By Ali Weatherford in consultation with Janel Davis, RD

Things have changed a lot since the days of the mucus-like baby rice cereal. If I were a baby, I wouldn’t be all that interested in solid food if that’s what I was offered! Milk tastes much better. There are many thoughts behind offering that as a first food.

Should you Start with Rice Cereal?

Rice tends to be a staple food in a lot of cultures. Rice is easy to digest and doesn’t often cause allergic reactions. And rice has a very mild flavor, but I believe this way of thinking might do more harm than good. Who said baby food needs to be flavorless?

I’ve been a parent for more than 15 years, and while the evidence-based recommendations for baby’s first foods HAVE changed some since I was feeding babies, the idea of the baby or toddler “palate” has not. Most people in the United States believe that babies and toddlers can’t handle a lot of flavor. This is just not true, and it can lead to some problems that can persist for a long time.

The Toddler Palate Myth

When babies are getting only very bland food, they might get used to that and then struggle to accept new foods that are more colorful or flavorful. Bland foods tend to be white or brown. Some examples show up regularly on restaurant kid menus and on plates at home and in schools. These foods might start with rice cereal, and then progress to bread, crackers, plain pasta, chicken nuggets, grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries, other fried foods, hot dogs, mac n cheese, and pizza. Just because these foods are trendy for kids in the United States does not necessarily mean it’s true that this is ALL they are programmed to like. Babies and toddlers might be somewhat limited in what they can or will eat, but it’s probably not as much as most people think. While having these foods in moderation is not necessarily a terrible thing, they are just not very nutritious options. There is definitely an epidemic of children who will not eat anything BUT this list of options. That’s when it can be a problem. We worry about diabetes, obesity, behavioral and learning problems in school, tooth decay, and other health concerns that were not much of a problem in our recent human past.

This “pickiness” that develops can be a problem for parents and families. It might mean you’re limited in where you can go with your kids. It has to be a restaurant with something they will eat! You might worry about how they’ll behave when offered a meal at a friend or grandparent’s house. In some homes it means separate meals for parents and kids. I’ve known families with multiple children where EACH CHILD gets a different meal prepared for them, and it’s never the same as what the parents are going to eat. That might seem OK or normal to some people, but it might feel very frustrating and time consuming for others. It also might be disappointing that you can’t share some of your food loves with your kids.

I was raised in a home where we ate whatever Mom made. We didn’t have other options. Her parents lived through the Great Depression, and she knew how to make good nutritious meals that didn’t cost a lot of money. I also had family based in two different countries and cultures, so I grew up appreciating lots of different kinds of food and got very excited when I was old enough to branch out and try even more new and exotic things.

My children have had a similar experience. I love to cook, and I love to share food with them. As babies, they ate lots of avocados, vegetables, fruit, meat and beans. They also had oats, rice, pasta and bread, but the variety was there. The foods were given WHOLE. It looked like what it was. A blueberry was presented as a little round blue ball of juicy fruit, and not a blue-colored yogurt product. Sweet potatoes were little cubes or sticks and not a puree. Meat was given in little shreds or even still on the bone! Rice was not a cereal, but sticky grains that they could ball up and eat with their hands.

My kids have always been good eaters. My daughter eats most things, but my son will literally eat ANYTHING and wants to be a chef when he grows up. He is 12 years old, and has his own favorite cookbook so he can make amazing meals for the whole family! Can this be true for everyone? I honestly don’t know. I really believe that some kids are just going to be more sensitive and less adventurous with food. They might decide they like something and be very reluctant to eat anything else.

Some kids really do have more food aversions than others. I also believe that we can take steps to help mediate the effect that has on their diets. They might not end up being the kid who will scarf down raw kale, sushi, and hot sauce, but they can have a varied diet with lots of healthy and whole foods. We can work on NOT falling into traps that keep our kids from eating what we want them to eat. I think that starts when they’re babies, and then we stay consistent.

Spoon Feeding or Finger Foods?

So what does this mean for a six month old baby who is ready to graduate to solid foods? Should you offer rice cereal only? Should you blend up food into purees and feed your baby with a spoon? I was not a fan of this method. I tried spoon feeding rice cereal with my first and gave up very quickly. You might call me lazy, and you might not be wrong. I was breastfeeding exclusively, and after some struggles at the beginning, we had gotten to a point where we were really good at it! It didn’t hurt anymore. My daughter always got as much as she needed. There was no mess and no struggle. Then I started trying to introduce solid food! I had to buy groceries, and actually MAKE food using dishes! I had to wash dishes afterward. And what happened when I finally gave the food to her? Most of it came right back out. She wanted to play with the spoon and chew on it. The floor was filthy, my daughter was covered in gross looking rice cereal, and I was not impressed.

I found out that I didn’t HAVE to feed her solids yet. Her pediatrician said that breast milk was complete nutrition and that she would be fine. So, I waited. We got to a point where she was VERY interested in food though. I feel a little ashamed to admit that her first food was a pickle. When she was about eight months old, she grabbed a huge pickle out of the bucket of pickles sitting on our table at a New York style deli. Before we even realized that she had taken it, she had sucked it dry until it was just a shriveled piece of pickle skin. That is NOT bland food! That’s when I realized that I should give her more things to try. I started looking into options other than spoon feeding purees and rice cereal though. I did not want to go back to that mess. I found out that I could just give her small pieces of soft food. She was old enough to grab it with her fingers and get it to her mouth herself, so no spoon-feeding necessary!

This worked for us. She ate little clumps of cooled cooked rice or oatmeal. She ate avocado pieces, bananas, steamed sweet potatoes, carrots, and green beans. She ate scrambled eggs, little shreds of chicken and lots of whole soft beans. She ate just about everything that we ate, only in small quantities that she could pick up with her fingers. She didn’t have any teeth, so the food also had to be pretty soft or very tiny. But other than that, there weren’t many restrictions to what she could have. That might surprise a lot of people!

Now I know that the way I chose to feed my babies is called the Baby-Led Weaning method for starting solids. We have a fantastic class to help you learn more about this that is taught by a registered dietician, Janel Davis. Baby-led weaning means that you watch your baby for signs that they are ready to move on from just milk, and then offer them nutritious finger foods that they can safely eat themselves.

When to Leave Milk Behind

This doesn’t mean you have to stop breastfeeding! It’s important to continue breastfeeding and gradually introduce solid foods. At first, a baby will not be able to get enough of the right nutrition just through solid foods. It’s mostly just a fun experiment when you’re getting started! I interviewed Janel Davis, RD when researching this article. She says, “Till one, food is for fun.” Until the babies are a year old, they will mostly play with the food, try some, love some, reject some. It should be a mostly low-stress experience for parents, although it can be really messy still! As long as the baby is still getting breast milk or formula, it’s not important that the baby eat perfectly balanced meals every day. Let them just have fun with it at first, and have lots of different experiences with colors and textures and flavors. You don’t have to worry about exactly how much they’re getting.

Gradually, solid food meals will take the place of more of the milk feedings until food becomes the majority of what the baby eats in a day. A lot of times, milk ends up just being a comforting snack at the beginning or end of the day or before a nap. At this point, a baby might be close to two years old and has plenty of teeth and motor control. They are able to eat enough at family meals to provide for their complete nutrition.

Getting Started

First, it’s very important to know WHEN your baby is ready to start trying food. Janel Davis recommends looking for two things.

  1. Your baby should be able to sit up without help. If you still need to prop your baby up in a sitting position, you should wait to feed solid foods. They are at a higher risk for choking if they don’t have the muscle strength and control to sit up on their own. It may also mean that their digestive system is not quite ready yet.
  2. Your baby will be showing some interest in your food. If your baby is grabbing at your food and very interested in watching the family eat, it might be a good sign that they want to eat too!

Then, bring your baby to the table at mealtimes. The Baby-Led Weaning Method means they learn to eat like the family. They eat when you eat, and they may even get the same foods! You can pull the high chair close to the table, or instead of a typical high chair, you might consider purchasing a special chair for babies that pulls right up to your dinner table. They are height adjustable and usually have a baby seat and straps so they are secure. These chairs are great, because they can be adjusted to keep your child at the right height as they grow.

What to Feed Your Baby First?

According to Janel, first foods should pass a couple of tests.

  1. It should be about the size of your two smallest fingers pushed together. That’s a piece approximately three inches long, and 1-1.5 inches wide. That’s so the baby can grab it easily with their hands. At first, they are clumsy and may have a little trouble coordinating the grip, so it helps to have food that size and shape. It will look like a stick or a spear.
  2. It should pass “The Squish Test”. It should be soft enough to give a little when you poke it, but it shouldn’t completely fall apart or ooze when squeezed. An orange slice is a great example of squishy enough but not too squishy.

Here are some great ideas about first foods recommended by Janel. These are suggestions, but you’re not limited to ONLY these things! Remember that it should pass the size and “squish” test, then you can get creative!

Fresh fruits

  • Avocado
  • Banana
  • Orange slices
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Melon slices
  • Mango slices

Steamed or roasted vegetables

  • Broccoli or cauliflower spear
  • Sweet potato sticks

Meat

  • Chicken drumstick
  • Pulled pork
  • Shredded chicken or fish

Watch this video interview with Janel Davis, RD, for some more information. Also, consider taking the Starting Baby On Solids: Let Baby Lead the Way class at Breastfeeding Success for more detailed information about infant nutrition and even some great recipes!

It is SO important to know when to start feeding your baby solid foods, and what kinds of foods your baby can eat for safety and good nutrition. It’s another thing entirely to get yourself and your kids to do it! The nutrition and safety aspect is critical, but so is the behavioral and parenting side of the story. You might know exactly when and what to feed your baby, but do you know HOW to get them to eat it? Some of this information for starting out can be found in the class for babies, but what if you’ve already been feeding your baby for a while and you’re encountering some issues? Are there ways to repair problems and maybe even prevent feeding issues in your future?

In a lot of cases, I do think parents have some control here. Parents can do some things to encourage healthy eating for their kids. It might mean ignoring some of the mainstream “wisdom”, and introducing some discipline and routines that don’t come naturally to you. If you already have a “picky” eater, it can be especially hard to shake things up in a big way. A few years ago, I spent some time writing down the things that helped me and my kids enjoy easier and healthier eating. Starting out with good habits early can help prevent problems and set you up for a better experience later.

Here are some older posts for some tips on setting up some good habits, and HOW to get your kids to eat.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Our articles are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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