By Vesanto Melina, MS RD and Kristen Yarker, RD
Things have changed in the world of infant nutrition! Whereas in the past, strict sequences were suggested for introducing solid foods, these rules have been abandoned as our understanding of food allergies and infant nutrition evolved. In families whose diets are plant-based, the timing and sequence for starter foods are similar to those for those in non-vegetarian households. Whatever your family’s eating pattern, it’s recommended that when baby’s diet expands beyond breast milk or formula, you offer your baby iron-rich foods twice a day.
Why the focus on iron? This mineral plays a crucial role in growth and development. It is especially important for an infant’s cognitive development. For the first six months, babies rely on the iron stores that were stockpiled when they were in the womb. At about six months of age, these stores start to run low and it’s time to add iron-rich foods. While breastmilk is superb as the sole food for the first 4 to 6 months of life, it is naturally low in iron. Thus, iron-rich starter foods can be added. By the way, for those using infant formula, most contain iron; check the labels.
Iron-rich plant foods include beans, lentils, tofu, nut and seed butters, and iron-fortified infant cereals (also known as mush or pablum). Green beans and peas contain some iron. Cooked spinach contains iron however the mineral is bound with oxalate and less available. The iron (and calcium) in cooked, pureed kale are more readily absorbed.
Beans or lentils can be mashed, and smaller beans or lentils served whole as finger foods. Avoid offering larger whole beans that can be a choking hazard. In fact, take care to avoid any chunks of food or spoonsful of peanut butter that may be difficult to swallow and cause choking.
Spread nut and seed butters thinly on toast, strips of tortilla, or crackers. Babies tend to be able to grasp pieces of foods that are cut into finger-shaped pieces.
Cook tofu before serving it to babies less than 12 months old; steaming is one good way to heat it. Babies enjoy the texture of soft tofu. Medium and firm tofu can easily be mashed. Firm and extra firm tofu, cut into long, thin strips, make great finger foods.
Read ingredient lists when choosing infant cereals; many contain cow’s milk (often as skim milk powder). Natural foods stores and grocery stores with a focus on natural foods are good places to finding milk-free infant cereals. These can be mixed with iron-fortified formula or breast milk.
In general, vegetables, fruits (apart from apricots and raisins), and unfortified grains are relatively low in iron. However they add a great deal to the overall menu. Once you’ve introduced a few iron-rich foods, start including a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and grains to provide a variety of nutrients to your baby and so she or he can experience all the amazing tastes and textures that food comes in!
Vesanto Melina is co-author (with Brenda Davis) of the award winning Becoming Vegan: Express Edition; and of the very new Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition (2014). Both are considered nutrition bibles. Vesanto’s website: www.nutrispeak.com.
Kristen Yarker is known as “The Dietitian Who Transforms Picky Eaters into Food Confident Kids”. From introducing solids through the picky eating years, she helps Moms and Dads (in families on any dietary pattern) be confident that they’re giving their kids good nutrition… and instilling a life-long LOVE of healthy eating. Get scientific evidence-based answers to real questions from real parents (recipes too!). Sign up for her 101 Healthy Snack Ideas at: vitaminkconsulting.com.