Choosing baby food
Some parents buy baby food, others feed their babies homemade baby food. Some parents switch back and forth between the two. Whatever you decide, choose healthy foods.
Starting your baby on baby food depends on your baby's development and every baby is different. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfed babies get only breast milk for the first 6 months of life and continue breast milk along with solid foods up to age 12 months. But some babies might be ready to start some solid foods (foods other than breast milk or formula) between 4 to 6 months of age. Look for certain signs (developmental cues) that will help you know when your baby is ready for solid foods.
- Homemade baby foods are less expensive than buying baby food.
- They are better for the environment
- You can control ingredients in baby’s food (you can avoid preservatives, added salt or sugar, and any foods that may cause allergic reactions).
- You can help baby get used to foods your family eats regularly.
- Homemade baby foods can take some time and preparation.
- They are less convenient than store-bought, ready-to-go baby food.
- You must be sure to prepare foods carefully.
- Made following strict safety guidelines
- Portable and convenient
- Lots of baby food choices
- No preparation needed; ready to go
- Can be more expensive than making your own baby food
- Are sometimes less healthy (baby dessert or foods with added sugar, salt); be sure to check label
Whether giving baby homemade or store-bought baby food, avoid adding unhealthy seasonings (salt, butter, oil, cream or sugar). Although it may taste bland to you, baby will find the natural flavors in baby food stimulating! Keeping baby away from extra salt and sugar can also help him learn healthy eating habits. Healthy eating is important all through life.
You don’t have to create a separate menu for baby. Cook food for the whole family and set a portion aside before adding any seasonings. Make baby food using the unseasoned portion.
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals and fibers. These are important for your baby's development. When choosing fresh fruits and vegetables:
- Look them over carefully. Don't use them if they’re bruised or damaged.
- Wash all produce (fruits and vegetables) thoroughly with water before you cook them. Even fruits and vegetables with peels should be washed. Bacteria can live on the peel and get into the food when you cut or prepare them. Try scrubbing fruits and vegetables with a brush used only for washing produce.
- Dry produce with a paper towel or a clean cloth after washing them.
- Remove all pits, seeds and skin before use. These may cause baby to choke.
- Cook all vegetables and most fruits thoroughly. This helps your baby to digest them better. Avocados and fruits like bananas, plums, ripe papaya, peaches and apricots don’t need to be cooked.
- Use fresh produce within a day or two after buying them. Fresh fruits and vegetables start to lose their vitamins and minerals as time passes.
- If fresh veggies or fruits aren't available, try frozen or canned vegetables and fruits. Read the labels to make sure they don’t have any added sugar or salt.
Nitrates are chemicals that can sometimes be found in water (usually water from a well) and soil. Nitrates can cause a blood disease called methemoglobinemia (type of anemia) or "blue baby." Although it’s rare, babies younger than 6 months can get sick if they eat foods that have nitrates.
Nitrates can spoil certain fresh vegetables like green beans, carrots, squash, beets or spinach. (Store-bought baby foods that have these vegetables are already checked for safety.) You can still use these fresh vegetables to make homemade baby food as long as you follow these steps for safety:
- Don't feed your baby green beans, carrots, squash, beets or spinach if he is younger than 6 months
- Use small portions
- Avoid feeding baby these vegetables if they’ve been refrigerated for more than 24 hours
- Don’t use these vegetables for homemade juice (like carrot juice)
Mix it up! Give baby other fresh vegetables, too, like peas, sweet potatoes or corn (which are low in nitrates).
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, organic foods may not be healthier or safer than other kinds of foods. We don't have enough research to know. However, foods labeled organic must follow certain rules set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). For example:
- Organic foods are typically grown using fewer pesticides than other foods.
- Only certain kinds of fertilizers and weed killers can be used when growing organic food.
- Genetic engineering and certain types of radiation cannot be used.
- Using man-made products on organic foods is discouraged.
- Animals that produce organic milk, eggs and meat may not be given hormones to promote growth or antibiotics for any reason.
- Animals must have access to the outdoors, such as a pasture.
- Organic food is usually more expensive than other food. Some parents may choose to be cautious and buy organic foods when they can. What’s most important is that baby gets plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Babies can be healthy if they eat a vegetarian (no meats, poultry or seafood) or vegan meals (no animal or dairy food). But it’s important to make sure she eats a variety of nutritious foods.
Talk with your baby's health provider and a registered dietitian frequently. They'll help you create a healthy eating plan that includes some fortified foods and supplements to help baby grow strong. Some healthy meat substitutes are pureed beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu and cooked eggs. Be sure to follow guidelines for when to introduce your baby to solid foods.
When feeding baby, be extra careful to keep his food safe.
Keep the area, utensils and food clean.
- Wash your hands, utensils, tools and cutting boards with warm soapy water (20 seconds or more) before and after each use.
- Make sure all tools and utensils are dried before use. Bacteria can grow in moist places.
- After making food, clean countertops with warm soapy water or a cleaning solution (bleach or other disinfectant) to clean the area.
Separate raw food from cooked food.
- Use one cutting board for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
- Use another one for salads and ready-to-eat foods.
- Try using cutting boards that are acrylic, glass or non-porous plastic. They're easier to clean and less likely to carry germs.
Cook food to its right temperature.
- Use an instant-read food thermometer to make sure meats, pork, fish and poultry are cooked thoroughly.
- Place the thermometer into the thickest area of the food. Be sure the thermometer is inserted deep enough (to the marked line) so it can measure the internal temperature correctly.
- Red meat and pork should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, until no pink can be seen.
- Poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit, until no pink can be seen.
- Fish should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Eggs should be cooked until firm.
Chill food quickly.
- Foods that need to be stored cold (especially raw meat, fish or poultry) should be placed in the refrigerator or freezer right away.
- Don’t feed your baby these foods if they’ve been out (unrefrigerated) for more than 2 hours.
- Keep the refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
- Keep homemade baby food in the refrigerator for no more than 1 day. Use a tightly-sealed container.
- Store-bought baby foods may be kept in the refrigerator for 24 hours after they’ve been opened. Make sure to seal the jars tightly and refrigerate right after opening.
- Throw out any leftovers from baby’s dish. If you feed baby straight from the jar, throw out these leftovers, too. That’s because saliva from baby’s feeding spoon can spoil food left on the dish or in the jar.
- Try freezing one-size meal portions so you can defrost only what you need.
- Ice cube trays, individual freezer containers, breastfeeding freezer bags or freezer plastic bags can help you store one-meal potions.
- If using an ice cube tray, store the food cubes in plastic freezer bags or freezer containers and put them back in the freezer. This can help you save freezer space!
- Make sure to label and date all frozen food and use it within 1 month.
- You can defrost already cooked baby food in the refrigerator or in a double boiler. You can also defrost it under cold running water or using a microwave.
- Don’t defrost food at room temperature because of bacteria can grow on it.
- After reheating, stir baby food well. Always test food temperature before giving it to your baby.
- Make sure to reheat only the amount of food you want to give your baby for a meal. Throw away any leftovers.
- Once you defrost the food, don’t refreeze it.
- A food processor or a blender can puree food to a very smooth texture.
- A fine mesh strainer can be useful for ripe fruits, cooked vegetables and other soft foods.
- A food mill can be a helpful tool, especially for table food. It can be inexpensive, portable and easy to use.
- A fork is good when mashing soft cooked food for older infants.
- Use a knife to chop foods into fine pieces. Pieces of food should be very small (¼ of an inch or less).
- You can find recipe books for homemade baby foods at your local bookstore. Ask your pediatrician for a recommendation, too. But keep it simple; as your baby grows, he can eat much of the same foods you prepare for the rest of the family.
- Follow guidelines for when to introduce solid foods.
- When making homemade baby food, use cooking methods that help keep nutrients. Steaming, microwaving, baking and broiling are the recommended cooking methods. Avoid boiling or frying baby food. Boiling causes the nutrients to flow out of food and into the water. Frying adds fat and calories to the food.
- Never use leftovers to make homemade baby foods.
- Always remove skin, gristle and bones from meats, poultry and fish.
- Save time by making more than just one meal. Use a blender or food processor to puree one big batch of foods. This can last for several meals.
- With store-bought baby food, always make sure the vacuum seal button on the lid is down. The button on the lid should pop up the first time the jar is opened. If the button is up before you open it for the first time, throw the jar away. It could be spoiled.
- When giving baby store-bought baby food, single ingredients are better. Combination dinners usually have refined starches, which aren’t the healthiest choice for baby.
For more information
Frequently Asked Questions
How much vitamin D should my baby get?
Vitamin D is important to help avoid a bone-weakening disease called rickets. All babies should receive 400 IU of vitamin D per day, starting in the first few days of life. This includes breastfed babies and babies who drink less than 1L of infant formula per day.
Our skin makes vitamin D when it gets sunlight. But too much sunlight can be harmful, too. In fact, babies 6 months and older and young kids should stay away from direct sunlight and wear sunscreen at all times when out in the sun. However, sunscreen stops the skin from making vitamin D. The best way to get enough vitamin D is by giving your baby liquid multivitamin drops with vitamin D. They can be found in many pharmacies, and you won't need a prescription for it. Just be sure you've filled the dropper to no more than 400 international units (IU).
How often should I nurse my baby?
All babies are different and have different feeding patterns. In general, breastfed newborns need to eat 8 to 12 times in 24 hours (about once every 2 to 3 hours), for about 30 minutes each time. Breast milk is easily digested so it may be difficult to time when you should nurse your baby.
Newborns may need to feed more frequently than older babies. They may need to be fed on demand. As your milk supply is established and the baby grows, the baby's feeding patterns may change and she may go longer between feedings. Remember, breastfeeding is a natural skill, but it’s also a learned skilled. Be patient and give yourself (and your baby) time to master this new ability.
What solids foods should I start my baby on?
Begin with a single-grain iron-fortified cereal such as rice, barley or oatmeal. Mix it with breast milk or infant formula. Start with a small amount once a day. It's hard to tell how much your baby will eat. At first, most of her food will probably end on her bib or face. Be patient and help your baby learn this new skill. It's important that meal time is a pleasant time. This will build the foundation of healthy eating habits. If your baby cries, shows no interest in feeding or turns her head away from the spoon, stop feeding her. She is trying to tell you that she's full or she doesn’t want anymore. You should never force her to eat more than what she wants.
When should I give my baby solid foods?
Breast milk is the best food for most babies. It's best to give only breast milk for the first 6 months of life. Some babies might be ready to start solid foods between 4 to 6 months of age. When your baby is between 4 to 6 months, she may begin to show signs that she's ready to try some solid foods alongside her breast milk or formula. Watch for her developmental cues (signs) and she'll let you know when she's ready. Some signs that show your baby might be ready to start solid foods are:
- She can sit with support.
- She shows a good head neck control when seated.
- She shows a desire for food by opening her mouth, drooling and leaning forward.
- She begins to chew and brings her hands to her mouth.
- She begins to handle objects with the palm of her hand.
- She swallows pureed food and the extrusion reflex starts to go away (tongue-thrust reflex).