such as vegetables and quinoa or chicken and noodles—and you don’t have to open two jars. Remember to continue to provide fluids in the form of breast milk or formula as well.
Stage 3 Foods
They’re for children about 7 to 9 months and older—babies who are learning to chew and mash their food with their gums or early teeth. At this stage, chunkier textures and larger portions can help keep up with growing appetites. By the time your child is old enough for this stage, you might decide to simply give her table food that’s mashed or cut up for easy chewing and swallowing. Infant juices are available. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not giving any fruit juice to babies in the first year of life, and limiting juice to 4 ounces a day for kids ages 1 to 3 years and 6 ounces for 4- to 6-year-olds.
Stage 4 Foods
Companies like Gerber and Beechnut offers ready-to-heat meals for toddlers 12 months and older, such as lasagna or a turkey- vegetable combination. They’re intended to be easy-to-chew, one-stop meals that provide the necessary nutrients. They feature more texture for older babies and toddlers, and most are also made for children who are comfortable with a fork or spoon. These meals are convenient, and may be handy for families on the go. But soft table food is also an option for babies this age.
The baby food in the supermarket might share shelf space with juices marketed for babies 6 months and older. Remember, there’s no reason to offer juice to babies younger than one year.
In addition to basic juices, such as apple and white grape, you’ll also see combinations that contain yogurt or are fruit-vegetable blends. All juices for babies have added vitamin C; some also have added calcium. Too much juice can cause diarrhea and gas, and contribute to tooth decay. And when babies drink juice, they might take in less breast milk or formula, which contain the nutrients they really need.
If you do decide to give your child juice, make it part of a meal, not a snack. Be aware that fruit drinks aren’t nutritionally equal to fruit juice. Check labels to be sure you’re giving your child 100 percent juice. Note, however, that in tests of children’s juice boxes and pouches, we found that while products with 100 percent juice had no added sugar, pure fruit juice could contain more sugar than fruit drinks.
Any juice your child drinks should be pasteurized (heated to kill pathogens). Fresh-squeezed juice isn’t pasteurized.
Once your baby graduates to cow’s milk at about the 1-year mark, keep in mind that juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D isn’t an equivalent substitute.
Milk has a whole package of nutrients, including riboflavin, phosphorus, zinc, and essential amino acids that help form strong bones; fortified juice doesn’t. And don’t put your baby to bed with a bottle of juice or milk because it can lead to tooth decay.
Homemade Baby Food
Except for infant cereals, you can make baby food yourself from scratch. All you need is a fork to mash bananas, for example. You can process fibrous foods or meat in a baby-food grinder (found in baby stores), food processor, or blender. Before preparing food, always wash your hands thoroughly. Wash fruits and vegetables as well. If you’re preparing any kind of meat, wash your knives, cutting board, or food processor afterward with soap and hot water and air-dry them to prevent cross-contamination of other foods with meat juices. Play it extra safe by using a separate cutting board for meat and other for food. For maximum nutrition, buy the freshest fruit and vegetables and use them within a day or two. Remove peels, seeds, and cores. Boil, bake, or steam them until they’re soft, then purée them well.
Here’s a time-saving tip: Pick one day a week to make a big batch of baby food, then freeze individual portions in ice-cube trays. Transfer puréed food from the blender to ice-cube trays with a small spoon or turkey baster. Or try the cookie sheet method: Place dollops of cooked, puréed food on a clean cookie sheet, cover with plastic wrap and place in the freezer. Once the food is frozen solid, remove it from the cookie sheet or ice-cube tray and store it in plastic freezer bags in the freezer. Frozen fruit and vegetable purées will last three months; puréed meat, fish, and chicken will last up to eight weeks. If you mix meat together with veggies or fruit before you freeze it, use the mixture within eight weeks.
Good vegetables to start with are zucchini, peas, green beans, and squash. Excellent fruit choices are apples, apricots, bananas, peaches, pears, plums, and prunes. Homemade food can go right from freezer to microwave, but make sure to cool it to just barely warm before serving it to your baby to avoid mouth burns. That goes for any baby food—homemade or not. Add water, breast milk, or formula to smooth the texture, but don’t use butter, oil, lard, cream, gravy, sauces, sugar, syrup, salt, or seasonings, because they can prevent your child from experiencing the natural taste of those foods. And don’t use honey as a sweetener for babies under 1 year old because it can harbor botulism spores, which could lead to a serious form of food poisoning. Give any food a good stir to dissipate any hot spots before serving.
Another word of caution: According to the AAP, fresh beets, turnips, carrots, collard greens, and spinach can be high in nitrates, naturally occurring chemicals in soil that can cause an unusual type of anemia, low red blood cell count, in infants up to 6 months old. The problem isn’t solved by buying organic produce. Because organic produce is raised without synthetic fertilizer it can sometimes be lower in nitrates, but there are too many variables to know for sure. It’s better to follow the AAP’s advice, which recommends buying commercially prepared forms of these foods, especially when your child is an infant. Baby-food companies screen the produce for nitrates and other residues, and avoid using vegetables with high levels of these chemicals.
Is Organic Better?
Children could be at risk of greater exposure to the toxins sometimes found in nonorganic food because fruit and vegetables in baby food are often condensed, a process that potentially concentrates pesticide residues. Their developing immune, central-nervous, and hormonal systems might be especially vulnerable to damage from those toxic chemicals.
Do organically grown foods contain fewer pesticide residues than conventionally grown foods?
Organic foods are grown using manure and compost instead of synthetic chemicals, compared with foods grown conventionally, according to Consumer Reports research as well as studies from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy and research group focusing on public health and the environment. The science still isn’t definitive about whether organic soil management increases the nutrient levels in produce, although there’s some research suggesting that this may occur. The main benefit seems to be that children who eat organic food are at lower risk of exposure to pesticide residue, genetically engineered species, or other contaminants that can be found in nonorganic food.
Given the health concerns associated with pesticide residue, it makes sense to buy organic food for your baby or young child when you can, especially fruit and vegetables that usually carry the highest residue levels. Those include apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines, imported grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, and blueberries, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Most supermarkets carry an ever-expanding array of organic baby foods and products, including major brands like Earth’s Best and Gerber Organic. Plum Organics and Happy Baby are examples of organic baby food lines that both have store finders on their websites. Natural and organic food stores often carry their own organic lines and exclusive premium brands. You can also make your own baby food by buying fresh or frozen organic produce and puréeing it yourself.
Baby food labeled “USDA organic” must meet standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and be at least 95 percent organic, meaning that all but 5 percent of the content was produced organically. Food labeled organic isn’t allowed to be irradiated (exposed to radiation to reduce pathogens such as salmonella, listeria, and E. coli). Irradiation can also zap nutrients. “Organic” meat products come from animals that are fed organically grown feed without any antibiotics, animal byproducts, or synthetic growth hormones.
Certified organic produce isn’t permitted to be grown sewage sludge, and growers have agreed to use only permitted synthetic substances. The program approves certifiers who can verify that those standards have been met, which means that the use of the “organic” claim is approved before the product can be sold. Other terms found on food labels, such as “natural,” “free range,” and “no hormones added” don’t mean organic, and the claims haven’t been verified. Only food that has been certified to meet the USDA organic standards—for example, Earth’s Best and Organic Baby—can be legally labeled “organic.”
Find Organic Baby Food for Less
Organic food might cost more, though they often go on sale like everything else. Try these thrifty tips to save:
Check several local grocery stores to find the lowest prices on frequently purchased organic food. Also, stock up on sale items. Shop seasonally, since fresh organic produce, like conventional, is often less expensive in season.
Many communities now have regular farmers markets, even indoor ones. Check www.localharvest.org for organic growers and market listings.
You can also buy a share in a community supported agricultural (CSA) operation that specializes in organic food. The produce is almost always less expensive than at a farmers market and often costs less than the same nonorganic items at a supermarket. For a list of CSA farms, go to www.localharvest.org/csa and then contact the farms in your area to ask if they are certified organic. If so, they should be able to produce evidence of certification. If they sell less than $5,000 worth of produce a year, they might not be certified but should have documentation showing that they follow organic growing practices.
Buy in Bulk
Some organic baby food lines sell packs of 12 4-ounce jars at a savings of a few cents a jar over single-jar purchases. Stock up when they go on sale and you can save even more.
Babies and young children have a more delicate digestive system than adults and are more at risk for dehydration if they get diarrhea from something they’ve eaten. Their immune systems are developing, which makes them more vulnerable to toxic chemicals. So paying attention to how you prepare, handle, and store their food is especially important. To keep baby food free of harmful bacteria and other foodborne pathogens that can cause illness. Here are some guidelines:
• Wash your hands with soap and water before handling baby food (or preparing formula or bottles of breast milk). Not only will you be keeping your baby safe, but regular hand-washing also helps to protect you from getting sick. Take an alcohol-based sanitizer or baby wipes with you when you take your baby to places like the park so you can clean your hands before feeding her if soap and water aren’t available.
• Pay close attention to expiration dates on baby food. Listen for the pop of vacuum seals of foods in jars. Don’t feed your baby anything that has expired, and throw out jars with chipped glass or rusty lids, or those that are leaking or missing a label.
• Transport food and filled bottles in an insulated cooler with frozen packs when you’re traveling.
• If you freeze homemade baby food, put the mixture into an ice-cube tray covered with heavy-duty plastic wrap in the freezer. If you put the frozen food cubes into a freezer bag or airtight container, label it with the date. Use vegetables and fruit within three months; meat, fish, and chicken within eight weeks.
• Use dishwashing detergent, hot water, and a clean dishcloth to wash and rinse all utensils that come in contact with baby food, including the can opener. Just wiping them with a paper towel isn’t enough.
• When your baby gets to the finger-food stage, which can be as early as 7 months, cut food into bite-sized pieces. But don’t give your baby nuts, raisins, grapes, popcorn, cherry or grape tomatoes, or hot dogs because they’re choking hazards for infants or toddlers. And always supervise your baby when she’s eating. Don’t give her food when she’s in her car seat and you’re driving, especially if she’s facing the rear.
• Don’t put uneaten portions of baby food in the refrigerator; just throw it out. Harmful bacteria from your baby’s mouth can multiply in the jars. If your baby is likely to eat less than a full jar, spoon a portion into a bowl and put the jar in the refrigerator for later. Jars that have been opened can usually be stored in the fridge for up to three days in the case of fruit and vegetables, one day for meat, and two days for meat and vegetable combos. Put dates on them with a permanent marker so you don’t lose track. Don’t leave perishable items, including breast milk and infant formula, out of the refrigerator without a cold pack longer than you absolutely need to. In general, any food that has been unrefrigerated for more than two hours should be discarded. Throw it away if it’s been sitting out longer. It’s also a good idea to always travel with an ice pack.
• Don’t feed your baby or child of any age home-canned food because it might have harmful bacteria that will make him sick. And don’t feed babies or children dairy products made from raw, unpasteurized milk or partly cooked or raw meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or foods that might contain them (such as homemade ice cream or eggnog), because of harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness. And don’t give a child cow’s milk before he’s a year old.
• Don’t give your baby honey if she’s less than a year old. It could contain bacteria associated with infant botulism, a potentially life-threatening disease. Also, avoid eggs until your baby is 6 months old, and then scramble them to make them easier to chew. Nuts are not recommended for babies less than a year old.
If you compare the prices of commercial baby foods with what you eat yourself, you’re apt to find that ounce per ounce, baby food costs significantly more. Fresh fruit and vegetables are easy, economical alternatives to commercial baby food, as are jarred puréed foods such as applesauce (buy one without added sugar). Canned puréed foods such as pumpkin are convenient, but almost all cans are lined with bisphenol A. There are concerns about the potential for BPA to leach into food and possibly cause a health risk, so you might want to stick with fresh and jarred foods. You can purée food more at home if, for example, you find commercial applesauce is too chunky. Look for baby-food cookbooks. You might also ask your pediatrician for advice.
Shopping online for baby food might not save you money because shipping or delivery charges factor into your total costs, but it could save gas, time, and a trip to the supermarket, which isn’t always easy to pull off when you’ve got a new baby. If your local supermarket doesn’t offer online shopping, go to the source. Some, like Earth’s Best, have an online store where you can order baby food at prices comparable to what you’d pay at a store.
Get a Loyalty Club Card or an App
Get a preferred-shopper card, which allows you to receive sale prices published in a weekly circular, newspaper, or online, on products like baby food without clipping coupons. There are also smart-phone apps you can use to comparison shop and find bargains when you’re actually in the market. Google Shopper 2 and RedLaser allow you to do that.
Additives in Baby Food
It’s becoming just as complicated to navigate the baby-food aisle as any other in the supermarket. Here are the most common additives you’ll find marketed to parents of babies and young children:
Yogurt with Probiotics
Food marketers promote probiotics, those beneficial bacteria that work in the intestines to ease digestive woes and possibly strengthen immune systems.
Antibiotics and certain gastrointestinal illnesses can cause diarrhea by killing off or overwhelming our normal microbes. Probiotics can help to counteract those effects. But to produce this benefit, a serving of any probiotic yogurt must contain at least 90 billion live cultures. There are baby cereals that contain probiotics, like Happybellies, and Stonyfield’s yogurts for babies and children.
The evidence on the benefits of probiotics isn’t definitive. Some studies have found that they might be modestly effective in treating antibiotic-related diarrhea in children. But there are also safety concerns about giving them to children who have serious health issues, such as a compromised immune system.
The bottom line for now is that giving your child healthful foods with probiotics could offer some benefits. But before you do, talk with your pediatrician.
Fiber and Whey Protein
Protein is essential for growth. Fiber is usually added to help regulate bowel movements. Some manufacturers are adding soluble fiber and extra protein to their baby products. Some lines of baby food and infant cereal, such as Beech-Nut’s Good Morning (pictured) and Good Evening, contain oat bran and whey protein.
If your baby is eating a variety of foods regularly, she probably won’t need these extras. Check with your pediatrician.
With childhood obesity a significant health issue, you’ll want to avoid snacks that offer empty calories or are filled with excessive sugar, salt, or preservatives.
Some healthy snacks for your toddler include fresh fruit, dry cereal, small amounts of smooth peanut butter spread on crackers, diced or grated cheese, fruit, and yogurt.
Steer clear of sweet, sugary snacks like cookies or candy, or salty processed snacks like potato chips that are packaged and marketed as kid-friendly. A cereal such as Cheerios can make a quick on-the-go alternative.
Then there are the foods and snacks that are actually dangerous. Any food, or piece of food, that can easily get caught in your child’s windpipe is a potential choking hazard. Babies and toddlers don’t have the chewing skills, or even the teeth, needed to break down certain foods, so avoid hot dogs, bagels, whole grapes or raisins, popcorn, and raw baby carrots or other hard vegetables. Be sure to cook vegetables thoroughly to break down any fibrous matter (like the kind found in squash) that’s difficult for your baby or toddler to manage.
Microwaving Baby’s Food Safely
When heating baby food in a microwave, heat it right in the glass jar if the package directions allow you to (and if your baby will eat the entire portion), or use a microwave-safe dish. Avoid heating baby food in plastic bowls or containers, even if plastic bowls are labeled microwave safe—meaning they can withstand heat. Some bowls might be a source of chemicals that can affect a baby’s development and reproductive system. There are concerns about plastic materials, especially bisphenol A, and their potential to leach chemicals into food, causing health risks. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, chemicals in some types of plastic containers might leach into foods when the container is heated. In addition, some studies suggest that washing plastic in a dishwasher can also degrade it over time, increasing the possibility of leaching.
If you’re worried about plastics, avoid using them, especially containers that have bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical used to harden plastics to reduce breakage. In animal studies, BPA has been found to have effects on endocrine function. Use microwaveable glass or ceramic dishes instead. The AAP specifically urges that parents avoid using clear plastic baby bottles or containers with the recycling number 7 and the letters “PC,” because many of them contain BPA. Bottles made of opaque plastic, with the recycle numbers 2 and 5, are better choices because they don’t contain BPA.
In general, be careful when heating baby food in a microwave. Heating can be uneven, and hot spots can burn your baby’s mouth. Be sure to stir the food and cool it thoroughly before feeding it to your child.