Written by: Dr. Tanya Altmann, MD, FAAP
Every day I talk to parents who don’t know what first food to feed their baby, are concerned that their toddler won’t eat veggies or stumped as to why their preschooler only eats carbs. That’s why I wrote, What to Feed Your Baby: A Pediatricians’ Guide to the 11 Essential Foods to Guarantee Veggie-Loving, No-Fuss, Healthy-Eating Kids. I wanted to cut through the confusing clutter of feeding advice and get right to the basics of which foods are truly best to feed a baby, young child and even the entire family! Here are 5 of my 11 Essential Foundation Foods. If you teach parents to introduce foundation foods early (around 6 months of age) and feed them frequently, they will raise healthy, nutrition-loving kids, which will make your job as a healthcare provider much easier, since good nutrition is the foundation for a healthy life.
Besides being the current trendy first food for babies, avocados are also extremely healthy. High in potassium, fiber, and healthy monounsaturated fat, avocados are good for infant brains and hearts of all ages. Some babies can handle fork-mashed avocado around 6 months of age, other babies require a bit of pureeing with a little added water or breast milk. Either way, a baby will able to advance to fork-mashed avocado fairly quickly. Older infants can pick up, smash and self-feed smaller pieces. I always ordered a side of avocado for my kids we went out to eat. My now 19-month-old son loves pieces of avocado with scrambled eggs for breakfast—super healthy and easy to make or order out!
Eggs are a perfect single-ingredient food. Easy to prepare, they are a convenient and healthy source of protein, fat, and other nutrients, all important for babies and kids. A six-month-old can eat both the yolk and the white. Serve a small portion of pureed or fork-mashed hard-boiled or scrambled egg (can mix with extra liquid if needed to thin). As babies grow (around 8 to 12 months), scrambled egg pieces are a fantastic first finger food. Let parents know that if their mornings are rushed, they can make eggs the night before, store in the fridge and simply reheat them in the microwave for a fast and easy breakfast option for all ages.
Many kids and adults dislike fish, simply because they didn’t get used to eating it as an infant. Fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are extremely important for brain and eye development. Wild salmon is probably the healthiest fish (also low in mercury compared to other fish). Fish is a great natural source of protein and contains vitamin D—a vitamin that most people need more of. For an infant, puree the fish and later advance to fork-mashing. Parents can add a little moisture with water, breast milk, or organic chicken or vegetable broth, if needed. It’s also easy to mix fish with pureed vegetables (my youngest loved salmon mixed with pureed sweet potatoes). As an older infant begins self-feeding, he can handle tiny pieces of fish. Parents always need to look for hidden fish bones, as even a tiny bone can be a potentially dangerous choking hazard for an infant.
Research has shown that early introduction of peanut products can decrease a child’s chance of becoming allergic to peanuts later on in life. Nut butters are delicious, healthy, and convenient. Nutrient-wise they offer vegetarian protein, vitamin E, and healthy monounsaturated fats. I melt one teaspoon of healthy creamy peanut butter into one ounce of baby whole-grain oatmeal. I add water to make sure the mixture isn’t too sticky and thick. Babies love it! Around eight months parents can offer creamy nut butter on their finger for a baby lick off. Once a baby is self-feeding, parents can spread a very thin layer on thinly sliced whole-grain bread, cut into tiny pieces, and observe as he picks them up and self-feeds. Sticky and fun! I recommend offering peanut products three times a week as the famous LEAP study did to decrease risk of peanut allergies in kids. Peanut puffs are a healthier alternative to teething biscuits or rice biscuits, which are generally low-nutrient low-fiber filler foods.
Green veggies have almost every vitamins and mineral you can think of. People who eat green vegetables have lower disease rates and a healthier weight. Dark greens such as kale, Swiss chard, and spinach pack the most nutrition, but all green veggies are healthy for babies and kids. Peas, green beans, zucchini, spinach, broccoli, and asparagus are especially easy to steam (or boil or sauté) and then puree, fork-mash, or cut into tiny pieces. To get a toddler (or older child) to love green veggies, have parents follow these three simple steps: eat green veggies in front of your kids; introduce green veggies around six months of age; and continue offering green veggies regularly. Please tell parents not to stop offering a vegetable just because their baby or child doesn’t take to it immediately, eventually they will grow to like them.
These are not the only healthy foods parents should feed their family, but by starting with these five and adding in more of my 11 Essential Foundation Foods, families will start on the right track to raising a veggie-loving, no-fuss, healthy-eating child.
Looking for video education to provide parents? I’d recommend Healthy Eating from the Start. This video, available on the Newborn Channel, gives advice when and how to introduce new foods in the first year and how to spot a nutritional problem.
By Tanya Altmann, MD, FAAP and Beth Saltz, MPH, RD, authors of What to Feed Your Baby, A Pediatricians’ Guide to the 11 Essential Foods to Guarantee Veggie-Loving, No-Fuss, Healthy-Eating Kids