I don't pretend to be an expert in the debate of pureed baby food versus baby-led weaning, but what I do know is that the diet that I claim to be the healthiest for adults, is also the healthiest for children- even babies!
Nonetheless, there is a lot of evidence in favor of baby-led weaning, and so most of this article is presented from that point of view
For those of you who want to feed your babies plant-based, but worry about key nutrients like iron, calcium, protein, and the likes, this article is for you!
This is a simple breakdown of what I consider to be the key things you need to know to feed your baby (6 months-1 year) plant-based!
There are a lot of experts who break it down even further than me, so see my further reading list at the end of this article if you are wanting more information.
The Big Guys: Carbohydrates, Protein, and Fat
Don't get bogged down by trying to plan out exactly where your babe is going to get their 3 macros from. The reality is that plants are often sources of all 3, and so by having a varied diet, you shouldn't have any issues meeting their needs.
Offer a varied diet, and try to include things from these 4 categories at every meal.
1) Fruits or vegetables (especially vitamin C and calcium-rich options)
2) Grains and starches (iron-rich when possible)
3) Legumes, nuts, and seeds
4) A source of fat, especially omega 3 fats from nuts and seeds
A Special Note on Fat
Babes who are under 1 still get a majority of their calories from breastmilk or formula. However, this is still a period of rapid growth, and we want to make sure that the foods we are feeding our babies are nutrient-rich (aka full of healthy vitamins and minerals) as well as a good source of calories (sorry baby puffs, you just are cutting it) to aid their growth.
To do this, you can add in sources of healthy fat such as avocado, nuts and seeds, tofu, and healthy oils like olive oil. Adding fat will not only provide calories but will aid with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Try coating your roasted or steamed vegetables in olive oil and some salt-free seasoning before serving, or spreading a thin layer of nut butter on toast, or making chia pudding (sugar-free of course) for breakfast. Fat should be featured with every meal. Let me reiterate, every meal.
A type of fat that is especially key to brain development, but which is low in a plant-based diet is DHA. So most experts recommend adding in an algae oil supplement for your baby once they are weaned off breast milk or formula (usually after 1 years old). However, if mom is breastfeeding, MOM is the main source of DHA, so make sure you are supplementing as well.
The Little Guys: Vitamins and Minerals
Calcium will also be present mostly through breastmilk or formula between 6 months to 1 year. However, including them through food is never a bad idea!
Good sources: tofu, oranges, beans, bok choy, kale, broccoli.
Whether you are using a traditional puree approach or baby-led weaning (an approach using modified whole foods right from the start), we need to think a lot about where this 6 to 12-month-old is getting their iron. The best source is NOT meat but is in fact baby cereal, which has been fortified with iron. If your baby is on formula, they will be receiving iron from that, but introducing a dietary source of iron, especially among breastfed infants, is important due to their natural iron stores being depleted during the first 6 months.
Good Sources: fortified baby cereal, beans, lentils, soy foods, canned tomatoes, almond butter, bread, legume pasta.
You can also use lots of iron-rich plant foods like whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds (nuts as butter but most seeds can be as is). Most importantly, you can improve the absorption of iron by including vitamin C-rich foods like strawberries, citrus, bell peppers, and potatoes.
While the need for zinc increases around 6 months, your babe will be able to get zinc from many of the same foods that are rich in iron.
Good Sources: wheat germ, bran flakes, tahini, beans, peanut butter, quinoa, pumpkin seeds/seed butter.
B12, Vitamin D, and Choline
If you are a breastfeeding mom, don't forget to be supplementing with B12, vitamin D, and choline (if it's not present in your pre or postnatal vitamins) and supplementing your baby with 400 IU of vitamin D. Formula-fed babies should have these needs met through the formula.
Most food allergies produce immediate responses, so you don't really need to wait 2-3 days in between introducing them as previously taught. If your child has a high risk of a food allergy, you will likely want to introduce them in a supervised situation like at a doctor's office, where immediate help is available. If your babe is low or moderate risk, rotate through the high-allergen foods (peanuts, milk, eggs, soy, shellfish, fish, tree nuts, wheat) after 6 months.
Even if you are plant-based, it's a good idea to expose your little ones to allergenic animal-derived foods to keep them from developing a severe reaction that would put strain on them later in life.
What Not to Feed Your Baby
As most of us know, don't give your baby under 1 honey, round foods, raw foods that can be bitten into a large chunk, full nuts or other hard foods, foods that are crumby like french bread or crackers, large globs of nut butter, cow's milk, deli meat or fresh cheeses. Try to avoid salt as much as possible by omitting it while cooking at home and limiting store-bought foods. Also, it is ill-advised to give a baby under 2 sugar, even natural sugars like maple syrup or agave.
How Often to Feed a Baby 6-12 months
You would begin by offering maybe 1 meal a day to babies around 6 months. You want this to be about an hour after they have had milk so that they are hungry enough to be interested in food, but not so hungry that they are frustrated by the slowness of eating. It may take several weeks for your baby to truly be interested in foods.
By about 9 months, they should be coming 3 "meals" a day. By 12 months, they will likely need 3 meals and 2 snacks a day.
While I did my best to cover the most critical pieces of information for feeding a 6-12 month old, there is still so much more to talk about and cover. For detailed instruction on how to feed this age range, I recommend the following resources.
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