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Menus for Growing Babies

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 he 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 him in the meantime to optimize his health? To aid in your food shopping and preparation, here's a guide organized by age group, along with some suggested menus for daily dining (see "Meals for a Day").

6 Months: The Experimental Stage

What to Feed
Baby's first solid food should be iron-fortified rice cereal mixed with enough breast milk or formula to create a liquid consistency, and fed with a spoon. Once he's accepted this, you can offer single-ingredient strained fruits and vegetables. Offer Baby about one-half of a teaspoonful of food at a time. At 7 to 9 months, you should add strained meats and poultry, 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. Frank Greer, M.D., professor of pediatrics and nutritional sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition, points out that 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."

During this time, breast milk or formula should make up the bulk of Baby's diet, meeting most of his nutritional needs. Continue your regular feedings throughout the first year while you gradually ease solids into your child's meals.

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 Althea Zanecosky, R.D., American Dietetic Association spokesperson 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. If Baby is allergic, you'll see a rash, vomiting, or extremely loose stools. And never give babies under 12 months highly allergenic foods like eggs, nuts, honey, and citrus fruits.

Experts also advise that you pay attention to Baby's signals of hunger and fullness. By 6 months of age, 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 done eating for now.

12 Months: Expanding Culinary Horizons

What to Feed
By 1 year Baby should be comfortably eating table food. A good guideline at this age is to serve one tablespoon of each food -- prepared to a texture and size that is easily swallowed -- at each meal. As long as your child takes in a variety of healthful choices when he eats, consuming these amounts should meet his protein, energy, and vitamin needs.

Breastfeeding may continue at this age, but whole milk is a very important part of a 1-year-old diet as well. "Children under two need whole milk for brain, bone, and nervous system development," explains Greer. Don't be concerned about the fat content in whole milk -- babies need it. Focus instead 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., of the USDA/Agricultural Research Service at the Children's Nutrition Research Center, 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 a year and a half, 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, jelly beans, 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.

Meals for a Day

6 to 12 Months

Breakfast
½ to 1 tablespoon mashed banana, banana baby food, unsweetened applesauce, or puréed, well-cooked peaches or apricots, with iron-fortified rice cereal.

Lunch
½ to 1 tablespoon chopped, well-cooked mashed vegetables with same amount of soft, well-cooked, mashed rice, pastina, or potatoes. Mashed, soft fruits can also be offered.

Dinner
The same as lunch, except vary the color of the vegetable (if baby had carrots at lunch, for example, offer spinach at dinner). Around 8 to 9 months, offer jarred or puréed well-cooked meats.

12 to 18 Months

Breakfast
Offer any or all of the following: 1 tablespoon of cooked hot cereal (puréed, not the coarser type); 1 tablespoon sliced soft fresh fruit; ¼ piece very soft French toast, cut into tiny pieces. Dry round oat cereal is good, too, but make sure Baby eats one piece at a time to avoid a choking hazard.

Lunch
If Baby seems ready to try new foods, offer some soup (a purée is best at first). In addition, serve 1 tablespoon each of a soft, well-cooked starchy food, finely chopped baked chicken, and a fruit or vegetable, cut into very small pieces or mashed so that Baby can pick up and eat them.

Dinner
Try 1 tablespoon well-cooked pasta with mild-flavored cheese (or the Tuna-Ricotta Tempter), and 1 tablespoon of a soft, well-cooked vegetable. Offer 1 tablespoon of fruit, pudding, custard, or yogurt for dessert.

18 Months and Older

Breakfast
¼ to ½ piece of whole-grain toast with a very small amount of butter, ¼ banana, and ½ of a scrambled egg.

Lunch
1 ½ tablespoons of tuna salad with finely chopped onion and celery, whole-grain crackers or ¼ to ½ piece of whole-grain bread, and 1 ½ tablespoons of fruit-sweetened yogurt.

Dinner
1 ½ tablespoons of Baby Shepherd's Pie (see recipe), 1½ tablespoons of a well-cooked and finely chopped vegetable, and 1 ½ tablespoons of a fresh fruit for dessert.

Snacks
fresh fruit pieces, round oat cereal, graham crackers, or bite-sized whole-grain crackers.

The Tuna-Ricotta Tempter

This yummy, high-protein, high-calcium dish has a creamy, almost soufflé-like texture, perfect for the 1-year-old palate. When your baby gets older and develops a taste for stronger flavors, substitute Asiago for the Parmesan cheese. Also, after Baby turns 2, use part-skim ricotta and reduced-fat sour cream to make the dish a little lighter.

Ingredients

1 10-oz. package frozen spinach

1 lb. whole-milk ricotta cheese

16 oz. sour cream

4 tbsp. flour

1¼ cups grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese

2 6-oz. cans of tuna, finely flaked

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. pepper

Nonstick cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Defrost and heat spinach in small amount of water in saucepan; drain thoroughly. While spinach is warming, combine ricotta, sour cream, flour, 1 cup Parmesan or Asiago cheese, and tuna in large bowl.

2. Add eggs, drained spinach, salt, and pepper, and mix thoroughly. Coat 9 ½" by 5 ½" by 3" loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray. Pour mixture into pan.

3. Sprinkle remaining ¼ cup grated cheese evenly over top. Bake 55 minutes to an hour, until top is golden. Let cool slightly, slice and serve.

Baby Shepherd's Pie

This casserole combines almost all of the food groups in one dish. Baby will love the different colors, textures, and flavors that are used here -- and at this age he will easily be able to chew all the ingredients. For a change of pace, mix a variety of meats together -- try ½ lb. ground beef, ½ lb. ground veal, and ½ lb. ground lamb or turkey.

Ingredients

Half a 22-oz. bag of frozen mashed potatoes

1 10-oz. package frozen carrots (cut in tiny chunks) and peas

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 ½ lb. ground beef

½ cup Italian-flavored breadcrumbs

Salt and pepper, to taste

Nonstick cooking spray

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Prepare potatoes according to package directions; set aside. Meanwhile, cook carrots and peas in boiling water. Drain thoroughly and set aside.

2. Warm olive oil in large heated skillet. Add chopped onion and sauté until soft (about 5 minutes). Remove onion with slotted spoon; set aside. Add garlic to skillet and cook about 2 minutes. Crumble in ground beef; cook until browned. Drain off excess fat, and then mix in onions, carrots, and peas. Stir in breadcrumbs, salt, and pepper.

3. Coat a 10-inch round casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray. Spoon the meat-vegetable mixture into dish. Spread mashed potatoes evenly over top of mixture. Bake until potatoes are lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Let cool slightly, then cut into wedges and serve.

Shelley Wolson is a freelance writer based in New York City and the mother of a 2-year-old.

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