Feeding an infant or toddler can feel daunting for many parents, especially while coping with the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are starting to introduce new foods to your baby or are working to expand their taste preferences as they move into toddlerhood, here are a few tips to make this important transition easier for you and your child.
1.) Begin introducing complementary foods when your baby is around six months old
The World Health Organization recommends that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life if the mother desires and is able to do so. If breastfeeding is not an option, iron-fortified infant formula is the next best choice. Around six months of age, solid foods can be introduced to a baby’s diet (in addition to breast milk or formula). Breastfed babies should first be introduced to iron-rich foods like pureed meats, fortified rice, or oatmeal infant cereal. Around this time, an infant’s iron stores from birth have been depleted. Babies on iron-fortified formula can start with any food, such as pureed vegetables and fruits or infant cereals.
If starting solid foods seems overwhelming, it can be helpful to create a list of new foods you want your baby to try over the next few weeks and decide how you might prepare them — for example, oatmeal with peanut butter, mashed banana, or pureed sweet potato. Then, add these foods to upcoming dates on your calendar. You also can include foods you’re planning on eating yourself and prep some of it in infant-friendly ways. For example, if chicken is on the menu, it can be pureed with water for your baby. Vegetables can be steamed and then pureed, mashed, or cut into bite-size pieces. Having your baby eat the same foods as you can alleviate stress and save time.
New foods should be introduced every 3 to 5 days, which makes it easier to track potential allergic reactions and food intolerances. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that peanuts should be introduced along with other complementary foods, since delaying their introduction is associated with an increased risk of peanut allergy. Note that babies should not eat whole peanuts or peanut butter on its own because these foods are choking hazards. Instead, one easy and safe way to incorporate peanuts into your baby’s diet is by stirring smooth peanut butter into pureed cereals or fruits. For more best practices on how and what to feed infants and young toddlers, check out this recent report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.
2. Variety is key
As a child grows, it’s essential to keep introducing a variety of different foods into their diet, including a wide array of vegetables, fruits, yogurt, grains, and protein sources that will help your baby get the nutrients they need for optimal growth and development. It’s important to make sure you serve foods in age-appropriate ways, which often means that foods arrive first in pureed or completely soft form, then progress to “squishable” consistencies, then lumpy textures, and finally, take the form of soft, bite-sized pieces.
3. Don’t stress if your child doesn’t love everything you make them
Babies and toddlers may be fussy, act disinterested or refuse to eat when presented with new foods for the first time. Don’t worry — it can take many attempts before your child accepts a new food. Persistence is important. Continue to regularly offer foods they may not like right away. You can also try switching up how you prepare certain foods. Vegetables, for example, can be steamed, roasted, seasoned with spices, served warm or cold, or cut into different shapes. Pay attention to how your child responds to each new food. Did they give it a try or refuse it outright? Did they pick it up, squish it, or play with it? Even if they didn’t actually eat it, letting your child freely interact with new foods is a great way to help them feel more comfortable and accepting of them. Eventually, they’ll probably give it a try.
4. Budget-friendly options can provide a healthy diet for your child
Economic reverberations of the COVID-19 pandemic have left an impact on the wallets of many Americans. If you are worried about feeding your child healthy foods on a tight grocery budget, there are plenty of ways to do so. Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are healthy options and are often cheaper than fresh sources. They can offer similar—or in some cases, better—nutritional benefits. Canned tuna and salmon or plant proteins like beans, lentils, and tofu are affordable and kid-friendly sources of protein. Try choosing low-sodium and no-added-sugar options whenever possible.
5. Be present and engaged during mealtimes
Sitting down to eat with your child during meals can help them view eating as a positive experience and make mealtimes more fun for the whole family. Kids are always watching, listening, and learning from people around them, and modeling healthy eating behaviors is a great way to get your child to try new foods and develop a positive relationship with eating. If you are feeding your child a new food, try some, too. Research suggests that this may make your infant more likely to accept it. Mealtime is also an opportunity to disconnect from your phone and other technology. Your child will benefit from your undivided attention, and unplugging may help lower your own stress levels — even if just for a little while.
Life during the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been easy, especially for parents. But one silver lining may be that spending more time at home strengthens your family relationships by being more engaged with each other. Although cooking and eating habits have shifted massively since the pre-pandemic days, you can view this period as an opportunity to spend time helping your child develop their taste preferences and their sense of adventure with — and enjoyment of — food.