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The Growing Baby's Guide to Nutrition

One of the thrills of being a parent is watching your child take that first spoonful of mushy baby food. It's a milestone you'll never forget, and as she advances to chunkier solids and eventually real family meals, both baby's and mom's pleasure increase. But how do you know when your little one is ready for a new food experience? And what should you be feeding her in the meantime to optimize her health? To aid in your food shopping and preparation, here's a guide organized by age group, along with suggested items for nutritious -- and delicious -- daily dining.

6 Months: The Experimental Stage

WHAT TO FEED: Breast milk or formula should make up the bulk of baby's diet for the first six months, meeting most of his nutritional needs. Between 4 and 6 months, you should gradually ease solids into your child's meals. Start with a good source of iron, especially if your infant has been breastfed. (Infant formula has iron added.) Iron-deficiency anemia is a health concern, so it's a must-have mineral for your baby. The best source of iron is red meat or poultry. The next best source is fortified cereals, with whole-grain cereals being better than rice cereal. Mix cereal with enough breast milk or formula to create a liquid consistency, and feed with a spoon. Once he's accepted this, you can offer strained fruits and vegetables. Start with single-ingredient foods; this way, if there are any allergic reactions (rash, vomiting or extremely loose stools), identifying the source won't be an issue. Offer baby about a half-teaspoonful of food at a time. At 7 to 9 months, you should add strained meats and poultry (another great source of iron and protein), and by 10 months, you can begin the transition to table food by offering teething biscuits for baby to gum and mashed foods to introduce a little texture.

Making your own baby food is an option, but commercial baby food is safe and nutritious too. Frank Greer, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin and former chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics National Committee on Nutrition, points out one advantage to jarred baby food is that it's preserved. "Home preparations are not sterilized, so moms have to be careful to wash everything very well," he says. "Also, homemade baby food can't be kept around very long. If it hasn't been eaten after two days, throw it out." Moms who are concerned about preservatives but don't have the time to make baby food at home can try one of the organic baby food lines such as Earth's Best and Gerber Organic.

WHAT'S GOING ON AT THIS STAGE: The introduction of solids is a social learning exercise for baby. "Children want to be part of the family unit, and eating together is important," says nutritionist Althea Zanecosky, R.D., former spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and mother of two. "Sit baby in a high chair and pull it up to the table. Even if he rejects the food you're trying that day, you're teaching him that food is a social activity. He'll learn that this is the time we put away the toys and we're all together."

WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR: When introducing new foods, it's important to watch for signs of food intolerance. Offer baby a small amount of one new food for several days before moving onto the next. Avoid feeding your baby honey, which can cause infant botulism, a form of food poisoning, and citrus fruits, which are too acidic for young stomachs. Zanecosky notes that while eggs and nuts have a reputation as infant allergens, they are actually fine. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) changed its stance on delaying the introduction of common allergens in 2008. "Many pediatricians recommend against giving eggs and fish in the first year of life because of allergic reactions, but there is no evidence that introducing these nutrient-dense foods after 4 to 6 months of age determines whether your baby will be allergic to them," she explains.

Experts also advise that you pay attention to baby's signals of hunger and fullness. By 6 months, an infant will show his desire to eat by opening his mouth and leaning forward. When baby turns his face or mouth away, he's telling you he's finished eating for now.