Help your kid have a healthy start! Read these key considerations to ask yourself for what foods to avoid versus encourage with infants.
Foods to Avoid versus Encourage with Infants
Pinterest is great for giving parents 1000’s of ideas for finger foods. What it doesn’t do however, is address the criteria you need to know in order to pick your own from what’s in the pantry, in a package, or being offered at a playdate.
What is okay to expose to infants too?
What foods are better to steer clear of?
If “food is just fun until one,” does it really matter if all they eat are puffs and squeeze pouches?
Rather than try to give you some crazy long list of yes’s and no’s for what specific foods to avoid versus encourage with infants, I thought it would be more helpful to walk you through the key considerations to ask yourself before offering new foods to your infant. This isn’t intended to be a rigid list of rules. Rather it is a framework for what foods are best fit for this age.
This post will tell you what foods to avoid versus encourage with infants.
Feeding an infant can be confusing but this basic framework will make you feel more equipped to make smart food choices in the many, MANY meal times to come!
Items to Avoid
For older children and adults, salt is added to our food to increase flavor, palatability, and to limit perishability of processed foods. For infants, however, no such added salt is needed in their diet.
Infant’s kidneys are unable to process added salt in the diet. Up until six months, breastmilk and/or formula provide adequate amounts of sodium to sustain an infants’ needs. Up until 12 months of age, infants only need 1000 mg of salt (or the equivalent to 0.4g sodium).
In order to keep from giving your infant excess, here are some tips:
- Do not add salt to an infant’s food. That which is naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed proteins (i.e. chicken, beef, fish, eggs, lentils, and unsalted beans), and plain grains (i.e. quinoa, brown rice cereal, oats, etc.) is usually negligible enough not to worry about.
- If a food is packaged, consider Lisa Raum’s, “Rule of Five.”
“Look at the percent daily value (DV) on the nutrition facts panel: 5 percent or less is low; 10 percent is moderate; 15 percent is significant; 20 percent is high.”
- For infants, aim to offer foods that are “low in sodium.”
Thanks to the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, there has been a big push to limit the amount of added sugar in our diets to less than 10%. New parents may not understand what this looks for their children though, especially for the evolving diet of infants. Considering how impressionable the taste preferences are for infants and toddlers and how small their tummies are, there is little place for sugar-sweetened foods in their diets. Research suggests that a young child’s diets may directly impact metabolic pathways and health during adulthood. Additionally, Jill Castle’s new podcast titled, “The Nourished Child,” reminds us that introducing sugar before the age of two may increase a child’s preference for sugar, as well as change their taste preference for sugar-sweetened foods as they age.
For these reasons, sugar should be limited as much as possible. Natural forms of sugar that are derived from fruits, vegetables, as well as some grain and dairy, are acceptable as part of an overall balanced diet. Sugar content in such foods (like baby food and/or squeeze pouches) is often outweighed by the vitamins, minerals, and other nutritional attributes of such real foods. Similar to added salt however, no added sugar should be given to infants under one year of age, and ideally before age two either. In order to limit such sugar in the diet:
- Do not add sweeteners to infants’ food. This includes any for from granulated sugar to more natural forms like maple syrup. Mashed real fruit (like banana or pear) is the best way to add sweeter flavors to an infants’ food.
- Look at the ingredients list and limit foods that include ingredients like these.
- Limit infant’s intake of fruit juice (even 100% juice) to no more than 4-ounces per day.
As discussed in precious blog posts, there are several measure parents must take in order to minimize the risk for choking with children. Additionally, offering foods that are both healthy and age-appropriate for infants to handle is a smart way to provide safe finger foods.
Items to Encourage
Reason: Many pediatricians have helped make parents more aware of the importance of iron for infants. Starting around six months of age, an infant’s iron stores from being in utero begin to diminish. As this occurs, breastmilk and/or formula are no longer sufficient for meeting an infant’s iron needs. This process doesn’t happen overnight, but does require parents’ attention in order to prevent iron-deficiency anemia.
Recommendation: In order to promote a healthy iron status, parents need to provide infants with the Recommended Daily Allowance for iron. In infants (6-12 months), this is 11 milligrams per day. Some tangible ways to do this are to:
- Continue offering breastmilk and/or formula as the primary source of nutrition. Note that although breastmilk is not high in iron, the form of iron in breastmilk is easily absorbed.
- Offer your infant foods that are good sources of iron, such as:
- Animal “heme“ iron sources (better absorbed): beef, chicken, pork, liver, turkey
- Plant “non-heme” iron sources (lesser absorbed): beans, peas, dried apricots, lentils, tofu, prune juice, fortified cereals
- Combine sources of iron, especially plant-based “non-heme” iron with foods that are high in vitamin C. Such combinations can be made into purees or offered as finger foods to infants who use a Baby-Led weaning approach:
- Ground beef + green beans
- Fortified oat cereal + strawberries
- Lentils + roasted red bell peppers
- Beans + sliced tomatoes
- Quinoa + sweet potatoes
RD Tip: If you still have concerns that your child is not consuming enough iron, talk with your child’s pediatrician and/or a pediatric dietitian. Most will screen for iron-deficiency anemia at 12 and 18-month well child visits to address if iron supplementation may be necessary.
Reason: Zinc helps infants in several areas of development, including growth, immune function, cell growth and repair, digestion, and cognitive development. The amount of zinc in breastmilk decreases over an infant’s first six months of life, making the amount an infant must consume in their diet even more important. By nine months of age, 90 percent of a breastfed child’s zinc intake needs to come from food.
Recommendation: Infants aged 6 months up to 3 years need 3 milligrams of zinc each day. This includes items like:
- Beef: One of these patties provide ~2 mg zinc each
- Yogurt: ½ cup provides ~0.7 mg
- Chicken: ¼ of a chicken leg (dark meat) provides ~0.6 mg
- Lentils: ¼ cup provides ~0.6 mg
- Nut butters: 1 Tablespoon almond butter provides ~0.5 mg
RD Tip: Since zinc is a nutrient in many of the same iron-rich foods, most parents can rest assured that if their child is getting enough iron, they also are getting enough zinc.
Reason: Since a 2008 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, it has been recommended that all infants to receive 400 IU of vitamin D per day beginning soon after birth. These recommendation replaced previous recommendations that advised a minimum daily intake of 200 IU/day of vitamin D supplementation beginning in the first 2 months after birth. Changes in the recommended amount of vitamin D followed evidence that 400 IU of vitamin D per day in the pediatric population may reduce the risk of osteoporosis as well as other long-latency disease processes that have been associated with vitamin D–deficiency states in adults.
Recommendation: Since breastmilk alone is insufficient to meet the vitamin D needs of infants, additional supplementation is necessary prior to six months of age. Such supplements may include common items like these and these. As an infant turns six months of age and begins to start solids, foods like salmon, tuna canned in water, and whole milk are all good options for promoting vitamin D intake with food.
RD Tip: For infants who are solely formula-fed (consuming ~24-32 ounces/day), their vitamin and mineral needs for iron, zinc, and vitamin D are satisfied up until one year of age. This makes no additional supplementation necessary.
Reason: Much more so than older children and adults, infants have a tremendous need for fat in their diets. Being the most nutrient-dense macronutrient and contributing 9 calories/gram (compared to 4 calories/gram fro carbohydrates and protein), fat plays an important role in satiety. Additionally, fat is critical for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Recommendation: Up until one year of age, the primary source of fat in the diet should be breastmilk and/or formula. Additional sources of fat that are appropriate for infants under one and thereafter include avocadoes, nut butters, fruit or vegetable oils (like avocado, coconut, and olive), whole milk dairy products (like yogurt, cheese, and butter), as well as beef, salmon, and other nutrient-dense animal products.
RD Tip: You will do your infant a disservice if you use low-fat cooking tactics when preparing their foods. Instead, cook their food using healthy sources of fat. Infancy is not the time to monitor fat intake or limit the use of added oils/butter!
Docosahexaenoic Acid (better known as DHA)
Reason: Many of us have heard that in our infant’s first year of life, their brain size almost doubles. Although DHA doesn’t matter much to the size of an infant’s brain, DHA plays a critical role in the structure of infant’s brains, retinas, and other neural tissues. Known as a key structural component of cell membranes, “DHA rapidly accumulates in the brain tissue and then reaches a plateau at the age of 2 and beyond,” as stated in this article on DHA by Today’s Dietitian. For infants who are still being breastfed and/or formula-fed, their diets contain adequate amounts of DHA. However, since infants will soon transition to whole milk, it is important to begin exposing them to foods that are rich sources of DHA prior to the transition to milk.
Recommendations: Although there are many nutritious options for adding omega-3 fatty acids into the diet, there are fewer foods that are good sources of DHA. These include salmon (preferably wild-caught), tuna, and eggs. If you would more information on DHA, omega-3’s, and a list of foods rich in DHA and other omega-3’s, Dr. Axe provides a great list of “What Are the Best Omega-3 Foods.”
RD Tip: This is a great time to adopt “two servings of fish per week” for the whole family, if you aren’t already. At each stage of the life cycle, everyone can benefit from the nutritional benefits from DHA in fatty-fish like salmon and/or tuna.
We have covered a lot of content about what ingredients and nutrition-related items are best to avoid or encourage in infants under one year of age. Many of these recommendations also apply to toddlers up to the age of two, giving you plenty of time to adopt these healthy habits within your own home:
Avoid: salt, sugar, and safety hazards
Encourage: iron, zinc, vitamin D, total fat, and DHA
Focusing on these areas of infant nutrition will help you to establish a healthy foundation for your child to grow and develop from.
“If a parent only introduces whole, natural foods to their little one during this time, the child will grow to love and appreciate their flavors,” Tina Ruggiero, MS, RD, LD, Author of The Best Homemade Baby Food on the Planet