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Healthy first foods

Reviewed by our expert panel
Healthy first foods

A guide to getting your baby started on solid foods.

You’ve made it through child-birth, mastered bathing, feeding and changing – and all on a mood-warping sleep schedule. Everything is settling into a nice routine when, around six months, the next stage kicks in. It’s easy to recognise. Your baby is still grizzly after her feed; anything within chubby hand’s reach goes straight into her mouth; and whenever a spoon approaches, her drooling mouth opens like a starving baby bird.

The New Zealand Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Infants and Toddlers recommends infants be fed only breast milk until they are developmentally ready for extra food. This will be around six months.

Getting started on solids can be a bit scary. Breastfeeding is fine – you can trust it to give baby exactly the right nutrients in the right amounts. But when I had to start giving my son ‘solid’ food, I rushed for the articles I had written as a childless dietitian, poring over the feeding tips and hints that seemed to have flown from my brain when faced with a real, live baby.

For those with a milk-loving baby or who are a bit daunted by the whole transition process, it can be tempting to delay starting on other food. But a baby is born with only enough zinc and iron stores to last around six months. A premature baby has even lower stores because iron is mostly stored in the last three months of pregnancy. If you leave solids any later than six months, there is a risk your baby will have an iron deficiency.

At the other extreme are mums who may have misinterpreted all that fussing and crying as hunger, and start their baby on solids too early. Breast milk is the number one source of nutrients and energy for babies. If food is replacing some of the milk at an early age, your baby can miss out on vital nutrients and energy for growth. Most importantly, a baby’s digestive system needs time to mature. Start solids too early and you put stress on immature kidneys and the digestive system as well as increase the chance of developing eczema, asthma or food allergies.

  • Cows’ milk. Wait until 12 months.
  • Whole nuts. These are a choking hazard. Wait until 5 years.
  • Honey. This contains a spore that can cause infant botulism. Wait until 12 months. Honey is similar to sugar – babies don’t need it.
  • Tomatoes, citrus, pineapple, kiwifruit, berries, papaya. These are quite acidic and contain small seeds and enzymes. Wait until 8-12 months.
  • Tea, herbal tea, coffee, alcohol. No baby needs these foods. Tea binds up iron and greatly reduces how much iron is absorbed from food. Tea and coffee contain caffeine which is a stimulant and not suitable for children.
  • Fizzy drinks, soft drink, cordial, fruit juice. These are high in sugar. Stick to breast milk, formula, or cooled, boiled water.
  • Salty meat – corned beef, canned fish, povi masima. Don’t use as first foods.
  • Until recently, we were told to delay introducing some foods such as fish, eggs and nuts to prevent food allergies. But there is not enough evidence to say this helps, even in high-risk infants.
  • Don’t feed straight from the jar as bacteria in baby’s saliva will contaminate the food.
  • Throw away any opened jar 1-2 days after opening.
  • Always wash your hands before cooking and feeding your baby.
  • Keep pots, knives and tea towels very clean.
  • Make small amounts of food – enough for only 1-2 days.
    If you make a larger amount of food, freeze the extra in ice-cube trays.
  • Throw away food left over in the bowl after feeding.
    Never re-freeze thawed food.
  • Re-heat food to steaming hot, then cool to the right temperature.

Researchers at Starship Hospital recently found babies who were initially fed commercial baby food had less iron deficiency than those whose first meals were home-cooked. Does this mean we should all be dumping our blenders and grabbing our can openers? Dr Clare Wall, one of the key researchers says, “We tend to think that homemade is better than bought so these results are quite surprising. What we think it shows is that people need to be very careful to include enough iron-rich meat in their homemade baby food by including some meat, chicken, liver or fish at least every few days. We also found that giving fruit with a meal, rather than in between meals, really improved iron status as vitamin C helps the iron in food to be absorbed.”

Homemade baby food is ideal when you have the time, equipment and skills. But if you are juggling a baby, a busy family, running a household and maybe paid work as well, commercial baby food can be a life-saver. It is handy to be able to open a jar or can for dinner. There are some excellent baby foods available. The food standards code limits the amount of sodium (from salt) in prepared foods for infants, but not sugars. Where sugars exceed 4g per 100g you’ll see the word ‘sweetened’ on the label. Don’t get hung up on thickeners. You would not make a casserole or custard without thickening with something like cornflour.

  • Quick and convenient
  • Handy for travelling
  • Meet strict nutrition and food safety standards
  • Easy to choose as they are coded for age
  • Usually cheaper
  • Babies learn to enjoy individual food flavours rather than mixed meal tastes
  • Babies get used to normal family foods and flavours
  • Can vary the texture and chunkiness as they develop so they gradually get used to ‘real’ food
  • Parents are in control of what their baby is eating
  • Babies learn to enjoy a wider variety of vegetables and fruit, so they will accept new foods as they get older
  • Mix with a familiar food like puréed apple
  • Try again after a few days
  • Keep trying. It can take up to 15 tries before a child will like a food

A baby needs more iron than her dad! Iron carries oxygen around the body and keeps the immune system strong, resulting in less coughs, colds and tummy bugs, it is essential for developing brain cells. In fact, a baby’s brain reaches 80% of its adult size in the first two years. A lack of iron at this critical time can impair intellectual development – and it’s often irreversible. Children who are seriously iron-deficient in their first two years of life do not learn so well once they get to school. Almost one in six (14%) children in Auckland under two years of age are iron-deficient.

There is no set amount of food that babies need. Babies are very good at regulating the amount of food they need, so if your baby turns her head away when the food approaches or decides to spit out the food, take the hint: she’s had enough! The Ministry of Health’s Food and Nutrition Guidelines suggest the following amounts as a guide:

  • Around 6 months: Start first foods in small amounts: 1/2 teaspoon to 2 teaspoons per meal.
  • 6-8 months: 2-3 meals a day. 2 tablespoons to 1/2 cup per meal. Increase the amount gradually before increasing the number of meals.
  • 9-12 months: 3-4 meals a day with 1-2 snacks as required.
  • Toddlers: 3 meals a day with 2 snacks.

6-7 months: Puréed foods

For the first year of life, breast milk or infant formula is a baby’s most important nutrient source. Until 8-9 months, food is simply a ‘top up’ after a usual milk feed. Buy a soft baby teaspoon and start with 1/2-2 teaspoons of food. Try only one new food every 2-4 days. This ensures your baby tolerates the food.  If your baby has a bloated tummy, runny eyes or nose, a rash around the mouth or bottom, or is unusually grumpy, talk to your health practitioner for advice.

Foods to try

  • Iron-fortified baby cereal thinned with breast milk, infant formula or water
  • Puréed or mashed fruit such as banana, avocado, apple, pear (no skins or pips)
  • Cooked and puréed vegetables like carrot, pumpkin, potato, kumara, cassava
  • Cooked and puréed meat like beef, lamb, pork, chicken, fish
  • Cooked and puréed legumes
  • Vegetables like pumpkin or kumara, thinned with puréed apple (or breast milk or infant formula) to help food slide down more easily. Babies don’t mind if their fruit and veges are mixed together!

7-8 months: Mashed foods

Move on to soft, lumpy, mashed food. This helps develop the chewing muscles. Try mashing steamed vegetables with a fork, adding cooked minced meat, or blending meals for less time. Gradually increase the variety of food offered. Don’t add salt or sugar. A baby’s taste buds are stimulated enough with all the new flavours from food. Adding salt or sugar will only make a baby develop a taste for salty or sweet foods, and  put stress on the kidneys. If your baby spits out a new food, try again in a few days. It’s quite normal for them to reject new tastes and it can take from 8-15 offers before a baby or toddler accepts a new food.

Foods to try

  • Cooked and mashed egg
  • Tofu, tempeh
  • Cheese, yoghurt (full fat, not reduced-fat), cottage cheese, custard, milk puddings
  • White or smooth wholemeal toast
  • Well-cooked pasta, noodles or rice
  • Mashed vegetables and fruit such as broccoli, cauliflower, courgette, parsnip, peas, potato, nectarine, peach, mango  and leafy green veges (remove stalks and stringy bits)

8-12 months: Chopped foods

By now, your baby can have food first and finish off with milk. Babies at this stage want to feed themselves. Try finger foods such as mini meatballs, thin strips of cooked meat, toast fingers or vegetable sticks (carrot or cucumber) topped with avocado, cottage cheese, hummus or smooth peanut butter.

Foods to try

  • Finely chopped or shredded meat, chicken, fish
  • Smooth peanut butter (check label for no added salt or sugar)
  • Hummus
  • Breakfast cereal: porridge, infant muesli, wheat biscuits – only once a day with breast milk or infant formula. (Never add cereals or any other food to an infant’s feeding bottle.)
  • Crackers (choose lower salt varieties)
  • French toast – cut in fingers
  • Mini pancakes with banana
  • Peeled raw fruit such as orange, kiwifruit, pineapple, berries
  • Salad vegetables

Remember: Just because you’ve started solids, there’s no need to stop breastfeeding. Continue to breastfeed until at least one year or beyond.

1.  Breast milk or infant formula


2.  Iron-fortified baby cereal with mashed/puréed fruit (vitamin C in the fruit increases iron absorption from the cereal)


3. Meat with vegetables (meat helps baby absorb up to four times more iron from the vegetables)

  • For vegetarians: try dark-green leafy vegetables, sieved lentils, chickpeas and split peas with some vitamin C-rich food to increase absorption.
  • Liver is rich in iron but also vitamin A. Too much vitamin A can damage the liver. Feed your 7 to 12-month-old baby no more than 2 teaspoons (10g) a week.
First published: Aug 2008

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