Is meat for a baby a good food choice? Can babies eat meat at all? Should you avoid it or serve it? And when should you start? It used to be that recommendations advised waiting until 9 months or a year to serve meat, but more recently recommendations are that meat can even be one of your baby’s first foods! Keep reading to find out what the best meat is for babies, how often you should serve it, and why it might be a good choice.
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Why Babies Should Eat Meat
Serving babies meat isn’t an absolute must if your family doesn’t eat meat. But if you do eat meat, it’s a great food to think about giving your baby right from the start. Before we get started, meat can colloquially refer to several types (including poultry), but today I'm specifically going to be focusing on red meat like beef, pork, and lamb.
Iron for Babies
When babies reach about 6 months, their iron stores start to diminish. It is by no means an immediate thing, though. With this in mind, maintaining iron stores is one of the reasons that we recommend starting solid foods around that 6 month mark. While breast milk does have some iron in it, it is not enough to maintain the levels that babies need after they get to 6 months.
The easiest form of iron for people to digest is heme iron, which is found in animal foods. Red meat is one of the best sources of heme iron out there. Plant based sources of iron have the non-heme form of iron. This type of iron is absorbed by the body less readily than heme iron.
Because babies need a relatively high amount of iron in their diet, providing them with a heme source of it is a great start. That’s not to say that you should only give animal (heme) sources of iron, as non-heme sources still provide good sources, as well. (Head here for a list of iron-rich foods.) Think of it as being not as much bang for your buck when it comes to iron and how many bites babies take, though.
Iron Absorption and Baby Cereal
One of the reasons that baby cereal, whether it be rice or oat or any other kind, is recommended by many doctors as a first food is that it is fortified with iron. But the iron that it is fortified with is essentially non-heme. Meaning it is not as easily absorbable as the heme iron in meat. Again, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t serve it, but that there are better options for iron out there! Giving your baby something like meat at the beginning of starting foods will help to maximize your baby's iron stores more than cereal will!
When Can My Baby Eat Meat?
I recommend serving meat as one of your baby’s first foods! For most babies this is right around that 6 month mark. (Click here to see the signs of developmental readiness to look for before starting foods!) There are many different ways to prepare it so it is baby-friendly. Like I mentioned above, meat can maximize your baby’s ability to absorb iron from their diet. It is also a great source of other nutrients, like zinc, that are best absorbed from animal foods. These are just a few reasons why you might consider making meat one of your baby's first foods.
What is the Best Meat for Babies?
When it comes to meat for baby, it’s all about making it easy for them to get to their mouth. If you are serving purees to your new eater, there are several options out there for pre-made baby food purees with meat in them. To make at home you would simply take any meat you have cooked already (without salt!) Place it in a blender or food processor with a small amount of liquid like water or sodium-free broth, and blend until smooth. No need to worry about the cut or type of meat if you will be pureeing it anyways.
Baby Led Weaning Meat Options
With baby led weaning there are lots of safe options for meat for your baby. For those early days before your baby is tearing off chunks of things, you can simply grill a piece of meat for them. Sirloin or tenderloin tend to be the best meat for babies, you're aiming for tender cuts.
Your meat does not need to be cooked until well done. Instead, use a meat thermometer (I like this one) and cook it until the thickest part reaches 145F. This is usually considered medium or medium well, depending on who’s doing the cooking. Feel free to season the meat with any combination of spices you enjoy, or leave it plain. Make sure any seasoning is salt-free, however.
How to Serve Meat to Babies
Cut the meat into strips and serve to your baby as pictured here. The idea is for your baby to suck on it and remove the juices, which are rich in iron. Once your baby is able to tear things off with their teeth you will need to serve it another way to prevent it from becoming a choking hazard. For some babies this takes awhile, for others they do it relatively quickly after starting to eat.
Once your baby can no longer eat meat in strips, there are still several ways you can serve them meat. When they have mastered their pincer grasp (meaning they can pick things up with their thumb and forefinger), you can cut tender cuts of meat into pinky size pieces. You can also cook meat in a crock pot or another low heat method. Low heat for long periods will help to break down the meat into very tender bits. Serve this meat shredded in pieces for your baby to eat.
You can also serve things like strips of hamburger, meatballs, or other forms of ground beef. Plain ground beef is fine once they have their pincer grasp, but for some babies it can be very dry and hard to manipulate in their mouth. I usually recommend starting with the ground beef in a sauce or finger strip to start with. Then move on to just plain when your baby appears able to manipulate things easier in their mouth.
How Often Should Babies Eat Meat
While I do recommend that we serve meat to babies, especially in those first few months of eating, I don’t recommend serving it every day. When you serve it, do your best to buy the best quality that you can afford. Grass fed and finished beef is going to have a better fat profile than conventionally raised beef, but it is much more expensive. Both will have similar amounts of iron and other important nutrients. Aim for grass fed if you can afford it, but don't worry if you can't.
For people of all ages, I recommend relying on more plant-based sources of nutrition. This means curtailing meat intake in any form down to 2-3 times a week. This goes for meat for your baby, too. Red meat has been shown to have adverse health effects if eaten in large amounts, and we want to balance that with the benefits that it does have. At this point, recommendations and experts support lowering meat intake, and aiming for 2-3 times a week is a great, healthy way to approach it.
Meat For Babies: The Bottom Line
Meat is a great early food for babies as it is an excellent source of iron. It can be served safely puree style or with baby led weaning and finger foods. Aim to keep meat intake for babies and that entire family to 2-3 times a week to help maximize benefits without the risks of red meat intake.