It all happens so fast. Just when you feel like you’ve finally mastered nursing and/or bottle feeding, your baby is ready for solids! (Not sure if you’re baby is ready for solids? Check out How to Know if Your Baby is Ready for Solids.)
If you’re confused about what to start feeding your baby, you’re not alone. I ended up doing hours and hours of research about when and how to introduce solids, what nutrients babies need most, and the best first foods for baby. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an easy task as there is a lot of conflicting information, and much of the conventional advice about the best first foods for baby doesn’t always make sense (more on that to come).
The Best First Foods: What Nutrients Babies Actually Need
When considering what the best first foods are for your baby, it’s important to recognize exactly what nutrients your baby needs. At 6 months, a baby’s iron levels drop significantly, and zinc levels drop in breastmilk. This means your baby must get iron and zinc from outside sources.
To be clear, if you are breastfeeding, there is no amount of supplementation that will make your breastmilk sufficient in iron or zinc. Relative to weight, a healthy breastfed 6-month old baby’s need for iron and zinc is several times higher than an adult. Does this mean you should be force feeding your baby right at 6 months even if he or she isn’t ready for solids? No. This simply means that when your baby is ready for solids, you should start with the foods that contain the nutrients your baby needs.
Babies also need fat soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat soluble vitamins are incredibly important for bone structure and development. Vitamin D in particular is an incredibly important nutrient for babies because it supports the development of the immune system. Evidence shows deficiencies in vitamin D may play a role in allergies, eczema, and the development of autoimmune disease.
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are also crucial during this time as baby’s brain is rapidly developing. Why long-chain omega-3s? The human body does an incredibly poor job at converting short-chain omega-3s (known as ALA, which is found in nuts, seeds, and plants) into a form the body can use, known as DHA. In fact, some studies suggest as little as .5% of short-chain omega-3s actually end up being converted into DHA in the body. The best way to make sure your baby is getting sufficient omega-3s is to introduce foods that are rich in long-chain fatty acids, like fatty fish.
Taking Nutrient Density into Account (& Why it Matters)
Currently, the recommendation is to introduce fortified rice cereal or oatmeal as your baby’s first food. The reason? Rice cereal and many other grain-based snacks are fortified with iron.
The problem with this is that we know synthetic vitamins and minerals are not the same as nutrients that are naturally occurring in food. The idea that “a nutrient is a nutrient” (regardless of source) is flawed and has been proven to be inaccurate in many instances. As a food, rice cereal is fairly nutrient poor and highly processed (which is why it has to be fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals), and doesn’t naturally contain any of the nutrients important for babies. It’s also a fairly bland food, which starts to formulate a child’s palate to prefer more bland foods.
To be clear, I do not believe grains are bad. In fact, my family and I eat rice regularly. However, the best first foods for your baby are ones that naturally contain the nutrients they need: iron, zinc, and vitamin D.
When you do choose to introduce grains to your baby (I did so around 11 months), I highly recommend introducing whole organic grains, like cooked rice. Try using proper preparation techniques that traditional cultures and other countries use, like soaking and fermenting, which allows the nutrients to be more bioavailable.
Many parents skip rice cereal altogether and move to cooked vegetables and fruits or make traditional baby food purees. While vegetables and fruits are great foods to expose your baby to early on, they are low in iron, zinc, vitamin D, and omega-3s. So, what foods should you be focusing on when feeding your little one? The foods that their rapidly growing brains and bodies need most!
Introducing Solids: Where to Start
As it turns out, there are some pretty incredible nutrient-dense foods that are completely safe for your baby to eat. Most of these foods also have the added bonus of supporting digestion and immune function, and promoting healthy gut bacteria. While these foods are different from what you’d typically see offered as “baby food” in the Western world, they are actually very similar to what many traditional cultures and other countries around the world offer as first foods.
As a general rule, the food you offer should be soft enough to squash in between your fingers. This means your baby will be able to squash the food in between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. You can easily achieve this consistency with all the foods listed below by cooking, mashing, or even blending certain foods with a little bone broth. Below, I’ve noted the best way to prepare each food so that your baby can consume it safely.
1. Grass-fed beef + organ meats
Can babies eat meat? Absolutely! Grass-fed beef and organ meats are incredible first foods for baby because they are easy to digest and rich in highly absorbable iron, zinc, and calcium. Organ meats are particularly rich in B vitamins and fat soluble vitamins, including vitamin D.
Grass-fed meats provide more calories and nutrients per ounce than grains, beans, and vegetables, yet they are often introduced much later on. Early introduction allows your kiddo to develop a palate for high-quality meats, and gives them the nutrients they need. Meats are also not likely to be allergenic, and can be prepared alongside your own dinner, which makes it easy to serve and affordable.
To prepare: Gently cook the meat. Once cool, puree it with a food processor, blender, or baby food grinder. Add in bone broth to give it a softer consistency if necessary. You can also purchase Liverwurst from US Wellness Meats (my daughter’s favorite to this day!), which is blended and very soft, or try this Baby Liver Pate recipe.
2. Bone broth
Bone broth is great to serve to your baby early on because it is packed with minerals, collagen, and promotes proper gut function. You can easily spoon feed it to your baby or add a little bit to a bottle or cup. As noted above, it’s also great to add to other foods when blending or mashing. I personally mashed it up with avocado or blended it with meat.
Because bone broth is well-known for boosting immunity, this is a great “food” to incorporate throughout your little one’s life. Every time my kid is sick, we switch to bone broth in her straw cup (instead of water) and she loves it. It keeps her hydrated, provides electrolytes and calories, and supports her immune system.
To prepare: You can easily make your own homemade bone broth with bones from pasture-raised or grass-fed animals. Use the leftover bones from whole chickens (check out my Simple Homemade Chicken Bone Broth recipe) or purchase bones for cheap from your local farmer. I also personally love Kettle & Fire Bone Broth, which is shelf stable and can easily be purchased online or in grocery stores.
Avocado is the perfect first fruit to serve to your baby. It’s soft and easy to cut into cubes, and can be mashed with other nutrient-dense foods such as meat and bone broth to create a creamy consistency. Avocado contains a good wack of beneficial fats, and some vitamins and minerals, including folate, magnesium, and iron.
To prepare: Mash or dice a ripe avocado and spoon-feed it to your baby. You can also cut avocado into thin strips and allow baby to self-feed when he is ready.
4. Wild salmon
Wild salmon is a rich source of vitamin D (3.5 ounces contains all the vitamin D your baby needs for the day) and contains long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also a great source of calcium and other minerals. Vitamin D is needed for proper uptake of calcium into bones, so wild salmon is a great way to support your baby’s growing body, brain, and bones.
To prepare: Cook wild salmon until just opaque. I personally love to bake it in the oven in a glass dish with a little salt, pepper, and garlic. It’s important not to overcook salmon as omega-3 fatty acids are susceptible to damage. Once cooked, flake and smash the salmon into tiny pieces. You can spoon-feed the small pieces to your baby initially, and eventually serve larger flakes that baby can grab.
5. Yogurt or sauerkraut brine
I love incorporating a probiotic rich food as a first food for baby because it helps support proper gut function, and improves digestion and absorption of other nutrients.
Sauerkraut brine is the probiotic “juice” that remains when cabbage is fermented to create raw sauerkraut. You can easily find raw sauerkraut in the grocery story (look in the refrigerated section). You can eat the sauerkraut while your baby eats/drinks the brine!
Yogurt is another great first food that is rich in probiotics. Yogurt made from grass-fed cow’s milk is a great first introduction to dairy, as yogurt is much easier to digest than other types of dairy because the probiotics that have been cultivated during the fermentation process help to break down the lactose. Of course, if you have a history of dairy allergies in your family or your child has special health circumstances, please speak with your doctor before introducing potentially allergenic foods to your baby.
To prepare: Sauerkraut brine can be spoon-fed or added to mashed banana, avocado, or meat. Start small and gradually increase the amount of brine you add to foods, making sure your baby’s gut has a gentle introduction. Try to eventually build up to 1 tsp of brine a day. And don’t be shy about giving your baby sauerkraut when he’s ready! Babies love to pick up and suck/naw on sauerkraut when they’re old enough.
For yogurt, go for an unsweetened/plain coconut milk, almond milk, or grass-fed yogurt (if approved by your doctor). If incorporating grass-fed yogurt, start slow, and gradually increase the amount given, watching for signs of an allergy.
6. Cook vegetables + coconut oil
Vegetables are generally pretty fun for babies to eat. They are all different shapes and sizes, and brightly colored. They also contain vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients like carotenoids, which act as antioxidants. Great first vegetables include sweet potato, winter squash, broccoli, and carrots. If serving warm, add a bit of coconut oil to give it an extra boost of flavor and fat.
To prepare: Simply cook or steam vegetables so they are soft enough to smash in between your fingers. You can serve vegetables like sweet potato and winter squash mashed or whipped with coconut oil, and other “grabable” vegetables like carrots cut into strips so baby can self-feed.
After avocado, banana is a great next fruit to introduce to your baby. It has a bit of sweetness to it, which makes it great for mashing with avocado, bone broth, and sauerkraut brine, and contains amylase, an enzyme necessary for the digestion of carbohydrate. Bananas are easy to find, easy to serve, and are a great supplemental food to the more nutrient-dense foods listed above.
To prepare: Look for very ripe bananas (some brown spots) for your baby as much of the starch will have been converted to sugar and will be easier for your baby to digest. Mash the banana and spoon-feed, or cut the banana in half half-wise and into strips if baby is self-feeding.
Cultivating a Healthy Relationship with Food
How you let your baby interact with food early on can have a big impact on his willingness to explore and enjoy food throughout his life. After some general introductions to first foods have been made, I am a big fan of letting baby learn to self-feed. Throughout this process, your little one will be able to explore shapes and textures, and learn important developmental skills that are required for self-feeding. Your baby should have the opportunity to see the food, touch and explore it, and decide how much of what to eat that is presented.
Meal time shouldn’t be a battle or force-feeding session. Instead, it should be an opportunity for your baby to explore hunger, his intuition, and fullness. Offer nutrient-dense foods and trust your baby to eat what he needs. This is a HUGE lesson they learn early on—to them, there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods. All they know is what they taste, and they decide whether they want more or less of it.
To this day, my toddler is still in control of how much she eats of what is presented. My approach with feeding her has always been this: I choose what she eats, and she chooses how much. I offer a variety of foods at each meal, and she gets to decide what she eats the most of. Even if she’s refused a food multiple times before, I still continue to expose her to it. And much of the time, she’ll randomly begin to eat something she’s never eaten before.
Some meals, my kid only wants raspberries and clementines. And other meals, she eats half a tin of wild sardines and doesn’t touch her fruit. If she asks for more, I give her more of the food she wants and I don’t tell her she has to eat the other things on her plate first or make bribes. To her, that wouldn’t even make sense, because all food is neutral. She gets to decide what to eat more of based on what she’s hungry for.
As you can see, how you interact with your baby during mealtime is just as important when it comes to helping your baby cultivate a healthy relationship with food. Feeding little ones takes patience. They will throw food on the floor, play with food instead of eat it, and refuse perfectly good food you spent time preparing. This is all part of the process in the beginning. So, enjoy sharing a meal with your little one, get the camera, and laugh along the way. It’s a wild and exciting ride!
Do you have any questions about the best first foods for baby? Ask them in the comments below!