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.
12 Months: Expanding Culinary Horizons
WHAT TO FEED: By 1 year, baby should be comfortably eating table food. A variety of healthful choices should meet her protein, energy and vitamin needs. Keep in mind that despite having a mouthful of teeth, babies process food by mashing it with their gums, so the table foods shouldn't be too tough. Here's a good test: Try to mash and dissolve the food in your mouth without chewing or biting down. If you're successful, baby should be as well.
Breastfeeding may continue at this age, but whole milk is a very important part of a 1-year-old diet as well. "Children under 2 need whole milk for brain, bone and nervous system development," explains Greer. However, Zanecosky notes the AAP's new 2008 milk guidelines, which advise parents to switch to reduced-fat milk for toddlers between 1 and 2 years old if a toddler is overweight or obese, or if there is a family history of obesity, high cholesterol or cardiovascular disease.
Focus on good eating habits overall. Don't offer too many fried foods or sweets that are high in fat, and give your tot nutritious snacks like fresh fruit or graham crackers. Offer 100 percent whole-wheat bread or whole grains instead of white bread.
WHAT'S GOING ON AT THIS STAGE: "Babies are learning about taste and texture, as taste buds and swallowing skills come together between 12 and 18 months," says Janice E. Stuff, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor at the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "So if your child rejects a certain food, try again later. Or, if she's pushing food around, it means she's had enough. Put her plate aside -- in an hour she may want it again."
Studies show that babies eat when they're hungry and don't eat when they're not. "Children have a wonderful ability to self-regulate," Zanecosky says. "You really have to listen to their cues. If they're not hungry, don't force them to eat, even if it's inconvenient for you. Bring portable food with you for them to eat later."
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR: If, like many kids, baby rejects vegetables, you can substitute fruits, which have many of the same nutrients. For example, both zucchini and cantaloupe are good sources of vitamin A. Start with the zucchini on the plate, but keep cantaloupe available as a backup.
18 Months: Try Everything
WHAT TO FEED: By 1 1/2, toddlers are more adept at eating finger foods or using a spoon, but they still require supervision at mealtime. Serve table food cut in very small pieces, and avoid choking hazards like popcorn, hard candy, hot dogs, jellybeans, chunks of carrots, grapes and raisins.
It's important not to rely on milk -- breast or otherwise -- as the sole source of key nutrients at this point. "Keep trying a variety of foods, using the major food groups as a guide," says Greer.
WHAT'S GOING ON AT THIS STAGE: At this age, baby will point, try to articulate a word for food, or bang his fists or a utensil on the high chair tray if he's still interested in eating. It's perfectly fine to offer more until your little one indicates he's had enough. A food baby rejected at 12 months might be acceptable to him at 18 months, and having family members as role models will encourage him to try new foods. If baby sees his sister eating her vegetables, he'll try his too.WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR: Your child isn't likely to eat the ideal balance of nutritious foods every day at this stage of life. What matters is that he meets these requirements over several days or even a week. If you feel he's not eating enough or have special concerns, speak to your pediatrician about whether vitamin drops or nutritional supplements are necessary.