Once your baby is ready to start solids (generally somewhere between four to six months of age, although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months), you may wonder just what kinds of food—and how much of it—to give your baby in addition to her regular diet of breast milk or infant formula.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created a food pyramid for preschoolers (ages 2 to 5) and another one for grade schoolers (ages 6 to 11), there is no baby food pyramid, which may leave parents confused about what exactly they should be feeding their baby.
Fruits and Veggies
We spoke with Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician at Stanford University's Lucile Packard Children Hospital and author of Feeding Baby Green: The Earth-Friendly Program for Healthy, Safe Nutrition, who says that while there isn’t a specific ratio of veggies, fruits, grains, and proteins that parents should try to feed their babies each day, it is important to ensure that a variety of foods are being offered regularly. Dr. Greene says that he encourages parents to first expose their babies to many different kinds of fruits and vegetables, aiming for something green at every lunch and dinner.
Rice Cereal and Other Grains
As for rice cereal, traditionally a first food for many babies, Dr. Greene has launched the WhiteOut campaign to get it off store shelves altogether. He refers to the processed white rice cereal as a “gateway junk food,” and recommends a whole grain like brown rice or oatmeal instead. But, he says, “I do really like the idea of the first bite being something colorful they can see, touch, smell, and recognize from a produce aisle or farmer's market,” and suggests foods like avocado, banana, or cooked sweet potato as other options for baby’s first food.
Protein and Meat
Meat can be introduced any time after 6 months. While babies don’t specifically require meat in their diet, Dr. Greene explains that the AAP recommends it as an early food because of its iron content. Poultry, fish and beef can be offered anywhere from a couple of times a week to a daily basis, but babies can also get all the nutrients they need in the first year from breast milk/formula and other protein- and iron-rich foods too if parents don’t eat meat.
The key is not to get caught up in counting servings but to explore different flavors, smells, and textures during this period of introduction to solid food to head off picky eating habits, says Dr. Greene. Reminder: don’t give your baby honey until at least one year of age because the risk of botulism, or any raw or undercooked food, unpasteurized cheese, or anything that could be a choking hazard.
Want to raise a really adventurous eater? In Feeding Baby Green,Dr. Greene includes a biodiversity checklist, listing examples of foods from 21 different families of plants, and suggesting that parents offer at least one from each food family anywhere between 12 to 16 times during the different stages of feeding (spoon feeding, finger foods, and fork/spoon). Here’s a taste of his suggestions:
Mushrooms: shitake and crimini
Amaranths: spinach, quinoa
Umbrellifers: carrot, celery, cumin, parsley
Cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower
Composites: artichokes, lettuces
Bindweeds: sweet potato
Gourds: canteloupe, cucumber, pumpkin
Heath plants: blueberry, cranberry
Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, pinto beans
Lilies: asparagus, garlic, onion
Woody trees: bananas and plantains
Sesames: sesame oil, tahini
True grasses: brown rice, corn, wheat
Rosy plants: apple, apricot, peach, pear, strawberry
Citrus plants: grapefruit, lemon, orange
Nightshades: eggplant, red bell pepper, Yukon gold potato
Grapes: currants, grapes, raisins,
Laurels: avocados, cinnamon
Myrtles: allspice, guava
Supplementation: Vitamin D and Iron
Although Dr. Greene explains that breast milk is “the perfect food,” the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfed babies should receive a supplement of 400 IU (international units) of vitamin D daily, because it is the one critical nutrient that breast milk often cannot provide enough of (because mothers’ bodies don’t make enough of it, given how relatively little time we spend outdoors in direct sunlight nowadays). Formula-fed babies who consume less than one liter of formula per day (about 34 ounces) should also receive supplementation.
Finally, while healthy, full-term babies are born with sufficient iron for their first four months, the American Academy of Pediatrics now advises parents of exclusively or partially breastfed babies to give 1 mg per kilogram of body weight of an oral iron supplement per day starting at 4 months of age and continuing until iron-rich complementary foods are introduced. (Formula-fed babies receive sufficient iron from formula.) Babies 6 to 12 months of age need 11mg of iron per day.
Preterm babies who are breastfed should receive an iron supplement of 2 mg/kg daily by 1 month of age and continue until they receive sufficient iron through complementary foods or are weaned to iron-fortified formula.