Most parents want to feed their children the most nutritious foods possible, avoiding additives such as preservatives, thickeners, flavorings and colorings that can trigger allergies and other adverse reactions. The best way to control what your baby eats is to make his or her food yourself. It also introduces the baby to the foods commonly served at home, which helps establish eating as a family activity and may make the child more comfortable trying new foods later in life.
Infants this age should only consume breastmilk, formula or water. Breast milk provides the nutrients a baby needs at all stages of infancy, beginning with colostrum (produced by a mother's mammary glands for three to five days after she gives birth), which contains infection-fighting antibodies and helps the baby rid its system of bilirubin and other wastes.
Around 4 to 6 months, watch for signs your baby is ready for solid food: holds head steadily, sits up without support and shows an interest in what other people are eating.
When the baby is ready, offer solid food after breastfeeding or formula-feeding sessions. A common first food is iron-enriched rice or oat cereal (holding off on wheat and barley, which contain gluten, a common allergen) blended with formula or breast milk. Avoid feeding cereal from a bottle. It can cause choking, leads to overfeeding and doesn't help the baby learn the mechanics of eating solid food.
You also can mix breast milk or formula with pureed fruits and vegetables, including avocados, apples, bananas, pears, squash and sweet potatoes. Offer the baby a tablespoon of solid food two to three times a day in the beginning.
Now is the time to introduce pureed or mashed fruits and vegetables without mixing them with formula or breast milk. To help monitor potential allergic reactions, each new food should be introduced individually, without straying from the newest food for roughly four days after introduction. Signs of a possible food allergy usually occur within 2 minutes to 2 hours after ingestion and include hives, facial swelling and/or redness, itchiness on or near the mouth, vomiting, diarrhea, runny/stuffy nose, sneezing and shortness of breath.
In addition to fruits and vegetables such as mangoes, peaches, prunes and snap beans, you can begin adding chicken, tofu, turkey and plain whole milk yogurt to your baby's diet.
Babies this age can drink fruit juice, but give them only 100 percent fruit juice that hasn't been sweetened. Let the baby drink juice only from a sippy cup, not a bottle, to prevent tooth decay. Limit the baby's intake of juice to less than 4 ounces a day.
Parents should still aim to offer the baby 1 tablespoon of solid food two to three times daily.
Allow babies to decide how much they need to eat by offering finger foods three to four times daily. Age-appropriate finger foods include dry cereal, teething biscuits, chopped hard-boiled eggs, small chunks of soft fruits, tofu cubes coated in cereal "dust," and pea-sized pieces of cooked meat or fish. Beans, pasta, cottage cheese, cream cheese, hard cheeses, mushrooms and onions also can be introduced. Since you likely are aware of your baby's allergies by this time, you can introduce new foods as often as you want. Babies generally don't have molars until they're 12 to 18 months old, so prepare foods that can be easily eaten using just the gums. Now is also the time to introduce spices commonly used at home — with the exception of salt and sugar.
Foods that commonly irritate younger babies — including acidic citrus, which can cause diaper rash, and highly acidic tomatoes, which can upset tummies — may be safely incorporated into the diet of children this age. At 12 months, you can add milk, honey and soft cheese to baby's fare. It is not recommended for younger babies because honey can cause botulism and soft cheese made from unpasteurized milk can cause listeriosis.
Toddlers likely are on the same feeding schedule as adults, eating three to four times a day, plus snacks. Many are weaned from the breast or bottle. Eliminating choking hazards is a high priority for this age. Potential choking hazards include slippery foods like hard candy, hot dogs and cherry tomatoes; sticky foods such as nut butters and white bread; and crumbly foods like popcorn, muffins and granola, which often "go down the wrong pipe."
To reduce the risk of choking, cut slippery solid foods into small pieces, don't serve sticky foods alone (make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of peanut butter by itself) and serve a beverage alongside crumbly foods.
The right tools can make preparing baby food easier. To get started, you'll need a vegetable steamer, food processor and immersion blender.
You also can choose gadgets designed especially for making baby food, such as the Baby Bullet Food System, $59.99 at Babies R Us (6851 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie, 504-885-8242; www.babiesrus.com) or the Babycook, $119.95 at Zuka Baby (2122 Magazine St., 504-596-6540; www.zukababy.com).