The Best Healthy Baby Food Tips, According To Experts
While most of us were probably fed straight from the baby food jar with very little fuss or effort, modern infants have an impressive number of options for their first solid nosh. There are innovative and beautiful packages, including many low-waste options. There are pouches — oh, so many pouches. And there are even direct-to-consumer delivery subscription services — like Yumi, Tiny Organics and Little Spoon — that deliver organic meals, snacks and vitamins right to baby’s doorstep.
It’s a big market that’s only going to grow, trend analysts report. According to a recent study from Allied Market Research, the global baby food market size was valued at $67.3 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $96.3 billion by 2027.
If you have a baby nearing 6 months of age, you’ve probably already been considering their first foray into solid food. We talked to nutrition and medical experts to find out how you can navigate all the claims and promises of this new wave of products.
#1: Introduce solids by the 6-month mark
No matter how you introduce solid food, you need to get started by age 6 months. “From a nutritional standpoint, all of babies’ needs can be met in the first six months with breastmilk and/or formula,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Kacie Barnes, owner and creator of Mama Knows Nutrition. “But around 6 months, the need to support their rapid growth and development means babies need more calories and nutrients than they can get from breastmilk alone.”
Starting on solid foods comes with all-over brain and body benefits. “In addition to providing much-needed nutrients, it helps babies hone their tactile motor skills, and it even supports the lining of the gut to absorb the nutrition they need to grow,” said Molly Beitman, clinical dietitian at Nemours Children’s Hospital. But wait, there’s more. Pediatrician and pediatric emergency medical doctor Dina Kulik said that “introducing food at this age can decrease the risk of food allergies.”
#2: There’s no need to parent-shame over packaged foods
Baby food doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive to make or serve. It’s easy to puree whatever you’re cooking that day for baby to try. But some parents prefer packaged foods, at least some of the time, and like everything else with parenting, that is 100% their business.
“Packaged baby foods are a convenient, affordable and safe way to introduce a variety of nutrients to a growing infant,” Beitman said. “They’re made in standard, food-safe environments, tend to be shelf-stable for long periods of time, and they’re accessible with food assistance programs like WIC or EBT.”
“It’s an option that works really well for many families, especially those who need other caregivers to feed their baby, or when you need to eat away from home,” Barnes said. “There’s a lot of mom-shaming around packaged options, but if it’s the tool that makes it possible for you to feed your baby, there doesn’t need to be any shame or guilt attached. Babies can still get great nutrition even if they don’t eat exclusively homemade baby food.”
#3: Don’t squeeze food pouches directly into baby’s mouth
Finding a brand that works for baby and you requires consideration around preferences for ingredients, preparation and packaging. While pouches are ubiquitous in the kids food sector, experts warn against just handing over a pouch to a baby.
“Don’t feed directly from the pouch,” registered dietitian Sarah Almond Bushell warned. “Babies need to see their food in order to learn about food, and if they don’t see it, they could miss one of the vital 32 sensory steps required for learning to eat. Likewise, they need to be able to interact with the food, which means getting their hands into it and getting messy with it.”
“If you’re using pouches, squeeze the food onto a spoon and let baby take the spoon and self-feed,” Barnes said. “Eating from a spoon supports proper oral motor development.”
#4: Key nutrients to look for
The experts suggested that looking for the presence of ingredients like iron, fat, DHA and fiber are good starting places for label reading. “Baby foods often are low in iron, but it’s a critical nutrient, because, by 6 months, the stores they were born with have depleted,” Bushell said. The issue, she said, is that iron-rich foods are expensive ingredients. “Manufacturers tend to include the legal minimum, but that’s not enough to affect the iron status of the baby,” she said, noting that good iron sources include meat, especially red meat, dark poultry meat, eggs, oily fish and lentils.
Another important ingredient is fat. “Baby food that is fat-free will not be as satisfying, and fat is crucial to their brain and central nervous system development,” Barnes said. “Always have a fat at every meal, even if it’s just a teaspoon of avocado oil or olive oil stirred into a puree, peanut butter or other nut butter stirred in, or finely ground nuts stirred in.”
You’ll also want to serve DHA-rich foods at least twice a week, Barnes recommended. “It’s an omega-3 fatty acid that’s important for brain development,” she explained. “Try algae oil or fatty fish like salmon and sardines.”
But be aware that everything labeled as “baby food” is not necessarily a good idea. “I suggest avoiding baby cereals altogether,” Kulik said. “Most are devoid of fiber, and they can lead to constipation.”
#5: Choose a good variety of flavors, in order from bitter to sweet
“If parents only remember one evidence-based practice for feeding babies, ‘variety’ may be the most important,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Jennifer Anderson, founder of Kids Eat in Color. “The more variety in flavors, textures and smells, the more babies are likely to continue eating a variety of foods as they get older and have fewer picky eating behaviors.”
“Rather than focusing on what their baby eats each day, it’s helpful to look at what their baby eats over the course of a week,” Anderson said. “If the parent is serving a variety of f
oods from all the food groups at meals and letting their child decide how much to eat, it’s likely the child is going to get the nutrition that they need.”
Another pro tip is to serve each meal in a particular order, from bitterest to sweetest foods. “Babies prefer sweet foods, so they’re more likely to reject bitter or sour flavors unless they have learned to like them,” Bushell said. She recommended offering more bitter vegetables like broccoli, kale, spinach, potato, cauliflower or green beans before it’s time to offer sweeter fruits or vegetables like carrot, butternut squash or sweet potato.
#6: Know when it’s time to move beyond blended solids
Whatever you do, don’t get too comfortable with the well-blended menu, because soon it’s time to move on to bigger challenges of taste and texture. “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of exposing babies to a variety of textures from the get-go, instead of offering smooth purees for too long,” registered dietitian Natalia Stasenko said. “Make sure to transition to mashed and finger foods within weeks of starting solids, because babies are primed for learning and will happily challenge themselves at this age.”
“After age 6 months, I recommend babies start to eat the same foods as their parents do,” Kulik said. “Herbs, spices and salt can be added to the meal, just as the parents would enjoy.”
Here are a couple of the experts’ top picks:
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This brand, which also uses ingredients that contain both fat and iron, is a winner with Barnes. She gives a thumbs-up to its inclusion of DHA-rich algae oil in some of its purees.
“I like this brand because of their use of ingredients that contain both fat and iron,” Barnes said. “Those are two important nutrients for babies, and ones that they don’t get in most purees that are made from fruits and veggies.”