In her first column for MyDomaine, Michelle Davenport, registered dietitian, Ph.D. in nutrition, and founder of baby food company Raised Real, shares with us her insights into how to feed babies their first foods.
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
In our current wellness era, we all know we should be optimizing health by choosing real, unprocessed superfoods. And when it comes to babies (who depend on having the right blocks to build their bodies and brains), optimal nutrition is paramount. A few years ago in my studies, I came across a statistic that astounded me. It showed that for the first time in centuries, the current generation of kids will have shorter life spans than their parents, all due to unhealthy diets.
Since store-bought baby food is low in nutrition but high in sugar and empty calories, it sets the stage for this at first bite. But how and what should informed parents feed their babies instead? Ever-changing guidelines can make this a confusing issue, so I’ve condensed my years of research into six easy tips on feeding your baby their first foods.
Skip the Baby Aisle
The average baby food pouch contains over 50% sugar, so it’s no surprise that kids who start out with them develop a sweet tooth later on. Rice cereal, another common starter for parents, lacks nutrients and may cause constipation, and many brands contain arsenic. Nutritionally, homemade baby food is still the clear winner. But if the prep, labor, and cleanup involved in steaming and pureeing your own mix of fruits, vegetables, and grains sound intimidating, you’re not alone. Thankfully, there are services now (like Raised Real), which send parents nutritionally balanced meals so you can get as close to homemade as possible without the time commitment.
Strike a (Nutritional) Balance
Mashing a banana may be easy, but babies need the right balance of calories, protein, and fat. This can be a tricky balance, but a good rule of thumb is to mix together easily digestible protein, healthy fat, vegetables, and grains. One of my daughter Sophie’s personal favorites is Okinawan purple potato, purple carrots, lucuma, quinoa, and coconut milk. The colorful mix of ingredients strikes just the right balance and adds functional benefits from the choline, a complete protein from quinoa, and anthocyanins from purple vegetables. The biggest benefit is that your baby will start developing a healthy palate for fruits and vegetables early on.
Go Bold, Not Bland
What your baby eats in the first few years of life creates a blueprint for what they will want to eat in the future, so don’t hold back on the ingredients you offer them. The old advice of offering kids one food at a time or bland foods is outdated. In 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics flipped their stance to say introducing potentially allergy-inducing foods (yes, that goes for nuts, too) early on may ward off food allergies later on. Babies with a family history of food allergies need a little extra precaution. Exposing your baby to every healthy herb, spice, and food you can from their first days can help them develop a lifelong palate for it.
Make Food Functional
Breastmilk and formula are still the primary sources of nutrition for the first year, and baby food plays a complementary but important role in filling the gaps. This is where functional foods, like the phytonutrients from colorful fruits and vegetables or the cancer-fighting properties of curcumin from turmeric, can add an extra protective layer to a baby’s diet. Because babies eat such a small amount, every bite counts.
Watch the Baby, Not the Clock
The WHO recommends starting a baby on solids no earlier than 6 months. Regardless of age, be sure to look for signs of readiness:
1. Keeps the neck up and sits up without support.
2. Loss of the tongue-thrust reflex, or pushing foods out with tongue. The mouth and tongue develop in sync with the digestive system, so once their tongues are ready, their bellies are too.
3. Baby is ready to chew.
4. Expressing interest in solids by turning toward the spoon and grabbing food with his/her hands.
It takes babies, on average, 15 tries to warm up to a new flavor. This means all the hard work and effort you put into creating the perfect superfood meal may be met with a head turn or a funny face. Just a small taste is all they need to develop their palates to a new food, and with a little repetition, they’ll be loving it in no time.
What nutritious foods have you tried with your little one? Tell us what works for you and your baby in the comments below.