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Introducing Meat and Poultry

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There are a lot of opinions out there on how- and when- meat should be introduced into your baby’s diet.  I’m going to share my philosophy, but my intention is not to provide medical advice.

Introducing meat and poultry into your child’s diet has everything to do with iron.  There are plenty of articles out there about how even breastfed babies aren’t able to absorb as much iron from breastmilk when they begin eating solid foods because of the way the iron in breastmilk bonds to the proteins in solid food, so red meat is an important first food to make up the difference.  However, in all my research, I wasn’t able to find any studies or solid research to prove this.

It is true, though, that baby’s iron stores will begin diminishing around 6 months of age.  Some pediatricians will prescribe iron supplements and iron-fortified foods (like cereal, which should not be given prior to 8 or 9 months of age), but this unfortunately has a counter-productive effect.  Iron supplements and iron-fortified foods actually interfere with the body’s ability to absorb iron, so baby actually gets even less with supplements.

If you’re still breastfeeding, good news- the iron in breastmilk is extremely bioavailable, with up to 50% being absorbed by your baby’s body.  If you’re using formula, your baby absorbs quite a bit less (as low as 10%) so the solid foods you offer are extremely important.  Red meat isn’t the only food you can offer your baby that’s high in iron, so if you’re a vegetarian, there are plenty of viable sources of iron available. Be sure to include plenty of these foods, particularly if you are not breastfeeding:

  • red meat (beef, lamb)
  • poultry (chicken, turkey)
  • fish
  • tofu
  • legumes
  • peas
  • avocados
  • dark leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, chard)
  • broccoli
  • ancient grains (amaranth, quinoa, millet)
  • sweet potatoes and yams

I suggest introducing chicken first, then red meat, then fish.  But regardless of the when, the how remains the same:

Tenderize It

You need to break down some of the tough-to-digest fibers in meat so that baby’s body can digest it easily.  One way to do this is to place the cut of meat between two sheets of wax paper and really pound it, down to a ¼-½  inch thickness.  Or, try marinating the meat first.  Many cultures marinate their meat in milk or yogurt (the lactic acid in the milk helps tenderize the meat) before cooking.  Marinating or simmering in apple juice is another great option if baby has issues with dairy.

Don’t Dry It Out

If you’re cooking meat for a baby, the method you use is probably the most important factor.  You’ve got to keep the meat from drying out- that means no sautéing, grilling, or frying. Stew is an ideal way to cook meat, and it’s one of the easiest methods for you.  You could also put a cut of meat and some veggies in tin foil, wrap it tightly, and bake it- the steam will stay inside the foil packet and keep the meat moist.  Simmering in broth is another easy (if not boring) way to cook meat.  If you’re good at making really tender roast chicken or pot roast (I’m not), make one for the whole family and just set some aside for baby.

Puree It

Multiple studies have shown that the iron in meat is more readily absorbed by your baby’s body when it’s pureed to a very fine meal.  And, if your baby is relatively new to solid foods, they’ll prefer a thinner, smoother consistency anyway.  My daughter, at 16 months old and equipped with as many teeth, still won’t eat red meat by itself and is suspicious even when I blend it roughly with veggies.  If you’ve cooked your meat really well, it should blend up fairly easily in a food processor.  The key is to blend a little bit at a time with enough liquid to get it really smooth.

Keep It Real

Don’t even think about giving your baby hot dogs or bologna or salami or any meat that’s been processed. Seriously.

Introduce It With Known Foods

If this is baby’s first time eating poultry, meat, or fish, introduce it mixed with other foods you already know he likes and digests easily.  Need a few ideas?

  1. Beef stew with barley, peas, and carrots
  2. Chicken with brown rice and yams
  3. Lamb with rosemary mashed potatoes
  4. Wild-caught salmon with quinoa and asparagus
  5. Turkey with white beans and cranberry sauce
  6. Ground beef with spaghetti, tomato sauce, and parmesan
  7. Wild-caught tilapia with spinach and roasted pears

When introducing new foods always remember to follow The 3-Day Rule.

We don’t eat meat very often, so I haven’t posted any meat-based recipes yet.  But I hope to get a few posted soon!  In the meantime… Any questions on how and when to introduce meat and poultry into your baby’s diet?

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When can my baby eat nuts and eggs?

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This is one of those topics that is difficult to get a definitive answer on.  Depending on who you ask, potentially allergenic foods (like nuts, eggs, and fish) can be introduced into baby’s diet anywhere from 6-36 months.  That narrows things down, right?

A few recent studies have shown that there’s actually no benefit to delayed introduction of potentially allergenic foods in terms of keeping your children from developing allergies.  In 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their policy statement to reflect this:

“Although solid foods should not be introduced before 4 to 6 months of age, there is no current convincing evidence that delaying their introduction beyond this period has a significant protective effect on the development of atopic disease regardless of whether infants are fed cow milk protein formula or human milk. This includes delaying the introduction of foods that are considered to be highly allergic, such as fish, eggs, and foods containing peanut protein.”

Give me a minute to get my objections out of the way here-

  • Solid foods should not be introduced before 6 months of age.
  • Ideally, babies should get their nutrition from breastmilk only for the first 6 months.  If this is not possible, a dairy-free formula is the best choice.

There.  I feel better.  Moving on…

Many parents will read this and think, great, I can start giving my baby everything we eat!  The advice that most traditional pediatricians will give about delaying the introduction of these allergenic foods is based on the idea that introducing an allergen too early may actually cause your baby to develop an allergy to that food.  These recent studies, and the statement from the AAP above, suggest that it doesn’t actually work like that, which is good news.  The new idea is that if your child is going to have an allergy to eggs, it’s going to be there whether you give them eggs as a baby or not.

BUT.  Just because feeding a certain food to your child won’t cause an allergy later in life doesn’t mean that their little bodies won’t be sensitive to it right now.  It’s important to remember that your child’s gut flora and enzymes are still developing and their digestive systems may not be able to handle some potentially allergenic foods.

I recommend waiting until your baby is a full year old to begin introducing things like tree nuts, eggs, soy, dairy, and seafood.  I also recommend holding off on peanuts until your child is at least 3.  (Peanuts aren’t actually nuts at all- they’re legumes- and they’re prone to a certain kind of mold, one reason that so many children have issues with them.)

When you do begin to introduce potentially allergenic foods, remember to follow The 3-Day Rule.  Introduce new foods one at a time and watch for any kind of reaction that might indicate a sensitivity or allergy.  Symptoms to look for include sneezing, spitting up, runny nose, rashes (particularly around the mouth or diaper area), changes in stools, or changes in mood.  If you suspect that a certain food is causing a reaction, stop offering that food and see if the symptoms clear up.

Every baby is different.  Following a a schedule to the letter is less important than doing what works for your kids (although, I suggest checking out my guidelines as a great starting point).  Do your little ones eat any of these potentially allergenic foods, or have allergies?

Introducing Whole Grains

Contrary to popular belief, grains should not be introduced before 8 or 9 months of age.  I know, I know… your pediatrician, grandmother, and even strangers will insist that rice cereal is perfectly fine, even before 6 months.  I once had a home depot employee follow me through the store trying to convince me that rice cereal would make Isabella begin sleeping through the night.  But it’s just not true.

It takes a while for baby’s gut flora to develop.  Exclusive breastfeeding through 6 months is critical in this process.  And until baby is 8 or 9 months old, they haven’t developed enough of the enzymes necessary to fully digest grains.  So while you can buy cereal labeled “4 months and up” at the grocery store, it doesn’t mean it’s good for her to eat.

I know plenty of parents who have struggled with fussy, colicky, gassy, constantly-spitting-up babies for months and can’t figure out what the problem is.  I’m willing to bet that in many cases, cutting out grains (and other foods that aren’t age appropriate) would do wonders for solving the problem.

When preparing grains, soak them overnight to improve their digestability.  I usually add double the amount of water recommended and simmer them slowly until all the water is gone.  Sometimes I’ll even pulse the mixture a few times in my food processor before jarring it or adding it to other purees.

Every baby is different.  Some may be able to digest grains just fine at 6 months, while others may be 12 months or older before they can digest them without being uncomfortable.  This is why it’s so important to introduce foods one at a time and note if baby is showing any signs of sensitivity.

As a side note, rice cereal doesn’t necessarily help a baby to sleep all night.  Isabella didn’t start doing that till she was almost a year old, well after she began eating whole grains.