There are lots of healthy, baby-friendly foods out there, but some stand out from the pack. These culinary superheroes are loaded with essential nutrients, reasonably priced, easy to prepare, and delicious. Here are 10 of our absolute favourites.
The deep, brilliant blue of these berries comes from flavonoids called anthocyanins, which are good for your baby's eyes, brain, and even urinary tract, says Stephen Gass, coauthor of Mix and Mash: Adventures in the Kitchen for Baby and You.
Serving idea: Gass suggests this easy blueberry soup: Combine 1/4 cup of blueberries with a tablespoon of water in a bowl, microwave for 30 seconds, mash, and let cool. Then swirl some plain yogurt on top.
Yogurt is a great food to introduce when your baby is about 6 months old. Yogurt boosts the immune system and supports brain and heart health. "It's a good source of calcium and vitamin D, and it also contributes to the development of healthy bones and teeth," says Nancy Hudson, registered dietitian and professor emerita in the nutrition department at the University of California at Davis.
Look for brands that have the most live cultures, which regulate the good bacteria in your baby's digestive tract. Plain yogurt is best because it has no added sugars.
Serving idea: Yogurt is fine on its own, but Hudson suggests mixing yogurt with applesauce, mashed avocado, or dry infant cereal. (For a special treat, bits of mandarin orange or banana taste good too.)
Squash is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, is naturally sweet, and has a pleasing, creamy texture.
Serving idea: Sprinkle parmesan cheese and a little chili seasoning on half a squash, roast it, and scoop out a serving for your baby, suggests pediatrician Susanna Block, owner of World Baby Foods, a line of ethnic baby food. "Cooked squash with a little cilantro, mild chiles, and garbanzo beans is another great combination," she says.
Loaded with protein and fiber, lentils pack a powerful nutritional punch. They're also one of the cheapest healthy foods you can buy.
Serving idea: Combine cooked lentils with mixed vegetables, rice, and seasonings of your choice." Try basil and oregano," suggests dietitian Karin Hosenfeld of North Dallas Nutrition. "Or toss in a bay leaf, which works really well with lentils." (Remove the bay leaf before serving.)
Dark leafy greens
Leafy greens boast high amounts of iron and folate. Spinach is perhaps the best known of this group, but there are many other varieties, including kale, chard, and collard greens.
Serving idea: Steam and puree a batch of greens, then mix with iron-fortified cereal to give your baby a double dose of iron. Experiment with the proportions to see what your baby likes. Hosenfeld suggests starting with two parts veggie to one part cereal.
Brimming with folate, fiber, and calcium, broccoli is also known for its cancer-fighting properties, says dietitian Kate Geagan, author of Go Green, Get Lean. And thanks to its sulfur compounds, it has a unique flavor that can help expand your baby's tastes.
Serving idea: Steam until soft, cut into pea-size pieces, then chill. "Steaming takes the bite out of broccoli," says Hosenfeld. "And chilled broccoli is sometimes better accepted by babies."
"Avocados are a rich source of unsaturated fats," says nutritionist Leanne Cooper, author of What Do I Feed My Baby: A Step-by-Step Guide to Solids. "In fact, the fat composition is somewhat similar to that of breast milk."
Concerned about your baby eating fatty food? Don't be. "Unsaturated fat is the good kind of fat, and babies need it for brain development," says pediatrician Ari Brown, coauthor of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year.
Serving idea: Try combining mashed avocado with other foods, such as cream cheese, apples, or canned fish, suggests Cooper. And when it's playgroup time, ditch the crackers and take an avocado along instead. "Avocados can travel in your bag at room temperature and you can offer them in slivers or spread on toast fingers," she says.
Many of us don't think of meat as a typical baby food, but it's one of Brown's top choices. "Meat is a great source of zinc and iron," she explains.
Serving idea: Cook stew! "Stew is the ideal baby food – easy to make, easy to chew, and endless in its variety," says Matthew Amster-Burton, author of Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater. Experiment with adding different veggies and seasonings, such as ginger and parsley.
And the best part? Tough, cheap meats (like chuck) work best, says Amster-Burton, whose own family dines on stew almost weekly. Just be sure to cook the stew long enough for the meat to turn scrumptious and soft so it shreds into tiny pieces.
Prunes have lots of fiber and can help relieve constipation – which, notes Brown, your baby may experience after you introduce solids.
Serving idea: Puree prunes and serve them straight or mixed with other foods, such as cereal or applesauce, for a naturally sweet treat. If your baby is badly constipated, Brown advises adding a teaspoon or two of prune juice to formula or expressed breast milk.
High in vitamin C and antioxidants, mandarin oranges are a supreme finger food. "Babies really love the flavor," says Hosenfeld.
Serving idea: This is a particularly easy one to prepare – just cut the segments into bite-size pieces and serve. You can buy mandarin oranges fresh or canned, but make sure the canned version is packed in water – not syrup, which contains added sugar.