As a new parent, you’ve done your homework on breastfeeding versus formula, and you’ve developed a routine that works for you and your little one. But, before you know it, your gummy-smile baby is popping anything and everything into her mouth and sprouting a tooth. When she seems ready for something more than milk, what should you feed her? And when? Here are some guidelines for the best and safest foods for each stage, from infant to toddler.
Zero to 6 Months
While some parents begin feeding babies solid foods at four or five months old, several established health organizations—including the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association—say it’s best to wait until they’re six months old. Doing so earlier could lead to intolerances and allergies.
If you do opt to start earlier than six months, begin with very soft foods. Young babies tend to prefer sweeter foods, and mashed bananas are a good first option because babies like the texture and taste (but be warned that banana stains clothes very easily, so don’t forget the bib!). Other good options include cooked apples, avocados, and soft fruit like plums and peaches.
At this stage, the goal is to familiarize the baby with food; milk should still be the foundation of their diet. Offer them a bottle (or breast) before solid foods, so you can be sure that they’re eating to experiment, rather than because they’re hungry. Babies of this age shouldn’t be offered water, as milk contains all the hydration they need.
And if you haven’t already, make sure you have a high-quality high chair that provides good posture when eating. It will help establish a healthy routine for mealtimes and keep babies focused on their food, along with keeping them safe and comfortable. In addition, if you choose a brand that grows with your child, it’s a purchase that will go the distance over the years.
6 to 12 Months
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Once babies are six months old, most pediatricians recommend supplementing their diet with solid food. Iron-rich foods are important because your baby’s stores from being in the womb are running low, and milk doesn’t contain all they need. Foods high in iron that are suitable for babies include eggs (well cooked, and only after eight months), tofu, beans, chicken, and fish.
Babies grow their first teeth at about six months old. Typically, kids don’t get their full set of baby teeth before they’re three years old. But many have their canines and some molars by the time they turn one, and they can easily and safely munch on a variety of foods. Just make sure to cut up food into baby bite-sized portions, and always keep a close eye on them at mealtimes.
As babies get older, their appreciation of savory foods increases. Introduce cooked vegetables like sweet potatoes, peas, and well-cooked carrots, as well as eggs and legumes like lentils and kidney beans. Make sure meat and fish are well-cooked, shredded or minced, and free of bones. Whole-grain cereals, bread, and crackers are also good options. Choose an unsweetened cereal and soften it with breast or formula milk. When they’re teething, many babies like to munch on crackers, and whole-grain varieties offer the most nutrition.
Babies of this age should be offered water when necessary. Tap water is fine if it’s safe in your area; avoid bottled mineral waters.
12 to 18 Months
By one year, babies should be fed food with the same kind of texture as adult food—there’s no need to mash and puree everything anymore. Foods like rice and pasta can be served as is. However, you still need to minimize the risk of choking. Cut food into bite-size morsels (some harder foods, such as apples or carrots, can be grated or julienned), and always supervise your baby during mealtimes.
Many kids become more experimental with food at this age and also start to develop preferences. You may find they reject foods they once loved—they can get bored of eating the same old things all the time, just like adults do! But, they’re also more willing to try things to discover what those preferences are. So be sure to introduce different foods constantly, and don’t be discouraged if they don’t like something the first few times—keep offering it. Studies have proven that with repeated exposure, you actually can learn to like all kinds of flavors and textures.
18 to 24 Months
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At this age, most toddlers can competently hold a spoon or fork to feed themselves. Let them explore food independently so they can develop a healthy relationship with it.
While some parents avoid strong-tasting or spicy foods, kids will actually tolerate many things, in moderation. Many global cultures readily feed kids food with spice or flavor profiles that some people in the West tend to avoid. So if your toddler is interested in trying some of your kicky salsa or spicy curry, go for it—just offer a little at first. They will quickly learn their limits and preferences, and while spicy food can upset little tummies, toddlers are unlikely to eat such food in the quantities needed to provoke a reaction.
On the other end of the spectrum, some toddlers are pickier. Kids need the space and opportunities to experiment with food and usually know instinctively when and how much they need to eat. As long as you offer your toddler a variety of foods regularly, you shouldn’t worry too much if they reject some foods or occasionally skip a meal. However, if this habit continues, it might be time to see your pediatrician.
Foods to Avoid
Some foods are unhealthy or even dangerous for younger babies. Honey, undercooked eggs, meat, and seafood, and cow’s milk aren’t safe for babies under 12 months old. Reduced-fat dairy products and non-dairy kinds of milk (such as almond or soy) shouldn’t be fed to children younger than two years old. And always be extra careful with foods that are a choking hazard, like nuts or popcorn; if you can resist giving them to kiddos until they’re older, that’s a safer bet.
If you or someone in your family has a food allergy or intolerance, there’s a higher chance your baby will too. Pediatricians recommend not feeding foods that can cause an allergy (such as peanuts or peanut butter) to babies under 12 months, as this increases the chance of an allergy developing.
While it can occasionally be stressful (just like most aspects of parenting!), feeding your baby solid foods should be a happy time for you and your little one. It’s a sign that your child is developing and becoming healthier and stronger, and it’s fun for him to experience new flavors and textures for the first time. Your kitchen will probably be a bit messier for a while, but focusing on the enjoyment of sharing a meal—and introducing your favorite foods to your kiddo—will go along way to helping you overlook the spills. Bon appetit!
Written by Elen Turner for Matcha in partnership with Abiie.
Featured image provided by Tanaphong Toochinda