Once you know your baby is ready to try some solid food, the question becomes, what is the best first food? (No, it’s probably not a smash cake.)
Most pediatricians recommend iron-fortified rice cereal as the best first food, but Mama Natural ain’t buying it. First off, rice cereal is a highly processed food, which isn’t good for anyone. Secondly, the added synthetic vitamins and minerals, not to mention the high levels of arsenic found in conventional rice, may do more harm than good.
Best First Foods for Baby
For most of us moms, we can’t wait till baby is 6 months old to introduce solids, at which point we may give baby pureed apples or avocado, or go the baby-led weaning route and give baby a few pear slices to gnaw on.
Good nutritional choices, right? Yes, but keep in mind that babies have special nutritional needs that benefit from a blend of animal and plant foods. (Our digestive tract are designed for an omnivore diet after all.) Before the rise of the industrial food supply, our ancestors fed their children this way to ensure proper nourishment and growth. While kale and quinoa are great, they’re not necessarily the best first foods for baby.
Nutrients for Baby
There’s a saying: “food before one is just for fun,” and while that may be true when compared with an adult’s consumption, there are some important nutrients that baby needs from solids as moves beyond 6 months of age.
According to Weston A. Price’s research (a dentist who spent 10 years researching the diets of different cultures to see what children most need nutritionally to develop optimally), nursing babies at around 6 months of age need:
- Vitamin E
- Magnesium and other trace minerals
- Omega 3 and omega 6 fats (in the proper balance)
At around 8 months, baby also needs:
- Vitamins A, B, C, D, and K
Best First Foods for Baby
The foods we are about to discuss below are extremely nutrient-dense. This is crucial, since baby’s digestive tract is still very small and immature—baby needs the biggest nutritional bang for his or her buck.
So without further ado, here’s my list of the best first foods for baby:
1. Egg yolk
While many parents might pause at introducing a highly allergic food like egg to a 6-month-old baby, new research is showing that early introduction is critical to actually reduce the likelihood of food allergies (Source).
Start with the egg yolk, since it’s the easiest to digest and contains the most nutrients like choline (great for baby’s brain and eyes) and necessary cholesterol—the building block for all hormones (Source).
Egg yolks also contain important minerals that baby needs right now like calcium, zinc, selenium, phosphorus as well as vitamins E and B6.
To prepare: Gently poach or cook with a little butter, ghee or coconut oil on the stovetop. Keep the egg yolk soft and a little runny for easier digestion.
Avocado is a great first food. It contains lots of healthy fats, as well as the almighty mineral magnesium, which is so crucial to our health yet is harder and harder to get enough of through our food these days.
Avocado also contains B vitamins, including niacin, vitamin E, vitamin K, potassium, folate, and fiber.
To prepare: Peel and cut into long slices if you want your child to self-feed. You can also mash and spoon-feed. It’s delicious with banana for a 1:1 ratio.
3. Blended red meat
Why red meat? It’s one of the only foods high in three key nutrients that babies can be deficient in: iron, zinc and vitamin B12. (Source.)
Keep in mind that breastmilk is low in iron (unlike formula), so baby must get it through diet. Plant sources of iron are difficult to convert to a usable form, especially in a baby’s immature digestive tract.
To prepare: Get organic, pasture-raised beef or lamb. Ground beef, a tender roast or lamb chops are all great options. Cook gently and chop into tiny pieces if baby is self-feeding. Or put in blender with some broth or water, and blend into a creamy puree to spoon feed.
Some people believe that baby’s first foods shouldn’t include any fruit, because baby will get a preference for the sweetness. Truth is, baby already has a preference for sweetness thanks to breastmilk. So don’t worry about baby becoming a sugar bug because of fruit. Bananas are a great first carbohydrate source for babies because they contain amylase, an enzyme necessary for the digestion of carbohydrates (like, bananas).
Bananas are also a great source of vitamin B6, vitamin C, manganese, magnesium, and potassium.
To prepare: Serve very ripe bananas with brown spots—because the starch has converted to a simple sugar, making it easier to digest. Peel and cut in half for self-feeders or mash up with a little avocado or breast milk.
5. Winter squash
Another easy to digest carbohydrate is well-cooked winter squash (i.e. acorn, butternut). Due to its low nitrate content, it’s a safe first food for baby.
Squash is also high in vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, and manganese.
To prepare: Cut open your squash and remove seeds. Roast in the oven for about an hour at 350 degrees, or until the squash is soft and the skin easily separates from the vegetable. Alternatively, you can put it in your Instant Pot with 1 cup of water and cook for 7 minutes. Let cool and scoop out the flesh. You can cut in slices for self-feeders or mash with a little butter or fat which helps convert the beta-carotene into usable vitamin A. (Source)
Organic whole yogurt is an excellent first dairy food because it’s pre-digested and easier for baby to consume. Yogurt used to be recommended when baby was older, more like 8-9 months old. But, new research shows that earlier introduction of common allergen foods, like dairy, may help to prevent food allergies. (Source)
Of course, if you have a family history of dairy allergies or your child is immune compromised, it’s vital that you speak with your child’s pediatrician regarding best first foods for baby. Your doctor may recommend something like Ready Set Food as a safer and more scientific approach to introducing allergens.
Yogurt is a well-balanced food with healthy fat, protein and milk sugar to nourish baby. It’s high in calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus.
Yogurt is also naturally rich in health-promoting probiotics to help colonize baby’s gut with beneficial bacteria—crowding out the bad, and building up the good.
To prepare: The key to introducing dairy is to go slow and watch for reactions. Start with 1 teaspoon of yogurt and serve to baby. Wait a day or two and slowly increase quantity until you can serve 1/4 cup a day.
7. Green peas
If you want to introduce baby to green foods, start with green peas, which are high in resistant starch. Just as it sounds, this means they’re resistant to digestion, and pass through the stomach and small intestine into the large intestine, where it feeds good gut bacteria.
You may be surprised to learn that this small legume contains a wide range of vitamins and minerals. Just 1/2 cup of peas has 4 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein, 34 percent of your daily value of vitamin A, and 34 percent of your daily value of vitamin K—a nutrient that can be particularly low in babies. (source)
If baby resists the taste, sweeten the deal by pureeing the green peas with some squash.
8. Organ Meats
OK, I know this sounds out there, but organ meats are the most nutrient-dense of all animal foods. They used to be part of the American diet but fell out of favor in the sixties and seventies.
Most organ meat is high in true vitamin A, which is extremely important to baby’s development. (Yes, carrots contain beta-carotene, but it doesn’t easily convert to true vitamin A, which is why many babies turn slightly orange when they eat beta-carotene rich foods.)
Liver also contains vitamin A, D, all B vitamins, folate, zinc, and CoQ10. If you choose chicken liver, you get a good amount of iron as well, which is vital.
To prepare: A little goes a long way. Purchase high-quality, grass-fed chicken, beef, bison, or lamb liver. Cook over medium heat in a frying pan in a little ghee or coconut oil. Once one side is brown (not browned or burnt), flip liver and brown the other side. (It cooks fast, so keep your eye on it.)
Allow to cool and grate 1 tsp to 1 TB of liver over baby’s egg yolk or banana mash. Or chop into small pieces if baby is self-fed.
Foods to Avoid
There are a few foods that parents need to avoid feeding young babies.
1. High-nitrate foods:
Root and leafy vegetables such as spinach, celery, lettuce, radishes, beets, turnips, and collard greens are all very high in nitrates. Nitrates can turn into nitrites, which then turn into nitrosamines (a known carcinogen) in the stomach.
When to introduce? Waiting until 6-8 months for root vegetables, and a year for leafy greens is best for baby’s health. It’s also helpful to serve these foods with vitamin C-rich foods to avoid this nitrate to nitrite to nitrosamine conversion.
2. Acidic foods
Tomatoes and citrus can be irritating to the digestive tract in young babies.
When to introduce? Wait until at least 9 months.
3. Natural sweeteners
You want to avoid giving your child too many sweets, obviously, or processed foods. However, there is a time and place for a treat… for example in their smash cake.
When to introduce? Natural sugars such as honey, maple syrup, or blackstrap molasses may be introduced after baby’s first birthday in very small doses. (Raw honey can be very dangerous if offered to baby before 1 year old.) You can also sweeten things using fruit (date, banana, applesauce, etc.).
What About Grains?
Whole grains can round out a healthy diet for young children but don’t rush to serve as primary source of solid fuel. Newborns have almost no pancreatic amylase, a important enzyme that digests complex carbohydrates. (They do make plenty of salivary amylase by 6 months, which is designed to digest simple forms of carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables and breastmilk.)
So babies can’t digest grains? Yes and no.
While baby’s pancreas may not digest complex carbs very well, studies show that very little undigested starch is left in their poop. This may imply that the good bacteria in the colon use this undigested starch as “food”, helping to populate their large intestine with good bacteria. We all know the benefits of a diverse and robust microbiome, including lower risks for just about every inflammatory disease out there, so incorporating pre-soaked, well-cooked grains to infants can be a good practice.
When to introduce? You can start at 6 months with a tablespoon or two of cooked grain a day. By 7-8 months, you can increase as appropriate, balancing with healthy fats, proteins, and fruits and veggies.
To prepare: Soak millet, quinoa, oats or barley in filtered water overnight with a dash of raw apple cider vinegar to help pre-digest grain. Cook long and slow so that the grain mixture turns into a type of porridge. Once cooled, add breastmilk to increase amylase content (yes, breast milk is rich in this starch-eating enzyme) and serve with a spoon.
What About Allergens?
Unfortunately, food allergies are on the rise. In fact, according to a new report, emergency room visits for anaphylaxis (an acute allergic reaction) more than doubled in children from 2010 to 2016. Those are some scary statistics when you’re thinking about what to feed your little one. The good news? There’s growing evidence that when babies are introduced to common allergens before their first birthday, they are less likely to develop allergies.
The importance of early and frequent allergen introduction starting at 6 months
New studies about food allergy prevention show that you can lower your child’s risk of developing a food allergy by up to 80 percent through early and sustained allergen introduction. What qualifies as early? Research shows that pregnant moms who eat nuts are less likely to have babies with nut allergies. And further research shows that once baby is ready to eat solid food around 4-6 months (See why Mama Natural recommends waiting until at least six months.), children at high risk of developing a peanut allergy were far less likely to develop an allergy when introduced to peanuts before they turned 12 months.
The key to prevention is not only dependent on timing, but also what you’re feeding baby and how often. Start with peanut, egg, and dairy foods like cheese or yogurt (don’t give baby cow’s milk to drink until they’re 12 months old), since they represent over 80 percent of the most common childhood food allergies. If you’re not sure how to get started, check out companies like Ready, Set, Food that have scientifically proven programs to help parents gently and slowly introduce known allergens. This particular company has a 15-day program, in which you add the natural, preservative- and additive-free packets to breastmilk, formula, or food to help baby’s system slowly adjust to milk, nuts, and eggs.
A Final Word on the Best First Foods for Baby
Babies thrive by eating solids from both the plant and animal kingdom. By nourishing our little ones with nutrient-dense foods, they will have brighter minds and moods, physical strength, healthy immune systems, and protective microbiomes. Getting things off to a great start now, with these best first foods for baby, will help ensure lifelong health.