Babies can’t live off milk forever. Eventually they must join the rest of us in eating solid food. But how should it happen?
The baby food industry has everyone fooled. You don’t need them. There’s actually more research that goes into commercial pet food than commercial baby food. For all its faults, dog and cat kibble at least has to adhere to certain nutrient standards. Commercial baby food is just random stuff blended up with enough pear or banana to taste sweet. And I’m not saying there’s something wrong with pears or bananas or green beans or whatever else they blend up and throw in those pouches. I’m just saying it’s not enough. You can do so much better with a little thought and innovation.
It’s not as hard as people think. I mean, these are people we’re feeding. Small people, but people. If you can feed yourself, you can feed a kid. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably feeding yourself nutrient-dense whole foods. Well, do the same thing for your baby only in smaller portions and using different textures. Because there are limitations:
Babies starting solids generally don’t have teeth.
Babies starting solids are only used to drinking fluids. They have to get used to an entirely different state of matter.
Babies starting solids have yet to fulfill their genetic intelligence potential. In other words, they are completely useless.
So you can’t just throw a steak down in front of your seven month old and be done with it. You need a little more care. Here’s when and how to do it:
When to Start Solids
A good rule of thumb is to start a baby on solids when he or she begins showing interest in solid food. Don’t force it on them. Let it develop organically. However, don’t offer any solids before six months regardless of interest. Exclusive breast milk (or formula, if that’s what you’re doing) is that vital.
Some people will recommend that you supplement a “slow-growing” breastfed infant with solid food at four months or so, but I think that’s a mistake. According to the WHO’s birth charts, breastfed babies grow more “slowly” but this is normal. They grow as they’re supposed to grow, not as the solid foods are dictating. In its own FAQ, the CDC recommends against using the CDC growth chart for breastfed babies and admits that the WHO chart shows how “infants should grow rather than simply do grow.”
6 Developmental Signs of Readiness for Solids
Your baby may be ready for solids if she:
Is at least six months of age
Can sit up in a high chair unassisted
Has doubled her birth weight
Has lost the tongue-thrust reflex (if she doesn’t automatically spit out food placed on her tongue)
Shows interest in what you’re eating
Opens her mouth when food comes near her face
Tip: don’t start solids if your baby has a cold. Stuffy noses can make it hard to coordinate breathing and moving food around the mouth, and it may alter the taste of foods, turning your baby off to something she might otherwise like.
She’ll Have What You’re Having
You can drop a few hundred bucks on the infant food machine and refillable pouches and spend hours each week manufacturing your own goops and purees, or you could let your kid nibble on what you’re having for dinner. After all, you’re eating good, nutrient-dense food yourself, right? It’s probably perfect for your baby.
Don’t let me dissuade you from making your own goop. That works for many parents and it’s a great way to fine-tune exactly what your baby is getting. But it’s not the only way.
Early solids are complementary, they cannot replace breast milk. Always nurse or feed milk before offering solids; that way your baby doesn’t fill up on food and reject the milk he needs. This also auto-regulates how much food the baby will eat.
Breastmilk isn’t just food. It’s also rich in immunoregulatory components that shape and guide the infant’s immune system. Feeding breastmilk as you introduce solid foods (in the same meal) will help your baby learn to tolerate the foods and reduce the risk of allergies.
The Perfect First Food
Here’s the official line:
Give rice cereal as the first complementary food. Make sure it’s fortified with iron, because iron-fortified rice cereal is the only way for an infant human to obtain the iron he desperately needs to grow and thrive.
Does that sound ridiculous to anyone else?
You know what else has iron? Meat. Sardines. Egg yolks. Liver. There are hundreds of foods with more and better iron than rice cereal. If a food has to be fortified with certain nutrients to become suitable in an infant’s early complementary diet, it’s not the perfect first food. Turns out that if you had to choose just one, meat is probably the most important early complementary food in an infant’s diet. In one landmark study, meat-eating breastfed infants had larger heads, better zinc statuses, and better behavior at 12 months than cereal-eating breastfed infants.1 It doesn’t get any clearer than that, folks.
Start Smooth, Progress to Lumpy
At six months, a baby can only eat smooth or semi-solid. Gradually increase the solidity of the offered foods as things progress. By 10 months, the baby should be eating “lumpy” foods, if only because that represents a critical window of acclimation to the texture. If you miss the window and continue only with smooth purees, the child may develop issues with pickiness later on down the road.
Baby-led weaning is a method of introducing solids that doesn’t involve spoons, until baby can use the spoon herself. At 6 months of age, bits of soft, chopped foods like banana, ripe avocado, cooked sweet potato, etc. are offered to the child and she experiments with what she wants – under the parent’s careful supervision, of course. The whole process is directed by the baby’s curiosity.
The idea behind it is that she will better regulate her self-feeding and eventually recognize satiety cues because there isn’t a parent sneaking in extra bites after she’s full. With baby-led weaning, little ones also have a chance to practice their fine motor skills by grasping food and bringing it to their own mouths themselves.
If you’re worried about chewing at first, there are infant self-feeders with handles that can help. (Get the silicone ones – the kind with netting are a pain to clean.)
What does this have to do with weaning? The idea is that over a period of months, as your baby becomes comfortable with eating more and more food, she will depend on breast milk or formula less and less, and eventually rely fully on solid food for nutrition.
Introduce Peanuts… Carefully
The latest research indicates that exposing infants to peanut products as an early complementary food reduces rather than increases the risk of peanut allergy. There’s an entire protocol for determining which infants are candidates for early exposure, so make sure you do this with your pediatrician’s understanding.
With all that out of the way, now’s the fun part. I’m going to post some dishes and recipes that little babies can eat.
The really cool thing about infants coming off breast milk is that they like almost everything. They’re up for it. You offer them some chicken liver paté and they will eat that up. If they don’t like it, they’ll at least try it (but they’ll probably like it).
An infant has no preconceived ideas about food. They’re too young to be influenced by peers or advertising. They’ve only been nursing, so they don’t have the chemically-altered sweet tooth of your average American child. They are relatively pure beings, motivated almost entirely by nutrients and calories. And lest you worry about “calories” or carbs for your young baby, calories are nutrients for growing babies and kids. They need the sheer caloric bulk to grow and construct their bodies.
What seems to work best as a first solid food is soft, shredded red meat. Maybe a chuck roast or shank cooked until fragile, then chopped, shredded, and doused in a little broth or even breast milk to soften it up.
How to introduce eggs to baby
Mash a banana.
Soft boil an egg and pierce the still-runny yolk; drain the yolk into the banana.
Serve it up. Tastes great, very nutrient-dense. Tons of choline, decent protein, and if you get a high-quality egg it will provide most of the B-vitamins, selenium, iodine, and even omega-3s an infant needs.
Mash sardines up (bone in and skin on, preferably) with the oil (if real olive oil). Good iron, calcium, protein, selenium, and omega-3s.
The Crown Prince smoked oysters in olive oil are fantastic, BPA-free, and an excellent source of zinc, iron, protein, B-12, and omega-3s. Probably iodine too. Great texture for beginners; just make sure to cut off the hard part that normally attaches to the shell. Since shellfish allergies are relatively common, ask your pediatrician about starting slow to watch for a reaction, and skip oysters for now if you have shellfish allergies in your family.
Mashed potatoes (or sweet potatoes)
I never hear about mashed potatoes given to babies as a weaning food, and I’m not sure why. Potatoes are actually quite nutritious as far as starches go. They have complete protein and a nice spread of minerals. Plus, you can sneak all sorts of stuff, like egg yolks, meat, seafood, and pureed veggies. Mash it with some breast milk or broth to make it smooth and creamy.
There isn’t much research on white potatoes as a complementary food, but sweet potato-based complementary foods have distinct advantages over grain-based infant foods, including lower phytate (which binds to and prevents the absorption of minerals) and higher vitamin A, especially if you’re also feeding meat.23
Canned cod livers
Canned cod livers are the smoothest, creamiest thing I’ve ever tried. Highly recommended and a fantastic source of vitamin A (pre-formed, animal version), DHA (important for baby brains), and vitamin D (you can expose your baby to sunlight within reason, but dietary vitamin D is also helpful). A little goes a long way—a tablespoon at a time is plenty to start.
Frozen and fresh fruit
Fresh fruit is ideal, of course, but it helps to keep frozen fruit on hand. You can take it out and chop it up and let it thaw a bit so it’s the right texture. You can feed it whole when your baby is older and able to handle larger chunks. You can mash it up and mix with soft boiled egg yolks.
Wild blueberries, cherries, mangos, oranges, big frozen strawberries (great for teething), peaches, melon, and even figs are fantastic choices and provide important vitamin C. Just keep a watchful eye on them when they’re eating smaller fruits that can get stuck in the trachea.
Full-fat, of course. Start with plain unsweetened. Some yogurt brands, especially the ones marketed to children, contain more sugar than a can of soda.
Salmon and salmon roe
Baby needs those omega-3s, that selenium, that protein, those B-vitamins, that astaxanthin, everything. Salmon is incredible for the developing brain. Poach the salmon until soft.
Liver and liver paté
Chicken liver from pastured chickens is the mildest of all the livers. It’s also the highest in iron and lowest in retinol, so it can be given a bit more often to babies than beef liver.
I’ve known many parents whose kids love liver paté. Perfect texture; you can even mix it up with rice cereal to “fortify” it.
If there’s no reason to suspect an egg allergy, scrambled eggs are an easy snack. Do them Gordon Ramsay style for a creamy, smooth texture.
Onions are a great source of inulin, a type of prebiotic fiber that can in some ways emulate the prebiotics found in breastmilk. Also, if a baby learns to love onions, she’ll probably love other types of pungent foods.
I’m not saying you hand your kid a smoked turkey drumstick. But if you cook some beef shanks or an oxtail until the meat’s falling off the bone, the leftover bone with some gristle and soft meat is the perfect thing for your teething baby to gnaw on. The meat is soft enough that they can chew it up to an acceptable size and there’s not enough of it to risk any real choking. Besides, you’re there to watch them.
Better rice cereal
Average parents start their kids on rice cereal: dry rice cereal you mix with milk or formula until soft enough to suck down. They’ll put this stuff in the baby’s bottles. They’ll spoon it up into their gaping maws. It’s bland and basically pure starch and fills them up. Now, I have nothing against starch for kids. As I’ve said time and time before, babies need calories and they can use the glucose. I’d never recommend that babies go strict keto or anything (although there are people who do it and seem to report good things). But there’s so much more you can cram in that bland gruel to make it taste better and deliver important nutrients.
Chicken or beef liver.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, or winter squash (offset some of the rice with these other starch sources).
Stewed chuck roast.
Rice gruel is a great vehicle. If you’re worried about the consistency with these additions, simply blend it up until it’s the right texture.
Fish sauce: Add a touch of fish sauce to your foods to provide glutamate that helps the baby learn to love the food.
Get a stick blender: Easiest way in the world to puree foods or roughly chop them into the right texture. This is a good one.
Get 4 ounce mason jars: Very handy for storing and serving food.
Make a habit of making bone broth and keeping it frozen on hand: Broth is the tie that binds everything together. Wanna make rice cereal? Broth makes it more nutritious. Want to puree some veggies? Broth makes it more nutritious and taste better than water. Want to stew some meat until it’s soft enough for a baby to eat? Broth beats water again.
These are just a handful of the things you can feed your baby who’s starting solids. And you know what? It wouldn’t be such a bad list of foods to choose from when feeding yourself.
Now let’s hear from you. What did you feed your babies when introducing solids? What would you do differently?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.