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10 nutrient-dense first foods for baby

As an occupational therapist, I'm not too keen on purees and baby cereal as the first foods for baby. The reason that this topic is so near and dear to my heart is that in this country, 1 in 4 children suffer from a diagnosed feeding disorder. In the developmentally delayed population, 80% of children (or 8 out of 10 on a typical occupational therapist or speech therapist's caseload) have an eating disorder.

Babies' brains and bodies are growing by the minute in the first year of life and they need to be introduced to nutrient-dense, whole foods that are going to nourish their brains and set them up for healthy growth and development. They also need to be set up for a healthy relationship with food by having parents and family members act as positive role models surrounding the mealtime environment.

I truly feel there is a disconnect happening with the introduction foods in our country. I believe mothers need more guidance and support on what is nutritious to feed their infants and toddlers and how to do it.

I selected all my favorite toddler and infant whole foods that are high in calories, vitamins/minerals, protein and healthy fats, which growing brains and bodies thrive off of. Do your best to stay clear of pre-packaged foods and anything labeled fat-free or low fat for babies. My hope is that you and your little one can enjoy learning the joys of healthy eating together! Plus, I discuss how to introduce them baby led weaning style.

When to start

Most experts in feeding agree that food introduction should occur around 6 months—4 months is too early for their developing digestive systems.

I recommend slowly introducing solids anywhere from 6-8 months of age while carefully watching for food reactions and sensitivities. From a developmental standpoint, it makes sense to begin introducing solids around 6 months, since this is when your child begins to sit unassisted, can maintain balance in a highchair and begins to develop their grasp

All babies are different. Some may be ready just before 6 months, while others aren't ready until the end of their 8th month. Instead of age, look for these signs to determine if your baby is ready for self-feeding:

  • Baby can sit unassisted in high chair (doesn't lean to one side)
  • Baby displays adequate head control in sitting
  • Baby has begun to grasp smaller items
  • Baby is reaching for food from your plate or shows interest in participating in mealtime
  • Baby aware of connection between mouth
  • Baby enjoys exploring hands, fingers, toys and nonfood objects with mouth
  • Adequate bowel/intestinal mobility
  • Efficient coordination of lips, tongue, soft palate
  • Can form and propel bolus safely (no choking/aspiration)
  • Slow, deep regular breathing
  • Normal tone of tongue, cheeks, lips

What is baby led weaning?

First coined by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett in their book Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods, Baby-led weaning is an approach to introducing solid food where baby is allowed and encouraged to self-feed solid finger foods instead of receiving purées via spoon. It is not really weaning babies off of breastmilk or formula, but rather weaning them (slowly exposing them to) onto solids. The idea is that during this phase of food introduction, babies will naturally begin to decrease their milk consumption (in correlation to the amount of calories that are taken in via food).

Baby led weaning babies:

  • Are in control of their eating experiences. (Meaning they pick what, how much, and how quickly to eat, under the supervision of an adult)
  • Are given the freedom to explore new tastes and textures with their hands and mouth.
  • Are never pressured to finish or eat a certain amount of food.
  • Are encouraged to join the family at mealtime and typically eat the same foods the family eats.
  • Continue to nurse (or receive a bottle) just as often. Solids are to compliment milk, and baby is trusted to know when to increase solid feedings and decrease milk (usually later in the first year).
  • "Solids" offered are not necessarily completely solid foods. Soft veggies and meats are good starter introductory foods.
  • As the babies oral motor skills develop, a wider array of solids are offered.
  • Are allowed to make a mess during mealtime.

If done safely and correctly, baby-led weaning is a great choice. Spoon feeding and long-term purees can cause delays in oral motor skill development and it takes away the babies innate desire for autonomy during mealtime. It has been my clinical experience that babies whose parents used more of a BLW approach develop more healthy relationships with mealtime and display less picky eating habits overall.

A note on food allergies + intolerance

Exclusively breastfeeding for at least six months has been known to decrease incidence of food allergies. Even if the child is breastfed exclusively, it is important to monitor for symptoms of food allergies and intolerances very carefully and talk to your pediatrician about any concerns.

There is a big difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance. A food allergy is a total immune system reaction to a food that can be tested for via markers in the blood or stool. A food intolerance is an inflammatory response in the digestive system that occurs in a response to a food. Food allergies can be tested for, whereas food intolerances are only able to to be monitored via the observation of symptoms. Many children have food intolerances to wheat and dairy proteins but not a diagnosed food allergy that can be tested for.

Most common food allergies:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Wheat
  • Peanut
  • Soy
  • Shellfish
  • Tree nuts

Introducing these foods earlier rather than later, while carefully monitoring for immune or digestive responses, is best. Delaying the introduction of certain foods for longer actually increase the chance of food allergies (the early introduction, the better).

Common symptoms of food intolerance or allergy:

  • Vomiting/spitting up
  • Diarrhea/constipation/bloating/cramping
  • Colic
  • Bloody stools/mucous in stools
  • URI
  • Reactive airway problems
  • Skin rashes; eczema
  • Facial Skin (puffiness, dark circles under eyes, red ears, red cheeks)
  • Failure to thrive
  • Headaches
  • Chronic sinus or ear infections
  • Neurological symptoms (distractibility, poor attention, hyperactivity, sleep disturbances)

Here are some of the top nutrient-dense foods to introduce:

1. Wild salmon

Wild salmon is one of the most healthy foods to offer a baby, considering its abundant nutrient profile. A rich source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A, D, Bs, selenium, zinc, phosphorus, calcium and iron. Health benefits include heart health, cancer prevention brain health and cognitive function, bone and joint protection, healthy skin and eyes.

  • BLW idea: Prepare baked salmon and gently fork smash a portion; place it on babies food tray for baby to self-feed with fingers (or a fork if they're skilled enough)

2. Avocado

Avocados are a rich source of vitamins and minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin C, B6, B12, A, D K E, thiamin, riboflavin, potassium and niacin. They are also a great source of healthy fats (a whopping 22.5 grams per medium hass) and nutritional fiber. They have been known to aide in digestion, support healthy skin and hair, support healthy liver functioning, are good for the kidneys, eyes and heart and have anti-cancer and anti-oxidant properties. (3)

  • BLW idea: Cut avocado in half and remove the seed. Then cut the avocado in half one more time lengthwise. Offer to baby this way; they should be able to maintain gasp of it while self-feeding.

3. Egg yolk

Eggs are rich in protein and contain significant levels of vitamin A, B-complex vitamins, vitamin D, E and K as well as phosphorous, selenium, calcium and zinc. Furthermore, eggs also have various key organic compounds, such as omega-3s, antioxidants and protein. I like to offer the more caloric and nutrient dense portion of the egg, the yolk to babies due to their higher fat content.

  • BLW idea: Prepare yolk by pan frying or boiling for a minute or so in water so that it is par-cooked. If it is formed, you can offer the yolk to baby whole (gently fork smashed). If it is less-formed or runny, you can offer it on a spoon with assistance or by dipping it in for them and offering the baby the spoon. Two to three yolks with some veggies or fruit is a great way to start the day for breakfast.

4. Cooked spinach

The various health benefits of spinach are due to the presence of minerals, vitamins, pigments, and phytonutrients, including folate, vitamin A, niacin, Vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, manganese, zinc, magnesium, iron and calcium. (5) Spinach is high in insoluble fiber, which can aid in healthy digestion. Spinach is known for its benefits to the eyes and the heart and has anti-cancer and anti-oxidant properties as well.

  • BLW idea: Cooked spinach is easy to offer as a side to any meal; breakfast lunch or dinner. Cook it with butter or ghee in a pan until soft and flavor it as you wish (onion powder, garlic powder or a pinch of sea salt)

5. Bone broth

Bone broth is great for the digestive system, the hair and skin and is a powerful defense against colds/flu to bulk up the babies immune system. It is an abundance source of essential amino acids and other nutrients like calcium and magnesium. You can click here to learn about the healing power of bone broth.

  • BLW idea: You can offer home-made bone or store bought warmed in an open cup (baby will need assistance at first) or you can offer home-made chicken soup with all soft veggies. Babies need assistance from the parent for soups. Here is an easy recipe to follow for DIY bone broth/chicken soup.

6. Wild blueberries

Blueberries are packed with phytonutrients and antioxidants. In fact, wild blueberries have a higher antioxidant content than almost any other food! They have been known to protect neurons in the brain and even help repair any tissue damage to the brain and CNS. Their other health benefits include the ability to strengthen bones, lower blood pressure, prevent cancer, decrease inflammation, control diabetes and improve heart health. Blueberries are a rich source of vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin B6, folate, potassium, copper and manganese.

  • BLW idea: My favorite way to offer blueberries is to wash them first and then smash them onto babies tray (you can use your finger). After several weeks of eating them this way, baby should be able to manage a whole blueberry without choking. Blackberries and raspberries are also good choices that you can offer in the same way.

7. Banana

Believe it or not, the tried and true kid favorite, the banana is actually very nutrient dense! One serving or 126 grams of banana contains 110 calories and 30 grams of carbohydrates. They are a rich source of potassium and dietary fiber. Their impressive nutritional content includes vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, B6, riboflavin, folate, phosphorus, calcium, manganese, magnesium and copper.

  • BLW idea: Simply cut the banana in half and offer it to them whole. The introduction of the whole food to the front of their mouth is natural. Once baby takes a small bite, they will begin to move it from the front of their mouth into the side gums (or molars) to smush it before swallowing.

8. Broccoli

Broccoli has a wide variety of health benefits, including its ability to prevent cancer, improve digestion, lower cholesterol levels detoxify the body, boost the immune system, protect the skin, eliminates inflammation, improve vision and maximize vitamin and mineral uptake. Broccoli is highly rich in dietary fiber, contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids and contains vitamin A, beta carotene, vitamin B6, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B1, vitamin K, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, sodium, potassium, selenium, chromium, choline, manganese and phosphorus.

  • BLW idea: Steam broccoli until soft (or fork tender if you prefer softer). Cover with a topping of grass-fed ghee, butter or olive oil. If offering florets whole, offer the larger ones (smaller florets can be a choking hazard if the baby places the whole floret in their mouth). If fork tender, you can mash with some butter and a pinch of salt on babies high chair tray.

9. Grass-fed beef and liver

Beginning around the age of 6 months, breast milk iron supplies begin to decline in the breastfeeding mother. Your pediatrician may start checking for iron deficiencies and asking about iron supplementation around 12 months. The idea that meat shouldn't be introduced until later is an outdated way of thinking. Babies bodies and brains are craving the nutritional value of iron. Yes, you can get iron from non-animal protein sources like through raisins, spinach and cereals that have added iron. However, heme-iron is much more easily assembled and absorbed than non-heme (plant based) iron sources.

Believe it or not, liver (that is locally sourced and grass-fed) is one of the most nutrient dense foods you can offer your baby. If you don't believe me, check out this nutritional chart from Chris Kresser's website that compares the nutritional value of liver to other foods.

So what makes liver so incredibly nutrient dense? Quite simply, it contains more nutrients, gram for gram, than any other food. In summary, liver provides:

  • An excellent source of high-quality protein
  • Nature's most concentrated source of vitamin A
  • All the B vitamins in abundance, particularly vitamin B12
  • One of our best sources of folic acid
  • A highly usable form of iron
  • Trace elements such as copper, zinc and chromium; liver is our best source of copper
  • An unidentified anti-fatigue factor
  • CoQ10, a nutrient that is especially important for cardio-vascular function
  • A good source of purines, nitrogen-containing compounds that serve as precursors for DNA and RNA.
  • BLW idea: For beef, I usually only offer pot-roast style (slow cooker tender) at first. Fork smash and offer dime size pieces at first on babies food tray. For liver, I usually cut it into small pieces and pan fry it in ghee with a sprinkle of sea salt or onion powder. You would be surprised to find out that babies love liver! Find out more information on liver and other ways to prepare it here.

10. Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are great for digestion and very easily digested due to their high magnesium content and starchy nature. They are known to assist in weight gain (a big plus for babies), are anti-inflammatory, can relieve symptoms of asthma/bronchitis and have known anti-cancer properties. They are a great source of fiber and have high amounts of vitamin A, C, B6, and minerals like manganese and copper.

  • BLW idea: Bake sweet potatoes in the oven and offer it fork smashed with grass-fed butter, ghee or coconut oil. If you wan to make more of a puree, you can puree it (manually or with a hand blender) and offer the baby a small dish with a spoon for self-feeding. As an option, you can add some black-strap molasses (to increase the iron content) or maple syrup to sweeten it a bit.

Originally posted on Helping Hands.

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