Starting Solids: Food for Thought

Adding whole foods to a baby’s diet is a momentous occasion, exciting for babies and parents alike. What will their new favorite food be? Will they take easily to fruits and vegetables? These questions, and more, may crop up along the way. Luckily there are certain practices that can be implemented in order to ensure a smooth transition into solid foods, creating a strong foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating. 

If a child is breastfed, one of the biggest indicators of the types of flavors they will like is mirrored in whatever their mother eats while lactating. Breast milk consistently contains the ideal nutritional profile infants need, but the flavors change according to whatever foods their mother may have eaten that day. Because breast milk is so nutritious, there is no immediate need to begin solid foods, but it may make sense to start once your child shows a strong interest in what everyone else is eating, usually around 6 months of age. In the meantime, peppering your diet with a wide variety of flavors, including plenty of vegetables, will create a flavor memory that then makes your baby more likely to enjoy those foods when they try them on their own. A study of mothers who ate carrots while breastfeeding showed that their children were far more likely to enjoy carrots themselves. This is most likely true of any vegetable or fruit, so be sure to eat the types of foods you hope your child will enjoy as well!

If a child is fed by formula, while they are likely getting adequate nutrition, they lack the ability to experience different flavor profiles in their diet. In this case it may be prudent to introduce solid foods at an earlier age, when the child is showing some interest, often around 4 months. The more variety of flavors babies experience before they begin to walk, the more likely it is that they will go on to enjoy a variety of healthy foods as they get older.

In addition, there is another point in a baby’s development that plays a crucial role in what foods they will like, and that is when they are still in utero. Babies have more taste buds before they’re born than any other time in life. In the womb they’re able to discern the flavors of things their mother eats, which is an innate indicator of foods that are safe. Their brains remember these flavors when they are then introduced outside the womb, creating a predisposition to broccoli or cinnamon buns (or both!), as the case may be.

While historically a common first food for children has been an ultra-processed cereal made of white rice flour, this is not ideal, as it quickly spikes blood sugar. Instead, starting with a soft, unprocessed food, such as avocado, banana, or cooked sweet potato encourages nutrient-rich foods right from the start. Let your child watch you prepare it, mash it up with a bit of breast milk (it doesn’t have to be thoroughly pureed), and taste it yourself so they see it as something good to eat. It can even be nice to ceremoniously serve your baby solid foods for the first time at a family meal with everyone around, so they receive the experience of a meal shared with the ones they love.

As they begin to eat more solid foods, baby-led weaning may be an option. This model follows the theory that babies instinctually know when to start relying less on breast milk and more on solid foods. Part of this model is giving children an array of soft fruits and vegetables at each meal, mashed if need be, and letting them explore to see what they like. It also emphasizes letting children decide when they are done with a meal. Babies instinctually know when they are full. It’s important to trust that and not coerce more food, as that eventually overrides the biological response, and can lead to overeating.

Prepared baby food is an option that is convenient, but not a necessity. It’s perfectly acceptable, and in many cases nutritionally superior, to simple mash or soften much of whatever the rest of the family is eating, and share that with baby. Baby food mills are relatively inexpensive, and make it easy to turn the family meal into something a baby can enjoy as well.

The best thing you can do for your baby is to give them as broad a variety of food experiences as you can. Diversity in taste and texture, even watching parents and siblings prepare food, all teach an impressionable young mind about what foods are safe and desirable to eat. Including a wide range of fruits and vegetables greatly increases the likelihood that your child will grow to delight in fresh, healthy options. Furthermore, each food they are exposed to within the first year significantly reduces their chances of having an allergy to that food later on. A rainbow of foods will nourish them from head to toe, strengthening their bodies and minds for the many great things to come!

For more information on starting solid foods, as well as the best ways to address picky eating, listen to our podcast.
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