So you are ready to let your baby explore the tasty world of food, but where to start? There are so many options and opinions out there on what and when to start feeding your baby. As a vegan parent, it is important to put a lot of thought into feeding your baby, even more so than a non-vegan parent. I am not a doctor or a registered dietician, but as a nurse and a vegan mother I have researched, explored, and learned from trial and error. This is the best advise I have for starting your vegan baby on a path to a healthy and kind life.
When To Start?
You will find some who say never before 6 months, some who say at 4 months, and everything in between. The truth is that it depends on your baby. Every baby is different and is ready for food at different stages. Generally, you will want to look for some common signs that your baby is ready for more than milk. Your baby does not need to meet all of the criteria, but should at least meet some.
- Doubled birth weight
- Shows an interest in the food your eating
- Can sit with minimal support
- The tongue thrust reflex has disappeared
- Has teeth coming in
- Can push head and torso off the ground with own hands
- Requires more than 36 ounces of formula a day
- Can pick up objects and put it in his/her mouth
- His/Her pediatrician has recommended that you start
Use your best judgment, after all, you are the parent and your intuition is worth gold when it comes to the best interest of your baby. I recommend that no matter when you decide to begin solids, to discuss it with your pediatrician first. Also, continue their normal breast milk or formula feedings. You can use a little of the milk prior to their bottle-feeding or a bit of breast milk to mix with the infant cereal or puree. Once they are done eating, you can feed them the remainder of the bottle or breastfeed them until they are satisfied. Once you start it’s easy to know when to make purees thicker, when to increase the amounts, and when to start finger foods based on observing your infant’s cues.
What To Start?
You will hear mostly that rice cereal is the best first food, but you will also hear that babies don’t need rice cereal, and even hear that baby led weaning is the way to go. All of this advise (including my own) is just opinion. I recommend taking at look at your baby and deciding what he/she is ready for and what nutrients your baby may need. Also, if you have allergies or even conditions such as eczema in your family, consider starting foods that are not common allergens and waiting to introduce things such as wheat or strawberries until much later.
If baby led weaning is appealing to you, think twice before deciding to omit rice cereal (or other iron fortified baby cereals). Around 4-6 months of age, a baby’s iron stores start to deplete. If the vegan mother already had low iron during her pregnancy, had low iron while breastfeeding, or if the baby was born premature the iron stores may start to drop sooner. A breastfed infant may benefit greatly from fortified infant cereals to keep their iron levels adequate. The other benefits of starting with infant cereals is that it is easily tolerated on their developing GI system. It also is mild tasting and comparable to the taste of the milk they are used to. If you decide not to start with infant cereals and are breastfeeding, you may want to discuss supplementing iron at this point with your child’s pediatrician.
Whether you decide to spoon feed or try out baby led weaning, the ideal first foods are much the same. It is always important to introduce only one new food at a time and wait around 4 days or so before introducing the next to rule out any food intolerances or allergies. Also, it is a good idea to start with veggies, (especially the green ones), because these will be very important to your little vegan’s diet and you want to ensure that they have developed a palate for them. Remember, organic is best and the fresher the better for your growing baby! I started with peas, moved to green beans, and then began to add sweeter veggies and some fruits. Other great first foods include carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips, avocado, bananas, prunes/ plums, apples, apricots, pears, blueberries, and peaches. After your baby is well established with the basics, you can begin to add potatoes, spinach, kale, rutabaga, herbs, spices such as cinnamon, and mix up some tasty combinations to entice their taste buds and senses. At about 8 months many vegan babies are ready for beans, lentils, and tofu!
If you find your baby suddenly becomes constipated after introducing cereal and/ or purees, there are some quick fixes that all parents should know about. Try holding off on the fortified infant rice cereal for a couple of meals or replacing it with fortified infant oatmeal. You can try feeding your infant an ounce or two of water or water mixed with a small amount of organic, no sugar added pear or prune juice. Continue their routine of purees, but hold off on the starches and bananas. Once the constipation has resolved you can resume the normal diet but you may want to start adding a small amount of apple or pear purees to the infant cereals. Also, limit the amount of potatoes and bananas your infant consumes.
Making Your Own Baby Food
I highly recommend making your own baby food for any parent, but especially for vegans. The main reason it’s more ideal for vegans is that the taste is drastically different than the jarred variety. If you don’t believe me, try pureeing some peas or green beans and then comparing the taste to a jar of the same. Whoa, the difference! Since fruits and veggies will be a critical part of your child’s diet (as should be for everyone), it is important that they develop a taste for the real version. Other benefits of making your own baby food are endless. You have peace of mind knowing exactly what is in the food, where it came from, and when it was grown. Also, I can’t forget to mention that it’s cheaper. It really isn’t that time consuming and by following a few easy guidelines you will be ensuring a great start for your baby. First, I cannot express how important it is to choose organic produce! It is even more important to choose organic when making your own purees of root veggies because of the risk of nitrate exposure and Blue Baby Syndrome. Nitrates are found in foods like carrots, parsnips, and spinach just to name a few. Jarred conventional baby food is not nitrate free, but is screened to insure a “safe” level of nitrates, but the nitrates are not removed. Babies develop the stomach acids and enzymes to safely digest nitrates around 4-6 months of age. It is recommended to never give a baby under 4 months any root veggies or foods that contain nitrates. While Blue Baby Syndrome is rare, it is very serious. Signs of the syndrome include blue discoloration around the mouth, eyes, and fingers, (cyanosis). If you begin to notice any of these symptoms seek medical attention for your baby immediately. Organic produce has much lower levels of nitrates, thus if you can only afford to purchase some organic produce or jarred baby food, root veggies are good to include. Also, I am sure you have heard of the list of produce that have the highest levels of pesticide residue, so these items should be organic as well. While foods like avocado and bananas are low on the dirty dozen list, if you can afford it, I would still recommend buying organic because what’s more important than keeping your baby chemical free? If you can’t find a particular fruit or veggie fresh and organic, it is okay to use frozen. Just be sure to never use canned fruits and veggies. It is also important to never add salt, sugar, or honey to your purees. Citrus fruits are harder for infants to digest and may cause acid reflux or diaper rash, so it’s ideal to avoid these until later. Once you have bought your fresh or frozen organic produce, you’re ready to make your purees.
What do you need to get started?
- High powered blender or a food processor
- Something to steam the produce in
- Baby food storage containers (preferred because they are BPA free) or ice cube tray
Making your own baby food puree is very simple. First, wash the produce and peel if necessary. It’s advisable to peel all fruits and veggies when your infant is just beginning to eat solids because it is easier for them to digest. Down the road you can leave the peel on if you prefer. All fruits and veggies should be cooked, preferably steamed, with the exception of banana and avocado. Fruits with a pit, such as peaches and plums, should be steamed with the pit intact to keep it from tasting sour. I like to cut produce such as sweet potatoes, apples, carrots, and pears into smaller chunks before I steam them. After steaming the produce in a small amount of purified water, drain the excess water. You do not want to use this water to blend and dilute the puree because it will contain a lot of the nitrates and other chemicals that are present. Add the steamed fruit or veggies to your blender or food processor and blend until smooth. For older infants, you may want to blend less to make the puree a bit chunkier. Transfer the finished product to a storage container or serve to your baby. I prefer to make my purees for the week all in one day. Then freeze the purees in labeled storage containers. Throughout the week I take out what I need and either thaw it in the refrigerator or toss it in my diaper bag and allow it to thaw on the go. Also, I do not dilute or add milk to my purees until I am ready to use them. It is personal preference if you are using breast milk, but formula should never be frozen.
Munchkin and other brands make fresh food mesh teethers that are wonderful! You can put a chunk of cooked carrot or fruit in the teether and let your baby explore it without the worry of them choking. Also, when their teeth are really bothering them you can put a chunk of frozen banana inside it. The sweet taste and natural sugar acts as an analgesic, the cold banana soothes their gums without being too hard like ice, and it also acts as a nice distraction. I recommend these to any and all parents.
If you want to invest in something fun for the whole family that your teething infant can enjoy too, I recommend getting a ZOKU Popsicle Maker. You can make fresh popsicles in less than 7 minutes with whatever fresh ingredients you fancy. For my teething baby I like to puree steamed fruit and juice with no added sugar. She loves biting on these with supervision on hot afternoons or when her teeth are really bothering her.
Time for Protein
Sometime between the age of 6 and 10 months your baby will likely be ready for legumes and tofu to be added to their diet. Being a vegan, you know the nutritional punch that these wonder foods can pack. With that being said, keep a close eye for signs that your baby is not ready to digest them, such as painful gas. Most pediatricians recommend waiting until 8 months or longer to introduce these foods because they can be hard to digest. Extra firm tofu is the most nutritional for infants and young vegan children, as opposed to silken tofu. To add tofu to your baby’s puree, first, drain and press the water out of the block. Then cut it into cubes and puree it in a blender or food processor. For best results, add it to thawed or fresh purees just prior to serving. You may freeze it, but the texture and color will change. Be sure to use organic, non-GMO tofu. Once your infant has moved onto finger foods, you can cut it into small chunks and serve raw, baked, or sautéed with a bit of coconut oil. You can also begin to add beans and lentils to your baby’s purees. I would not recommend using the canned variety. Make sure you spread the beans or lentils out to check for debris and rinse more meticulously than you would for your own use. Soak the beans for 6-8 hours prior to cooking and soak the lentils for about an hour prior to cooking. Puree the cooked beans or lentils in a blender or food processor and add to your purees. As with the tofu, once your baby is ready for finger foods, offer smashed beans and then gradually move on to the whole bean. Some great beans to let your little one explore are black beans, kidney beans, peeled butter beans, and peeled garbanzo beans. As most vegans know, the bigger the variety of beans, the better because different beans offer different nutrients.
Tips For Feeding Older Infants
As your baby gets older and approaches more finger foods, it will be easier on you and your baby will enjoy eating similar meals as your eating. Having Mexican food? Make your little one their own version of guacamole without the seasonings and serve it with beans either smashed or pureed. If your family is having Indian food or curry, you can mix their pureed lentils with sweet potatoes and even a touch of turmeric or cinnamon. Only add spices and seasonings one at a time to watch for intolerances and usually do not add them before 8 months, but some people choose to add them earlier.
Smoothies are a great frozen treat for older infants that are packed with nutrients. You can add fresh or frozen fruits such as bananas, pears, apricots, peaches, plums, or blueberries with spinach or kale, breast milk or formula, ice and even tofu in a blender. Make sure all the chunks are well blended or strain before serving.
One of my favorite things to do with my little girl is to watch her taste new foods and make a huge mess at the same time. Good luck and above all have fun!
- Cuisinart Food Processor
- Vitamix Blender
- Munchkin Fresh Food Feeder
- OXO Tot Baby Blocks Freezer Storage
- ZOKU Popsicle Maker
- Earth’s Best Organic Whole Grain Fortified Infant Cereals
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.