What's the best way to introduce solid foods?
You may think something as natural as learning to move from one food (breast or formula milk) to another (solids) would be quite simple, yet we know that many parents feel very anxious about this transition.
This is understandable as parents naturally want to do the best for their children, but it can seem that the advice they receive changes all the time. Some of the most common questions that parents ask us at this time include:
- Will my child get enough nutrition for healthy growth?
- Will they choke?
- Is the texture right?
- What if they have an allergic reaction to the food?
- Should I use commercial food or make it all myself?
- Should I offer foods in a particular order (eg fruit first and then vegetables, milk before or after food)?
While the nutritional requirements of an infant in their first year are high and it’s important that we meet their dietary needs through the addition of nutritious foods, it’s good to understand that milk—whether breast or infant formula—remains a key source of nutrients.
This means that in the first few months of eating (from around six to nine months), foods (with the exception of iron-rich foods) can be thought of as opportunities to experience tastes and textures rather than just as sources of nutrition.
Traditionally, we advise parents to offer breast or formula milk before offering solids until babies are about eight months old. At around this age, infants are getting the hang of eating and managing progressively to supplement their nutrient needs. This means that from around eight months food can be offered before milk.
As we’ve now discussed, there is no universally accepted best way to feed infants over six months of age. This is a practice strongly embedded in cultural norms and must be acknowledged, which means it’s important that we continue to question what ‘best’ means.
What do the guidelines say?
When it comes to introducing solid foods to an infant’s diet, a summary of the current guidelines in Australia suggests the following:
- To prevent iron deficiency, nutritious foods containing iron are recommended to be included in the first foods. Examples include iron-fortified cereals, pureed meats and poultry dishes. Cooked plain tofu and legumes/beans are also sources of iron. Care needs to be taken particularly with plant-based diets to ensure that supplies of iron are adequate.
- Foods can be introduced in any order provided iron-rich nutritious foods are included and the texture is suitable for the infant’s stage of development. Cow’s milk products including full-fat yoghurt, cheese and custard may be given. A small amount of cow’s milk is fine, but remember that cow’s milk is not a suitable substitution for breast or formula milk until your baby is one year old.
- Ensure that solid foods are of appropriate texture, suited to an infant’s developmental stages, moving from pureed to lumpy to normal textures during the six to 12 month period.
- Avoid whole nuts and other hard foods to reduce the risk of choking.
- Do not add sugar or honey to infant foods as this increases the risk of dental cavities.
- Avoid juices and sugar-sweetened drinks and generally limit the intake of all foods with added sugars.
- Do not add salt to foods for infants. This is important as infant kidneys are immature and unable to excrete excess salt.
- The consumption of nutrient-poor discretionary foods with high levels of saturated fat, added sugars, and/or added salt (eg cakes, biscuits and potato crisps) should be avoided.
The following information provides some further important guidelines and advice to consider when introducing solid foods to infants.
Meeting an infant’s iron requirements
In Australia, it’s recommended that first foods be iron-containing foods, including iron-enriched infant cereals, pureed red meat, poultry and fish, or cooked tofu and legumes.
Providing nutrient-dense foods
An important priority is to ensure all foods offered to infants have a high nutrient density. In other words, it’s important to maximise the nutritional quality, rather than quantity, of each serve offered (this will be covered in more detail later).
Order of food introduction
Other than the recommendation to include iron-rich foods among an infant’s first foods, there are no Australian recommendations stipulating the order in which other foods should be introduced or the number of foods that should be introduced at once.
The advice for preventing the risk of food allergies has changed over time, as has the emphasis on ensuring that all children are exposed to egg and dairy, fish and nuts (not whole nuts, but ground nuts or nut paste) to reduce the risk of allergies and/or allergic reactions.
Advice provided in the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy infant guidelines is that current best-practice evidence suggests that early exposure in life (at around six months and preferably while breastfeeding) to all foods will protect against the development of food allergy. Advice about allergy prevention and timing of the introduction of solids may vary from country to country.
Providing a wide range of foods
New parents should aim to expose children to a wide range of tastes, textures, colours and flavours to maximise their enjoyment of a wide range of nutritious foods. This encouragement to include a wide range of foods stops short of including juices and sugar-sweetened drinks or high sugar or high fat foods, which are not ideal for children.
Managing food preferences
New research about a baby’s food preference development suggests that infants learn to enjoy non-sweet tasting vegetables as children (and then as adults) if they are offered these foods as their very first foods.
So, before we offer the sweeter tasting vegetables, like sweet potato, carrots and peas, or fruits—all of which children will usually enjoy—it may make good sense to offer a wide range of less sweet vegetables in these early weeks of food introduction.
These could include courgette (zucchini), aubergine (eggplant), beans, spinach or other greens, broccoli and mushrooms—indeed any less sweet vegetable you can think of—cooked then puréed or mashed.
Providing single versus blended foods
While it’s not necessary for any nutritional purpose to provide foods to infants as single items, our research suggests that it may assist them to better experience a broad range of tastes and, in turn, learn to like these tastes if we offer foods separately.
On this topic, it’s interesting to note that commercial baby foods frequently mix a sweet vegetable or fruit with other vegetables (eg beef, tomato and sweet potato; or pumpkin, corn, broccoli and quinoa) to maximise the chance of children enjoying their offerings (and increasing the likelihood of parents purchasing these products again).
The problem with mixing foods is that the non-sweet vegetable is unlikely to be enjoyed on its own when offered in the future, thus setting up a cycle of limited food enjoyment.
Limited enjoyment of sole foods becomes particularly problematic when we consider a child’s future vegetable intakes. Children—and the adults they grow up to be—tend to consume far fewer vegetables than they need for good health. This becomes a problem given the central role vegetables have in promoting and protecting our lifelong health.
For these reasons alone, it makes great sense to set up a wide range of food preferences in our children from the start of life.
In the comments, share your thoughts about limiting sugar and promoting vegetables in our children’s diets. For example:
- when is it okay to offer cakes, lollies, sugar-sweetened drinks or juices?
- how do you manage social situations (eg family parties) when there might be lots of high-sugar foods on offer?
- are you eating enough vegetables for your own health and do you think your intake influences what you might feed your own child?
- how do you plan to introduce vegetables to your baby and encourage them to love a wide range of different tastes and textures?
© Deakin University