When it comes to starting solid foods, many people think of vegetables as some of the best first foods. But are they really the best new foods to start your baby on?
Fresh fruit (or frozen!) and a wide variety of vegetables are a great way to incorporate nutrient-rich foods in your baby's diet. But they are by no means the most important when it comes to your baby's first bites!
Focus on Iron-Rich Foods First
Many people think of vegetables as a great first food. But focusing on iron-rich foods and high calorie foods is actually the best way to help make sure your baby is meeting their needs!
Right around that 6 months of age mark, breast milk and infant formula start to no longer provide all of the nutrients your baby needs. And while things like dietary fiber and vitamin A can be important in diets, they aren't that important in those first few months of eating!
Iron, on the other hand, is.
Your baby also has high caloric needs compared to how much they eat. Meaning that focusing on high calorie foods gives your baby more bang for their buck. For every bite they take, they are getting in more calories.
Vegetables generally don't have very much iron, and many aren't very calorically dense. Meaning that while vegetables are important for introducing your baby to a wide variety of foods, they aren't as important nutritionally in those first 12 months of life.
How Introducing Vegetables Affects Food Preferences In Babies
While vegetables (and fruit for that matter) aren't the most important nutritionally at first, they can help to introduce new flavors to your baby.
Some people argue that introducing vegetables as a first food can help to prime your baby's palate to accept more vegetables as they grow.
Some research has shown that introducing vegetables first before other foods can have a short term affect on vegetable acceptance. Many studies only look to 12 or 24 months of age to determine acceptance, however. (ref) Between 2-4 is generally when we see more concern with not enjoying vegetables and a variety of foods!
They also assume that acceptance means a child being spoon fed and not turning their head away. (We know that sometimes babies can be slow to warm up to a new taste, but it doesn't mean they don't accept it!) The studies also don't generally take into account all of the other environmental factors that go into whether your baby enjoys vegetables and fruits as they grow!
What We Know About Vegetable Acceptance
We can look at studies all day that will argue for one way of introducing vegetables over another. But at the end of the day, it's not about vegetables!
Our goal in feeding our kids is that they learn to like a wide variety of foods. That is the best way to get them a variety of nutrients as they grow. This means enjoying different types of vegetables, as well as different fruits, legumes, meat or dairy if their family eats it.
Focusing on vegetables can put an outsize importance on it and actually result in pressure and LESS acceptance of vegetables.
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How to Include Vegetables in Your Baby's Diet
So what does that mean practically for you? Don't start with just one food. Start with the 3 categories of foods. Serve them an iron-rich food, a high-calorie food, and a fruit or vegetable at every meal.
Don't stress about which of them they eat. Focus instead on consistently offering different things to help expose them to new and different flavors. And then allow them to get used to them.
Serve them the same foods as the rest of the family, with a focus on different flavors over time. When possible, simply aim to experiment with a new to you fruit or vegetable whenever you're at the grocery store.
Think about exposing them to bitter-tasting foods like cruciferous vegetables. (Think broccoli and dark leafy greens.) Find some that might have a stronger flavor like root vegetables. Or sweet-tasting vegetables like sweet potatoes, winter squash, or even bell peppers.
There's no need to avoid vegetables with a sweet flavor. But you also don't want to rely only on them exclusively. Incorporate them in different ways, as a part of your baby's diet but not the whole thing.
Use Finger Food to Introduce New Foods and Flavors
At the end of the day, it tends to be much easier to help your child accept vegetables as they grow when their environment is conducive to that. Serving them finger foods in a baby led weaning style of baby food is incredibly conducive to this as baby led weaning generally includes food that the rest of the family is eating. It also helps to foster their own independence around food and ability to avoid outside influence.
But it isn't the only way.
No matter which way you start foods, do your best to avoid giving just one type of food for an extended period of time. It is no longer the recommendation to feed one food for several days before including another.
We know that introducing variety in their diet is actually more vital for most kids. It has more benefits than extreme caution with the speed of introducing foods. Not to mention the guideline to introduce foods 3-5 days apart doesn't actually have any research behind it.
Simply by introducing a variety of foods throughout your baby's first year, which can include lots of vegetables, and in an environment conducive to eating, you will help your baby learn to like all sorts of foods. Which is our goal with feeding. Because it's not about the vegetables!
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