While most of us have probably been fed straight from the baby food jar with very little fuss or effort, modern infants have an overwhelming array of options for their first solid meal. There are innovative and beautiful packaging, including many low-waste options. There are pockets – oh, so many pockets. And there are even direct-to-consumer subscription services – like Yumi, Tiny Organics and Little spoon – this deliver organic meals, snacks and vitamins right to baby’s doorstep.
It’s a big market that will only grow, trend analysts report. According to a recent study by Allied Market Research, the global baby food market size was valued at $67.3 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $96.3 billion by 2027.
If you have a baby approaching 6 months, you’ve probably already considered their first foray into solid foods. We spoke 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 after 6 months
No matter how you introduce solid foods, you should start at 6 months of age. “From a nutritional perspective, all of a baby’s needs can be met during the first six months with breast milk and/or formula,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Kacie Barnes, owner and creator of Mom 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 breast milk alone.”
Starting with solid foods comes with benefits for the brain and body. “As well as providing much-needed nutrients, it helps babies perfect their tactile motor skills, and it even supports the lining of the gut to absorb the nutrition they need to grow,” says Molly Beitmannclinical dietitian at Nemours Children’s Hospital. But wait, there’s more. Pediatrician and pediatric emergency physician Dina Kulik stated that “introducing foods at this age may reduce the risk of food allergies”.
#2: There’s no need to be ashamed of packaged food parents
Baby food doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive to prepare or serve. It’s easy to puree everything you’re cooking that day so baby can try it. But some parents prefer packaged foods, at least some of the time, and like everything else with parenting, that’s 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 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 outside the home,” Barnes said. “There’s a lot of mother-shaming around the packaged options, but if it’s the tool that allows you to feed your baby, there’s no need for shame or guilt. Babies can still be well nourished even if they don’t exclusively eat homemade baby food.
#3: Don’t squeeze food pouches directly into baby’s mouth
Finding a brand that works for baby and for you requires consideration of ingredient, preparation and packaging preferences. While pouches are ubiquitous in the baby food industry, experts warn against simply handing a pouch to a baby.
“Don’t feed straight from the pocket,” Registered Dietitian Sarah Almond Bushell warned. “Babies need to see their food to learn about food, and if they don’t see it, they could miss one of the 32 vital sensory steps needed to learn to eat. Likewise, they need to be able to interact with food, which means getting their hands in it and getting dirty with it.
“If using pouches, squeeze food onto a spoon and let baby pick up the spoon and self-feed,” Barnes said. “Eating with a spoon promotes the proper development of oral motor skills.”
#4: Key Nutrients to Look For
Experts have suggested that looking for the presence of ingredients like iron, fat, DHA and fiber are good starting points for reading labels. “Baby foods are often low in iron, but it’s an essential nutrient because by 6 months the stores they were born with have run out,” Bushell said. The problem, she says, is that iron-rich foods are expensive ingredients. “Manufacturers tend to include the legal minimum, but that’s not enough to affect a baby’s iron status,” she said, noting that good sources of iron include meat, especially red meat, dark poultry meat, eggs, fatty fish and lentils.
Another important ingredient is fat. “Fat-free baby foods won’t be as satisfying, and fat is essential for their brain and central nervous system development,” Barnes said. “Always have a fat with every meal, even if it’s just a teaspoon of avocado oil or olive oil mixed with mashed potatoes, peanut butter, or a other blended nut butter, or blended finely ground nuts.”
You’ll also want to serve DHA-rich foods at least twice a week, Barnes recommends. “It’s an omega-3 fatty acid that’s important for brain development,” she explained. “Try seaweed oil or fatty fish like salmon and sardines.”
But be aware that not everything labeled as “baby food” is a good idea. “I suggest avoiding baby cereal completely,” Kulik said. “Most are devoid of fiber and can lead to constipation.”
#5: Choose a good variety of flavors, in order from bitter to sweet
“If parents remember only one evidence-based practice for feeding babies, ‘variety’ may be most important,” said one registered dietitian nutritionist. Jennifer Andersonfounder of Children eat in color. “The more variety there is in flavors, textures and smells, the more likely babies are to continue eating a variety of foods as they get older and have less picky eating behaviours.”
“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 serves a variety of foods from all food groups at mealtimes and lets their child decide how much to eat, the child is likely to get the nutrition they need.”
Another pro tip is to serve each meal in a particular order, from the most bitter foods to the sweetest. “Babies prefer sweet foods, so they’re more likely to reject bitter or sour flavors unless they’ve learned to like them,” Bushell said. She recommended offering more bitter vegetables like broccoli, kale, spinach, potato, cauliflower or green beans before it was time to offer more fruit or vegetables. sweets like carrot, butternut squash or sweet potato.
#6: Know when it’s time to go beyond mixed solids
Whatever you do, don’t get too comfortable with the well-mixed menu, because it will soon be time to move on to greater taste and texture challenges. “I can’t stress enough the importance of exposing babies to a variety of textures from the start, instead of offering smooth purees for too long,” Registered Dietitian Natalia Stassenko noted. “Be sure to switch to mash and snacks within weeks of starting solid foods, as babies are ready to learn and will challenge themselves at this age with joy.”
“After 6 months of age, I recommend babies start eating the same foods as their parents,” Kulik said. “Herbs, spices and salt can be added to the meal, just as parents would benefit.”
Here are some of the top picks from the experts:
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This brand, which also uses ingredients that contain both fat and iron, is a winner with Barnes. She approves of the inclusion of DHA-rich algae oil in some of her purees.
“I like this brand because of its use of ingredients that contain both fat and iron,” Barnes said. “These are two important nutrients for babies, and ones they don’t get in most fruit and vegetable purees.”