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Nom-Nom! A Solid Food Starter Guide

Here’s all the know-how you need to feed your baby right, right from the start.

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The Basics

When to Begin

Wait until at least baby’s four-month birthday to start on the solid stuff. That’s because babies need to be old enough to have reached certain important developmental milestones -- like being able to hold their head up, being able to sit up with support and overcoming the extrusion reflex, which causes them to spit out solids. Before you begin, you’ll want to get the okay from her doctor, who may recommend waiting until closer to six months to be sure your child is ready. Plus, tips published by the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology suggest that early introduction of solid food (before four to six months) may be linked to an increased risk of food allergies. The timing of baby’s first solid feeding will also depend on how well she’s gaining weight on breast milk or formula -- and whether she may need extra iron and nutrients added to her liquid diet.

Smart Starters!

See what these nutritious noshes have to offer.

BREAST MILK Hands down, the best food for baby during the first year is breast milk, so try to keep nursing as long as you can, even once you start solids.

IRON-FORTIFIED CEREAL Introducing iron-rich foods is essential. Rice cereal, oatmeal and barley are good options -- just make sure you start with a single-grain formula, which is easier on baby’s tummy.

AVOCADOS Avocados are loaded with monounsaturated fats (that’s the good kind!), and they’re super-easy to prepare. Simply wait until they’re ripe and mash with a fork!

SWEET POTATOES They’re rich in beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A, and that’s important for vision, skin, normal growth and protection from infections.

MEAT Meat -- like chicken, lamb or beef -- is an excellent source of protein, as well as iron, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 and zinc. Be sure to puree it well so baby doesn’t choke.

BEETS Roasted, mashed beets are a good source of folic acid and high in potassium and beta-carotene, and they’re a sweet veggie -- which babies take a liking to quickly.

YOGURT Plain (not vanilla) whole-milk yogurt is another protein-rich option for baby -- plus it contains calcium and beneficial live active cultures (good for baby’s digestion!).

CHEERIOS The little O’s in the yellow box are an excellent finger food and a good source of fiber. Introduce these around nine months, when baby can chew.

What to Feed

So what should that exciting first taste of solid food be? For years, iron-fortified rice cereal, mixed with a generous helping of formula or breast milk, was the experts’ choice, but now nutritionists and doctors say you can take your pick. “The order of introducing foods is no longer rigid -- any order is fine,” says Jennifer Shu, MD, pediatrician and coauthor of Food Fights.

“I’m a fan of starting with a root vegetable such as carrot or sweet potato, because they’re naturally sweet and puree to a smooth texture,” says Annabel Karmel, author of more than 20 books about feeding your children and creator of the app Annabel’s Essential Guide to Feeding Your Baby & Toddler. “No-cook purees such as mashed banana or avocado are also fantastic and packed full of nutrients.” Other popular first foods are pureed apples, pears, green beans, butternut squash and oatmeal or barley cereal.

Just be careful about the consistency of baby’s food. “Start small and thin -- your baby is used to breast milk or formula, which is liquid consistency,” says Lara Field, MS, RD, CSP, LDN and founder of FEED, a pediatric nutrition counseling business. You don’t want to risk baby choking. “When starting solids, they should be runny and easy to slide off the spoon.”

Once baby’s got eating runny foods down pat, you might want to introduce pureed beef or lamb (just be sure it’s very well-blended), which is high in that essential iron. “For breastfed babies, introducing meat early has some advantages,” says Shu, “since iron is better absorbed from meat than it is from fortified cereal.”

How to Do It

START WITHOUT THE SPOON You can let baby get used to the new flavors and textures first by dipping a clean finger into the puree and feeding her from your finger, which is softer, more familiar and less intrusive than a hard spoon.

DON’T EXPECT BABY TO POLISH IT ALL OFF Your baby may only eat a tablespoon or two at a time for the first few weeks as she adjusts to the new textures and flavors. “Take it slowly,” advises Karmel. “When you first start introducing your baby to solids, it is not about quantity -- it’s just about getting them used to the idea of food.”

WATCH FOR SIGNS HE’S DONE Baby can’t yet say that he’s full, so pay attention to his body language. If he’s grabbing at the spoon, spitting out food or clamping his lips shut, he’s probably trying to signal to you that he’s stuffed.

BE READY FOR A MESS There are bound to be spills, drips and splashes as you get the hang of feeding your baby -- and your baby gets the hang of eating. But don’t let it stress you. Keep washcloths or paper towels handy and consider getting a wipe-clean drop cloth to lay down under the high chair to make cleanup a cinch.

KEEP TRYING FOODS BABY REJECTS It may take several feedings before baby decides she actually does like pureed green beans, so keep trying. You can also mix in a less-loved food with a favorite to see if that helps entice her.

What to Watch

INTRODUCE NEW FOODS CAREFULLY Go slow. Introduce something new every three days. That way, if your child develops an allergic reaction, it will be easier to find the cause.

BEWARE OF A BAD REACTION If baby develops a rash, vomiting, diarrhea or severe gas, it may be a sign of a food intolerance or allergy. Stop giving him the food immediately and call his pediatrician.

HOLD OFF ON MILK AND HONEY Many babies have a hard time digesting cow’s milk, and honey carries a risk of infant botulism if given to a baby. So hold off until after the first birthday. (Other dairy products, such as yogurt and cheese, are fine before then, though, since the lactose in them has been broken down.)

DON’T FREAK ABOUT FOOD ALLERGIES Unless you or your mate has severe food allergies, it’s okay to give baby common allergens like wheat, shellfish, fish and soy. Just watch your child closely for signs of a reaction.

Prep Like a Pro

SHOP SMART Store-bought baby food may get a bad rap, but there actually are some healthier options out there. Here’s how to suss out the right ones for your baby.

COUNT THE INGREDIENTS The fewer ingredients on the list, the better -- ideally, all the applesauce should have in it is apples. Jarred baby foods may need a few preservatives to prolong shelf life, but if you see several unpronounceable chemicals, it’s a good idea to avoid it. You can also ask your pediatrician for her recommendations of brands to try.

CHECK THE PROTEIN LEVELS Many packaged “meat” baby foods actually have very little protein and iron in them -- which means they won’t have the nutrients your baby needs. You might be better off cooking up and pureeing your own chicken and beef.

SKIP THE SALT AND THE SUGAR Babies don’t need salt or sugar -- and baby food shouldn’t have them. Period.

DIY BABY FOOD Making your own baby food is actually easier than it seems -- just blend up a few simple steamed veggies, fruits or well-cooked meats, and you’re in business. It’s also a way to maintain more control over what’s going into your baby’s mouth and may save you money over the pricey jarred foods. DIYing it may even help head off future picky eating, which toddlers are notorious for! “The variety of food in premade baby food is actually pretty limited compared with all the different fruits and vegetables that are available at the grocery store,” says Bridget Swinney, MS, RD, LD and author of Baby Bites: Everything You Need to Know About Feeding Babies and Toddlers in One Handy Book. “Leafy greens like kale, spinach and Swiss chard are rich in lutein, an antioxidant important for eye health. You don’t see those vegetables in a jar! Infancy is a perfect time for babies to try many different foods to encourage them to eat a wide variety in the toddler years.” Each week, buy a new fruit or veggie for you both to try.

Ready to give it a shot? Here’s what to keep in mind:

START SIMPLE While there are some amazing baby-centric steam-and-puree systems out there (and many moms swear they make their lives easier), the pricey gadgets aren’t necessary for making baby food. Odds are you already have everything you need in your kitchen: a microwave or stove top to steam the foods, and a blender, food mill or food processor to turn it into puree.

MAKE BIG BATCHES Don’t go crazy! You don’t have to cook fresh baby food every night. Instead, make large batches of a single type of puree and freeze it in smaller servings -- ice cube trays make perfect, one-ounce portions. Then, simply thaw out your baby’s meal by placing it in the fridge and then warming it slightly on the stove. To change it up, you can mix and match purees every night -- apple and banana puree one night, apple and chicken another. Seriously, it’s not as big a time commitment as many moms think it will be: You can carve out an hour over the weekend and make all of baby’s food for the entire week.

LET HER HAVE WHAT YOU’RE HAVING Yup, it’s okay to share what you’re eating with baby. She may not be ready for a bite of your curry or buffalo wings, but if you’re serving something simple -- like steamed broccoli, mashed potatoes, carrots, or grilled chicken -- throw some in the blender and puree it for baby to have a taste. Just remember to do the seasoning after you set aside a serving for your baby: Like we said, baby doesn’t need the salt. Other spices are fine, but you might want to take it slow to watch for allergies and to not overwhelm your baby.

MOVE BEYOND THE BASICS Now’s the time to challenge your baby’s taste buds and give him the nutrition he needs. Try ultra-healthy options, like pureed acorn squash or zucchini, mashed avocado -- or anything else you find that’s interesting in the produce aisle. You never know, he may love them for life.

TheBump.com experts: JENNIFER SHU, MD, pediatrician and coauthor of Food Fights; ANNABEL KARMEL, author of more than 20 books on feeding your kids and creator of the app Annabel’s Essential Guide to Feeding Your Baby & Toddler; LARA FIELD, MS, RD, CSP, LDN and founder of FEED, a pediatric nutrition counseling business; and BRIDGET SWINNEY, MS, RD, LD and author of Baby Bites: Everything You Need to Know About Feeding Babies and Toddlers in One Handy Book

Plus, More from The Bump:

Easy Recipes for 6-8 Month-Olds

Feeding Gear That Will Change Your Life

Best Baby Food Cookbooks

-- Lisa Milbrand

See More: Baby Basics , Solid Foods