Starting Solids - The Meat Question?
How to introduce meat to babies is something that I see a lot of parents unsure about and there is not a lot of information on why this is really important.
In my previous blog on starting solids, I discussed some crucial reasons why I do not recommend starting babies on baby rice (or variation of infant cereal). I also spoke about starting off on a staple vegetable such as pumpkin or kumara, quickly followed by a high iron source. The key reason for this is due to babies iron levels. Breast milk contains only low (or little levels) of iron, and to compensate babies are born with sufficient iron stores to last up until approximately six months of age, after which it drastically drops off.
This is why the recommendation is for babies to start complimentary feeding around six months of age. Adding to the current whirlpool of information we are seeing some research to suggest (as well as guidelines from some health care providers) starting babies at four months on solids. Babies develop at different times, so there will be some variation on when they are ready. I personally recommend the World Health Organisation Guidelines of around six months of age, however I believe what is a more important concern is what they start on.
As previously mentioned in my other blog, baby rice can be associated with a lot of digestion discomfit for babies especially to their GI tract. There are currently very little store brought baby foods that do not contain rice or wheat flour especially available at a local supermarket.
Starting a baby off on infant cereal especially at four months will significantly increase the potential impact on the GI tract as it is less matured. Iron, is crucial for the production of hemoglobin in our blood, which carries oxygen around our body. In addition, iron plays an important role in keeping our immune systems strong. It is primarily absorbed in the upper intestine which means if the gut is irritated, there is a high risk the maximum amount of iron will not be absorbed.
The reason that introducing meat early on is important is because it is a haem source of iron – the most easily absorbed source of iron AND all meat sources are significantly higher in iron than plant based sources. In addition, it will also provide important sources of dietary fat (babies need high amounts of fat) and B-vitamins. While you do get iron from other sources than meat, it is not as high as you can see in some examples below. I also recently spoke on Paul Henry about this (you can check out my interview here).
Babies require approximately 10-11mg or iron/day. This is actually more than a child aged 1-3 who require 9mg a day. This is due to the huge growth babies experience in the first year.
Some examples of haem iron sources are and beef, lamb, fish, selfish (like mussels) and liver. In all my cookbooks I intentionally include recipes with liver or offal as organ meats contain the highest sources of iron available and it will give you confidence in preparing them. You can also check out a high iron baby puree here).
Examples of non-haem sources for infants are spinach, legumes, chickpeas and tofu. If you are considering a plant-based diet for your little one I strongly recommend getting some individualised help to ensure your baby is getting all essential nutrients as it can be more challenging.
Another helpful guide on the iron content of certain foods is on the Nutrition Society of New Zealand Website here.
Exactly How to Introduce Meat?
You can introduce meat in two ways:
1. A baby-led weaning approach
2. Through a puree.
3. Do both!
Baby led weaning has existed for generations and done safety can contribute to the feeding experience. You can give a baby a nice firm piece of meat to suck on - which you can do either free-form or in a food feeder. I would suggest just watching them as they do this. While babies are not ‘eating’ this meat they are still absorbing the all nutrients through sucking. Below is a photo of my third baby Ray-Ray doing just this:
Option two is to include meat into a vegetable puree which I find easiest done as part of the family meal. You will find that meat adds a lot of flavour and texture to food which will become increasingly important and babies get older (even more so with a fussy toddler!)
Giving your baby both a puree AND letting them explore meat in a baby-led weaning approach is option three. This I recommend the most as you get the best of both and allows your baby to choose what they like while still getting in some nutrients with the help of co-feeding together. I have a great recipe below to show you to how easy this. Remember too, doing both methods does not mean you have to do them both at the same time, each feeding time.
The main message I would like you to take away from this blog is that it is important (and ok!) to introduce meat early to your baby. Iron deficiency remains our biggest nutrient deficiency in infants and I strongly believe that is because we have previously not been encouraged to introduce iron-rich foods from the start.
I know that there is a lot of conflicting and confusing advice around starting solids. You will also find the following helpful options for further evidence based information and support:
The Nourished Baby - My best selling book to help navigate you through starting solids. This is packed full of expert information, stepping you through week-by-week plus recipes, example meal plans and more.
Baby and Toddler Cookbook - The 'companion' to The Nourished Baby packed full of nutrient rich, easy recipes for you baby, toddler and the whole family. There are 24 baby food recipes which match the week-by-week introduction guide in The Nourished Baby.
Live Events! I regularly hold live events and seminars on starting solids and toddler feeding. You can check out the latest events here. In addition both myself and my team do starting solids and toddler feeding coffee groups (both in person and virtually).
x Dr Julie Bhosale