Introducing your baby to solid foods can be daunting, but just as it’s true with most things in parenting, following your intuition is key. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the conflicting information that’s out there, here’s an idea that will bring you some peace: There is no one-size-fits-all answer to what’s best for your baby. When it’s time to start serving solids, these simple tips will help you navigate this new, exciting stage in your baby’s life.
Watch for Developmental Signs
Before you jump into prepping, dicing, and puréeing, it’s important to watch for developmental milestones that will suggest your tot is truly ready to expand their food palate. Sara Peternell, a board certified holistic nutritionist and co-author of Little Foodie, says the first sign most parents intuitively look for is their baby’s capability to hold up their own head, but something else to consider is how much trunk and neck control they have. Proper trunk control, or the ability to sit up straight in a high chair, is vital for digestive function as it helps ensure your baby can properly swallow their food. Strong head and neck stability is also important because it can help limit choking risks and the amount of spit-up your baby has after meals.
On average, babies start eating solid foods around six months of age, but the range can vary widely. Many babies have head, neck, and trunk control as early as four months, while others can be on the later side, like nine months. “There’s not a perfect age to start, it’s more about looking for these milestones in order to know your baby might be ready,” says Peternell.
If your little one is starting to reach for your food or watch you as you eat, that may be another hint that they’re interested in solids. Following along with instinctive eating, which is often referred to as baby-led feeding, is a low-pressure way to start. So, if your baby is transfixed on your banana as you snack, break off a small piece, mash it up, and offer it, or if she’s reaching for the avocado in your salad, place a little bit of it on her high chair.
“Sharing a few bites with your baby at the table and bringing them into the family dining dynamic, whether it’s in your lap or in a high chair, is a great way to foster their interest in food,” Peternell shares. If your baby isn’t showing much interest yet, try breast or bottle feeding at the dinner table instead, then slowly work toward offering some of the food that you’re enjoying.
Keep a Food Diary
When you start to feed your baby any type of new food, keep track of how they react to it. “Some of the old advice is that parents should introduce one food at a time to see if there’s any type of allergic reaction, but that isn’t necessarily the best way to go about feeding for the general population,” Peternell explains. In her practice, as long as there is no family history of food allergies, Peternell encourages parents to introduce a variety of foods that they feel their baby is interested in. However, if there is a history of allergies in the family, then it’s important to go a bit slower with food introduction.
Either way, it’s a good idea to write down everything you’re feeding your baby so that you can assess any type of reaction or difference in bowel movements. Keep in mind that some changes in your baby’s bowel movements are normal because of the new nutrients and fiber that they’re digesting. Having a little bit of constipation should be expected, but any sort of vomiting, rash, or diarrhea is an indication that something isn’t sitting well. Talk to your pediatrician if you have any concerns while introducing new foods.
In your journal, you should also consider jotting down any signals your baby might have given you during mealtime. If you try to feed her a banana and she pushes it away with her tongue or shakes her head from side to side, she’s trying to tell you that this doesn’t feel right. It can be frustrating to prepare something that your child won’t eat, but give them a bit more credit when it comes to knowing what makes them feel good versus what might be causing some discomfort.
Reach for Protein
Although choosing which foods to start with is a personal choice, Peternell suggests animal products as one of the most beneficial for babies. “What I did with my own children, and what I consult my clients to do when they start their baby on solids, is to serve animal products, which are often the most nutrient-dense, easy to digest options,” Peternell explains.
Animal-based foods are important to offer your baby because the growth rate for a newborn up to their first birthday is exponential, and the nutrient needs that they have can be nicely met by incorporating meat into their diet. Animal products have hefty amino acid profiles, which help foster your baby’s development, making it important to serve protein-rich foods from the get go.
Serving protein can look many different ways—it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to slab a piece of tri-tip on your baby’s high chair tray. Consider batch-cooking a couple of different types of fish, like salmon or tuna, puréeing them with bone broth or coconut milk, then freezing them in small ice cube trays. Poultry is another great starter food for babies, so try puréeing an organic chicken liver or chicken breast.
Although the benefits of meat are great, keep fresh fruits and veggies as a vital part of your baby’s diet. Produce makes a valuable companion to animal-based meals, so serve broccoli or zucchini with fish, peas and carrots with chicken, or blueberries and tomatoes with eggs. The key is to balance the foundation of your baby’s (and your own!) plate.
Plant-Based is Totally Ok
If you aren’t too enthusiastic about starting your child off with meat, there are other options for sneaking in some protein. Using bone broth rather than water to cook grains (try avoiding whole grains until baby is nine months old and able to digest better) or sauté veggies, for example, is a nice way to provide minerals, collagen, amino acids, and zinc. Scrambled egg yolks, which offer high levels of zinc and protein, are another hearty option.
Something else to consider is that your baby’s diet doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation. Many people are showing interest in a more plant-based diet. “I’m a fan of the plant-focused approach, but I think it’s a smart choice to eat plant-based 80 percent or so of the time and then supplement with animal products when needed,” Peternell says. The takeaway is that while you don’t have to eat meat every single day to reap the benefits, it’s helpful to fill in any vitamin gaps or deficiencies by offering an occasional source of animal-based protein.
There’s No One Right Way
Starting your baby on solid foods is a big step, and there are many ethical, religious, cultural, and convenience factors that can come into play. As a parent, you can find peace in knowing that you have all of the necessary tools to give your child healthy options as they grow and change. No one knows your baby better than you do, so trust your instincts. If your baby isn’t too keen on a specific food—don’t get discouraged—there are a variety of ways to feed your little one in a healthy, wholesome way.