What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler?

Having the right diet for your baby is important for potty training. When baby is eating healthy foods, their digestive system will also be healthy, and this will make their bathroom business much easier and predictable, for both you and them. But what should you be feeding your baby to ensure they are getting all of the nutrients that they need? Here are some tips from Dr. Nicole Avena, a nutrition expert who has a special focus on pregnancy and early-life eating behaviors.

When Is the Right Time for Vegetables?

Early exposure has been linked to greater consumption and decreased incidence of obesity later in life. Although the entirety of an infant’s development is critical, the period between 6 and 12 months is a special time when you can expose your baby to a wide variety of tastes and textures. By the time your baby reaches 6 months, the introduction of solids is ideal, not only for her health but also because your baby is most accepting of new foods during this 6-month period. When you think about it, developmentally this makes sense: At this point your child is eager to explore and learn about the world around her. Exposure is how we learn to like new and different things, so why not take advantage of this opportunity to introduce baby to a wide variety of tastes, textures, and colors while she is most open to trying them? Early exposure to fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other nutrient-dense foods has been linked to greater consumption of these healthy foods and decreased incidence of obesity later in life. After 12 months, exposure to new foods seems to have less of an effect, whether or not your child likes the food. Simply trying to expose your child to new foods can be problematic, especially considering that between ages 2 and 5 years, children are particularly neophobic (or hesitant to try new things) about food.

How Much Food Does Baby Need?

I don’t really like to focus too much on calories or other numbers (like body weight or servings per day) when it comes to babies (or adults, for that matter), because eating a variety of healthy foods is more important than matching some arbitrary number. If you are feeding baby lots of different fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein, and he is taking in food regularly at mealtimes, you don’t need to worry about how much he is eating.

That said, it is helpful to have some gauge so you can know roughly how much a typical baby at a given age needs. Also, it is helpful to have a general breakdown of where calories should be coming from (as it can vary for infants vs. toddlers).

When babies are infants (6 to 12 months old), their total daily energy intake should be around 35 to 50 calories per pound of body weight per day. So if your 9-month-old baby girl weighs 18 pounds, she needs 630 to 900 calories a day from breast milk or formula and foods. To us, 630 to 900 calories might seem like a whole lot for a little baby. Especially when most adults, who are much larger than babies, need just 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day. Babies’ needs are so high compared to their body weight because they are growing so fast, whereas adults need energy only for general maintenance (unless they are athletes or expending a lot of energy each day in, say, manual labor).

When Should Baby Start Solids?

Before babies reach the age of 6 months, all the calories, vitamins, and minerals they need come from breast milk or formula alone. This means that there is no need to be giving rice, cereal, juice, and other foods before 6 months. In fact, if you do, you can actually cause problems for baby.

Vegetables: When and How Much?

Here is a general timeline for how much vegetables baby might be eating, and when. Note that this is just a guide, and every baby is going to differ. By no means should you worry if baby is not keen on following this plan, but it is a good reference for parents.

  • 6 to 8 months: 2 to 3 tablespoons, 1 to 3x/day
  • 9 to 12 months: 2 to 4 tablespoons, 2 to 3x/day
  • 1 to 2 years: ¼ cup cooked, 2 to 3 servings

What Happens If Baby Becomes Nutrient Deficient?

Given our relatively affluent and increasingly inactive lifestyles, caloric requirements are too often met with high fat and sugar-rich foods, and we don’t eat enough dietary fiber, fruits, and vegetables. This can have a number of detrimental effects on the health of toddlers and infants, including dental caries (aka cavities), constipation, and obesity.

Which Nutrients Does Your Baby Need?

Now let’s review the macro- and micronutrients that your baby needs to grow healthy and strong. I will discuss the macronutrients. This is a pretty exhaustive list, and I will provide some ideas on vegetable and fruit sources that are high in each nutrient, so you can be aware of foods that might be good to build into baby’s diet.

  • Carbohydrates: starchy vegetables like corn and peas
  • Fat: avocado
  • Protein: soybeans and soy milk, chickpeas, black beans, and legumes
  • Vitamin A: soft carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, cooked spinach or kale, small pieces of bell peppers (even green ones!), broccoli (pureed, or tiny, well-cooked stalks for toddlers who are ready), and peas
  • Vitamin B1 (or thiamine): acorn squash, avocados, peas, watermelon, navy beans
  • Vitamin B2 (or riboflavin): spinach and broccoli]
  • Vitamin B3 (or niacin): sweet potatoes, squash, peas, beets, mushrooms, and bell peppers
  • Vitamin B6 (or pyridoxine): baked potato, cooked spinach, pureed prunes, chickpeas, banana, and avocado
  • Folate (or Vitamin B9): avocado and papaya
  • Vitamin B12 (or cobalamin): fortified cereals
  • Vitamin C (or ascorbic acid): raw fruits and vegetables: fresh soft fruits like berries, kiwi, and oranges and vegetables like red bell peppers and leafy greens
  • Vitamin D: from fortified foods, like milk
  • Vitamin K: green leafy vegetables, cabbage (cooked and pureed), broccoli (pureed, or cooked stalks for the older kids), cucumbers (pureed or in very small pieces) and prunes (pureed)
  • Calcium: greens (except spinach), peas and beans.
  • Fiber: most veggies (especially winter squash, broccoli, and carrots)
  • Iron: lentils with red bell peppers, fresh fruit dessert after a legume meal
  • Magnesium: broccoli and spinach
  • Manganese: cooked spinach and sweet potatoes
  • Potassium: fresh vegetables, sweet potatoes, cooked winter squash, and bananas (pureed, or cut into appropriate-size pieces)
  • Selenium: plant-based foods
  • Zinc: chickpeas, kidney beans, and collard greens
Adapted from Dr. Avena’s new book, “What to Feed Your Baby & Toddler”, available in stores and online now.
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Dr. Nicola Avena

Nicole M. Avena, PhD, is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet, and addiction. She received her doctorate in psychology and neuroscience from Princeton University in 2006. She then completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Rockefeller University in New York City. She is presently an assistant professor of neuroscience at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and a visiting professor in psychology at Princeton University.

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