Introducing new food options to your baby can be a challenge. You don’t just have to consider what kinds of foods to give them at what time, but also where that food will come from. The easiest solution is, of course, baby food straight out of a jar brought from the supermarket. Some of these baby foods might advertise that all their ingredients come from controlled organic farming and breeding, but what if you want to have more control over what you feed your baby?
Even if a label promises exceptional things, you have no way of knowing exactly how the product has been made. Many nutritionists say that children who are fed home cooked meals are more likely to eat more vegetables, discover new flavours, and eat less unhealthy snacks as they grow older. But just because a dish is homemade, that doesn’t make it healthy. If you want to feed your baby homemade food that is healthy, it’s worth following a few simple rules.
Store-bought baby food or homemade?
Many new parents are often thinking about which option is best for their infants – so should you be making baby food at home or buying ready-made products available in the supermarket? Each option has its own pros and cons, and it’s up to you to decide which is best for your baby.
Pros of homemade baby food:
- More control over the ingredients. If you’re preparing food for your little one then you’ll know exactly what goes into each meal. In doing so, you can be certain that your baby is fed good quality ingredients.
- Save some money. Just like ordering take away or eating in restaurants is more expensive than cooking at home, baby food bought in supermarkets will definitely cost you more than preparing your own homemade meals.
- Have a better picture in case of allergies. When you know exactly what ingredients are in your homemade baby food, you will have better control over any potential allergens.
- Introduce new flavours. Preparing your own homemade baby food will introduce your baby to the natural flavours of different fruits, vegetables, and other foods. Your baby will learn the flavours and develop a taste for healthy, natural products.
- Better for the environment. Making your own baby food means you won’t have to throw away the used jars and sachets that usually package store-bought baby foods, decreasing the amount of waste you send to landfill.
Cons of homemade baby foods:
- More time consuming. Preparing homemade meals takes more time than buying readymade products.
- Harder to store. Homemade food doesn’t last as long as store-bought baby food, but you can get around this con by freezing your homemade meals.
- It has to be the right consistency. Baby foods are required to meet guidelines regarding the consistency of the product. When making your own baby food, you need to make sure that it’s not too lumpy. If the food is not mashed enough, it can be a choking hazard for your baby.
Pros of store-bought baby food:
- Ready to go. Most baby foods found in supermarkets don’t require any cooking, making them convenient and ready to consume immediately. This makes them the perfect solution for busy parents.
- Meets all nutritional requirements. All producers of baby food must meet strict guidelines regarding the quality of the baby food ingredients used and the nutritional value of each product. It is still important that you read all the labels on baby food because some products might contain a small addition of sugar or salt.
- Variety of options. Supermarkets offer a great choice of baby food options. You can find sweet and savoury baby foods, vegetarian baby products, and many different flavours.
Cons of store-bought baby food:
- It’s more expensive. Be prepared to pay a bit more when buying store-bought baby foods compared to making your own at home.
- Don’t forget to always check labels. If you’re buying baby food from the supermarket, make sure to check the label and ensure it only contains high quality ingredients.
- Too much packaging. Baby food bought in supermarkets usually comes in small jars or sachets, which end up in the bin and then in landfill. Cooking at home is a much more environmentally friendly option.
When to introduce baby food and why?
For the first six or so months of life, a baby is only fed breast milk or a modified milk formula. Infants still aren’t ready to eat solid food as their digestive systems are still developing. Eating solid food also requires a set of skills that babies have yet to learn, like chewing and swallowing.
Eventually, babies have to start eating solid food as their body starts to need more iron and other nutrients. For the first six months of life, infants use iron that has been stored in their bodies from when they were in the womb. They also take in some iron from breast milk or baby formula. With time, however, their body needs more iron and nutrients than is offered by breast milk or formula and they need other foods.
The Infant Feeding Guidelines that were introduced by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council in 2012 recommend introducing solid food when your infant is ready, but not before the 4th month of their life. Around 6 months is the usual time. You can start by introducing a variety of small solid foods, starting with iron-rich foods, while continuing breastfeeding or feeding with milk formula.
How do you know it’s time to introduce baby food?
Each baby develops at a different rate and it’s not possible to set a date of when every infant can start having solid food. The Australian Breastfeeding Association recommends looking out for some signs that might show that your baby is ready to try something new. According to the guidelines, when a baby is ready you will notice some signs:
- Your baby will start showing interest in what you’re eating and maybe try grabbing your food,
- Your baby will stop pushing food back out of their mouth with their tongue,
- Your baby will be able to sit upright with some support,
- Your baby will have good control over their head and neck.
You may start seeing some of these signs from an early age, but most babies will only need breast milk or infant formula until around six months old.
What food should be introduced first?
When you first start giving food to your baby you should focus on products that are rich in iron and zinc. These two minerals are recommended for babies from six months and onwards. Of course, the age at which a baby starts to need more iron and zinc will differ as each child develops differently, but because it’s hard to tell which babies will need these minerals it’s safer to start feeding them to your baby through solid foods.
Baby cereals with added iron are easily available in Australia, but these products don’t contain zinc. The best foods to get these two minerals are meat and vegetarian meat alternatives. It’s worth trying to serve your baby different fruit and vegetables (e.g. apple, carrot, broccoli) and observing their reaction. Starting with veggies is a good idea because the sweet taste is accepted much faster than other tastes.
Believe in the process
When introducing homemade solid foods, you should offer your baby a variety of products. The Australian Feeding Guidelines recommend starting most allergenic foods by around 10-12 months of age. This can help to reduce the risk of your baby developing allergies. You should keep a gap of 2-3 days between introducing each new food, in case of some reactions.
When feeding your baby for the first time, you need to make sure that they are sitting comfortably and not too hungry or too full. You have to be prepared for your baby to initially refuse the new foods you try to feed them, and that it may take several tries to have them accept it.
Introducing solid baby foods can be divided into 3 stages according to your child’s age. The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne prepared a ‘guide to foods’ with information about how to prepare homemade meals for babies depending on their age:
4 – 6 months old
When you see that your child is showing interest in solid food, then it’s time to start introducing solid foods! At this stage you can only prepare baby food with a thin, smooth, and almost watery consistency. There should be no chunks at all. You can also use breast milk or formula to make the puree more watery.
At this stage, the cooked baby food should be added as a small snack between milk feeding. Start with just 1 or 2 different foods at a time to give your baby a chance to learn the new flavours.
6 – 9 months old
Now you can mix it up a little bit. You can start preparing food that is a little thicker, and can contain small, soft chunks that are easily mashed. You can also start mixing ingredients together instead of feeding just one or two foods at a time. This is also a chance to introduce a variety of foods from different food groups. At this stage, your baby can already eat around one small jar of homemade baby food at each meal.
10 – 12 months old
At this point, your baby’s food can contain chunks. This will slowly help to prepare them for the kind of food eaten by the rest of the family. Some infants develop faster and will be ready to swallow normal food before their first birthday. So if you feel that your child is going great with their chunky blended meals, you can slowly start introducing well-cooked veggies, ripe fruits, scrambled eggs, or shredded meat. Start by letting your baby try a little bit and go from there.
How can you make baby food at home? Cooking methods
Not all cooking methods for making homemade baby food are healthy. When introducing solids, you need to make sure the food isn’t too fatty – so you’ll need to say goodbye to fried food. There are plenty of other cooking methods you can use that will be healthy and safe for your infant:
Steaming vegetables is a simple and quick way to cook them while retaining all their nutrients. To do this, place your vegetables in a bowl over a pot of boiling water. Make sure not to overcook your vegetables when steaming as it will lose its flavour. When blending your veggies, add in the water that was used to steam them. This will help bring back some of the nutrients that may have been lost in the water.
This is a great way to prepare baby food without any additional elements like oil or water. You might need to add some water during blending, but that is all.
Some fruits can be a tasty and nutritious raw food option for babies. You can try feeding your baby a soft mush of avocado or banana.
How you can prepare ingredients so they are safe for baby food
Cooking for babies is not that hard, but we need to be well informed and know what kind of foods can be introduced to an infant’s diet and which products should be avoided. The following is a list of ingredients that can slowly be added to your baby’s meals.
These are the best food options to introduce to your baby as they begin to explore solid food flavours. The best way to prepare veggies is by either steaming them or baking. You can try baking some sweet potato, white potato, carrots, corn and parsnips. These vegetables all have a great flavour when baked.
When you first introduce fruits as solids, you should make sure they are always cooked. The exception is avocado and banana which can be served raw. Cooking fruits breaks them down and makes them easier for your baby to digest. After your child is 8 months old you can slowly start adding raw fruits to their meals.
Rice and oats are the most popular grains that can be introduced to a baby in the first stage of exploring the world of solid food. You can prepare cereal by blending brown rice powder or mixing cereals with water and breast milk or formula milk. Grains can give your baby energy and keep them feeling fuller for longer.
Products like milk, cheese and yoghurt are high in calcium and protein. They can be slowly introduced to your child after 6 months of age, but you should remember that breast milk or formula will still be the main drink for your baby until they are around 12 months old. You also need to observe your child’s reactions after trying milk products to make sure that they don’t have lactose intolerance. When it comes to yogurt, it is better to go for special yoghurts made for babies as they contain lower amounts of sugar.
Not all oils are recommended for babies, however they do include good fats which can be good in small quantities. Good fats help with bone and organ growth as well as brain development. They’re also a good lubricant in the digestive process. When cooking baby food at home, you can slowly add a small amount of organic coconut oil, coconut milk, organic butter or extra virgin cold pressed unrefined olive oil. A great source of good fats is also avocado oil or the fruit itself.
When you want to introduce some meat options to your baby’s meals, you should be sure to choose the best quality meat with not much fat. The preferred cooking method for meat is baking as this helps the meat retain the most nutrients. You can also use a pressure cooker or poach the meat. Meat on its own has a really strong flavour for a little palate. Therefore, the best way is to blend meat with some vegetables like carrots, parsley or potatoes. You can also reduce the strong meat flavour by adding water when blending the ingredients.
Some types of fish are not recommended for babies as they contain mercury, which can be very harmful for a baby’s development. Safe options for homemade baby food would be rainbow trout, salmon, smelt, lake whitefish, pollock, blue crab or prawns. Fish contain important omega 3 fats and they are a good source of protein. The best way to serve fish is by baking it and blending it with some vegetables.
What to avoid in homemade baby food?
Even though infants after the age of 6 months can slowly try eating other foods than breast milk or formula, there are some products that should be avoided in the first year of life, or even for longer.
Today no matter what we buy, whether it’s a pasta sauce or a can of soda drink, most of the producers add sugar to make it tastier. Sugar is not recommended for adults, which means it should be even more drastically avoided in a baby’s diet. You should not add sugar to your children’s meals, as excessive consumption is harmful and can cause problems with kidney function and decreased immunity. The sweet flavour is also addictive and can make your child crave it from an early age.
Not adding sugar to an infant’s meal doesn’t mean you can’t enhance flavor with natural sources of sweetness. You can add some fruit puree to yoghurt or baby oats, or when a child is older than one year you can also introduce date syrup and honey.
A baby’s required sodium levels are taken from salt that is present in breast milk or baby milk formula. When a child grows, however, you will slowly start feeding them food that is cooked for the rest of the family, and most of the times these meals contain some amount of salt. On top of that, a lot of store-bought products already have some amounts of hidden salt in them. With time, children can eat small amounts of salt, however, we need to make sure that we don’t give them too much of it. When a baby is between 6 months and 1 year old, you should add no more than 1 gram of salt per day, and after that no more than 2 grams a day for 1-3 year olds and 3 grams of salt per day for 4-6 year olds.
It is important to follow these guidelines as adding too much salt to baby foods can be harmful for your child’s kidneys. Instead of adding salt, you can make your child’s meals more interesting and flavoursome by using different ingredients that can together compose a great tasty meal.
We all love honey. It’s natural and sweet and healthier than sugar. But you should not give honey to your baby when they are less than 12 months old. Honey may contain botulism spores which can make an infant sick, however, it is not dangerous for children older than 12 months. After that age, it can be slowly added to homemade meals.
It is recommended to wait until your baby is at least 6 months old before giving them juice, but even then you shouldn’t serve juice too often. Even freshly squeezed juices contain a lot of natural sugar and not as much nutrition as blended fruits. You can try introducing vegetable juices, but they on the other hand can contain a large amount of salt.
Drinking too much juice can add too many calories to a baby’s diet, which may lead to gaining too much weight and tooth decay. Infants and toddlers can also experience diarrhea. That is why, especially at the beginning of our child’s life, it’s better to give them some water or blended fruits.
How to store homemade baby food?
The main goal when cooking for your baby at home should be to make sure that the meals are always fresh. Ideally, you could prepare them daily. However, as we all know, this is not always possible.
You can store some baby meals in the fridge for about 2-3 days. After cooking a batch of a veggie puree you should wait for it to slightly cool down, transfer it to clean jars or BPA-free containers, then place them in the fridge. Make sure you place the date on containers to be sure that the food is fresh enough when taking it out of the fridge.
This is the best friend of all busy parents! Freezers help to keep meals good for around 3 months (except avocados and bananas), and meat-based meals can last in the freezer for about 2 months.
The easiest way to store homemade baby food is to portion it into ice cube trays, cover them with the lid or plastic wrap, and place them into the freezer. For bigger portions you can use a cookie baking tray, spread the puree on it, cover and freeze. After the food is solid, you can place the chunks in BPA-free containers and put them back into the freezer. Remember to label all the containers to avoid food poisoning.
It’s necessary that you boil any frozen baby meals when defrosting them. You should also never ever re-freeze any foods.
Homemade baby food cooking rules
Making your first batch of homemade baby food can be a little bit overwhelming and stressful. We all want to make sure that our little one will get the best food and will enjoy it. But there is no reason to panic, all you need to do is follow a few guidelines of cooking for small children and feel excited about this process.
Use fresh and seasonal products. Only the highest quality products should be included in your baby’s menu. It is best to buy from trusted producers or organic food stores. Remember that products with an ecological certificate meet extremely strict standards. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides cannot be used for growing vegetables and fruits, and only natural methods are used to protect against insects and pests. As a result, these certified vegetables and fruits are healthy and won’t harm your baby.
If you doubt the freshness of a food, you should throw it out. You can’t risk it with your baby’s feeding process. You need to be 100% sure that the food you give to your child is not too old and won’t cause any trouble. If you left blended carrot in the fridge for a few days and wasn’t sure if it’s still fresh, it is much better to not risk and simply prepare a fresh batch. Next time, if you have a bit too much leftovers, you can freeze small portions and use it when we need it.
Be extra clean when cooking baby food. Every time you prepare meals for your infant, you need to be super cautious about cleanliness. Babies have a very sensitive immune system which means they are more in danger of food poisoning than adults. That is why you need to make sure to wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly. You should also peel them. The kitchen bench and cooking utensils have to be very clean and you should use separate cutting boards for meat, poultry and fish.
Steaming is the best way to prepare meals. Steamed vegetables take a very short time to cook, they do not need to be seasoned, and they can be immediately divided into smaller parts (e.g. separate broccoli florets). However, you need to remember that long steaming has the same effect as traditional water cooking. That means you will lose anywhere from 40-70% of nutrients including vitamin C and other minerals which end up in the water. If you decide to cook instead of stam, it’s best to peel the vegetables before putting them in a small amount of boiling water, and covering to cook. This way you will reduce the amount of lost nutrients.
When serving juice or dairy products, make sure they are pasteurised. The process of pasteurisation removes bacteria from food without losing nutrients. You baby’s immune system is not fully developed so it’s extremely important to feed your infant only pasteurised dairy products and juices. Also remember that some soft cheeses are not pasteurised, so it’s a good idea to check the labels to make sure not to cause harm to your baby.
Serve only well cooked eggs. You can start feeding eggs to your baby after the age of 7 months, adding only the yolk or the whole egg with the protein to a vegetable soup. Eggs can be given to your child twice a week, and then when they are around 9-11 months you can prepare 3-4 eggs a week. Always make sure that the egg is cooked through as under-cooked eggs may cause food poisoning for a baby. At the same time, don’t overcook the eggs either as hard-boiled eggs are harder to digest. To be extra safe, you can also use pasteurised eggs.
Some children may have an allergy to eggs, therefore when introducing eggs for the first time you should observe your baby’s reaction to it.
Avoid fried food. Most of us like fried foods, however it’s better not to get babies used to them. You should not give any fried meals to babies before the age of one. You can then start preparing a fried minced cutlet for your one-year-old toddler from time to time. It is worth remembering, however, that the thermal processing of fats may lead to the formation of compounds that reduce the nutritional value of food, and if consumed in excess, they have a negative impact on health. Fried foods are hard to digest, fatty and more caloric. Instead of unhealthy frying, it is better to cook, stew or bake foods in a casserole.
The fact that supermarkets offer a large variety of baby foods doesn’t mean that you can’t make baby food on your own at home. In doing so, you will have much more control over all the ingredients you put on your child’s plate.
Cooking homemade meals doesn’t have to be hard and time consuming. All you need to do is follow the rules, keep clean, and choose high quality, fresh ingredients. Have a little fun with this exciting process for your little one! If you have any questions or doubts, it is always good to check with the pediatrician.