Baby food allergens-when and how to offer them | Element Nutrition Kids

Baby food allergens-when and how to offer them

Starting your baby on solid foods is a huge milestone, it can be super exciting, but also pretty scary. In this post, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about introducing baby food allergens. Baby food allergens are one of the scariest aspects of the starting solids process for most parents, so if this is you, you are not alone!

Even as a pediatric dietitian with years of experience under my belt, when I first started my daughter on solids, I was nervous. Being nervous is normal and totally okay, but the best way to work through it is to be informed. Then you can make the best choices for your baby. If you need some extra guidance with starting solids, I have a free starting solids e-guide you might find helpful.

Introducing baby food allergens

Food allergies are a hot topic in the media and among parents – and rightfully so. Food allergies in kids have been on the rise, from about 3% of the population in the late 1990s to more than 5% in the early 2000s. For kids suffering from food allergies, their body’s reaction to allergens can be life-threatening, so the topic deserves our attention. 

The recommendations for introducing allergens have changed a TON in a short period of time. Prior to 2015, most pediatricians were still telling parents to avoid many of the major food allergens until after 1 year. But now, after some landmark studies, we know that advice is no longer ideal.

The current recommendation is to introduce the top 8 allergens early and often. In this post, I am going to walk you through what that means. 

What is a baby food allergy?

A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to a protein in a food. The body reacts quickly (sometimes within seconds or minutes) with an inflammatory response which can be mild, severe or even life-threatening.  Genetics can play a role in food allergies, as can other factors, such as waiting to introduce food allergens to babies until after 12 months of age or having an imbalance in gut bacteria. Sometimes we don’t know why a person develops a food allergy, but some people may be at higher risk.  

Baby food allergy vs. intolerance

Food intolerance is different from a food allergy, although many people confuse the two. Signs of a food intolerance take a little while (even a day or two) to develop and may be caused by the carbohydrates, proteins, or fats in the food, not just by the protein.

Food intolerances usually produce uncomfortable symptoms, but are not life-threatening. No immune response occurs with a food intolerance. One common intolerance is lactose intolerance (lactose is a natural sugar found in dairy products.) Symptoms usually appear in the belly, such as gas or diarrhea, this is uncomfortable but not dangerous.

Baby food allergens “The Big 8”

Most allergic reactions are caused by the proteins found in eight different types of foods. These are known as the “big 8 allergens.”

  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Eggs
  • Wheat
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Dairy
  • Soy

Many kids will outgrow their food allergies by their teen years, but this isn’t always the case. The most commonly outgrown allergies are milk, soy, egg and wheat. The rest of the top 8 allergens are less likely to be outgrown. Fish, shellfish, peanut and tree-nut allergies often last into adulthood. 

It is important to know that babies can be allergic to other foods that are not in the top 8 allergen category, these are just the most common and therefore the ones that are heavily discussed. 

Ideas for introducing baby food allergens

Preventing baby food allergies

Important research in the past 15 years has changed our recommendations about when to introduce allergen-containing foods to babies. The LEAP study, the LEAP-on study and the EAT study are three key research studies that have shaped the new guidelines on introducing allergens.

These studies showed that introducing allergen-containing foods, like peanut butter and egg, before the age of 12 months actually helps to prevent food allergies in children.

In the leap study, babies who were introduced to peanuts after 12 months were more likely to have a peanut allergy at age 3. Similarly, the EAT study showed that children who ate high allergen foods like cow’s milk, peanut, hard-boiled egg, sesame, fish, and wheat early in life had fewer food allergies develop than those who did not. 

Based on the current research, we can reduce the likelihood of a child developing a food allergy by serving these foods before they reach 12 months of age. 

When to introduce allergens 

Introducing allergens to a baby is scary whether you are a first time or seasoned parent. If you have food allergies yourself you may be extra nervous about introducing them to your baby. 

Luckily, there is some new guidance from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to help you determine your baby’s risk for developing a food allergy. Guidelines 1, 2 and 3 below will help you determine which category of risk your baby falls into. 

Guideline 1

If your child has severe eczema, a known egg allergy, or both, you should consult with your baby’s healthcare provider before starting allergenic foods.

Since children with eczema and egg allergy may be more likely to have other food allergies, your baby’s healthcare provider may choose to perform a allergy blood test or refer you to an allergy specialist for other tests. The results of these tests will help to determine if, when and how allergenic foods should be introduced into your infant’s diet. 

Some good news: in the LEAP study, even in children at high risk for food allergies, introducing peanut-containing foods as early as 4 to 6 months of age was shown to reduce the risk of developing a peanut allergy.  

Guideline 2

For children with mild eczema (as determined by the child’s healthcare provider), you can begin introducing allergen containing foods around 6 months, when you begin to introduce other complementary foods. For children with mild eczema, allergy testing is not routine, however, if you have concerns always talk with your baby’s pediatrician. 

Guideline 3

For children with none of the above identified risk factors, the top 8 allergens should be introduced around 6 months when solid foods are started. 

Tips for introducing baby food allergens

There are several things that can set you up for success when introducing allergenic foods to your baby.

  1. Introduce allergenic foods when your baby is feeling well (no illness or fever present). You don’t want to question if your baby is having a reaction to an allergenic food or if it was due to whatever they were already fighting off. 
  2. Offer one allergenic food at a time so you can identify if a reaction occurs. You don’t have to wait several days, but it’s ideal to wait at least until the next meal or the next day to introduce a new allergen. Most true allergies create a reaction within minutes to hours. 
  3. Serve new foods early in the day, not before bedtime, so you can monitor for a reaction. There is nothing worse than being nervous about your baby overnight, so don’t stress yourself out by introducing in the evening. 
  4. Take a deep breath and try to enjoy the process! I know easier said than done. 

Safety when introducing allergens to baby

When you give your baby any of the big 8 baby food allergens for the first time, you’ll want to watch out for any signs of an allergic reaction.

Common signs include redness or hives on the skin or face, tummy upset, vomiting, or diarrhea.  Talk to your child’s healthcare provider right away if a reaction occurs. If a severe allergic reaction such as difficulty breathing or loss of consciousness occurs, dial 911 immediately and seek medical attention.

In the next few sections I am going to walk you through each of the big 8 baby food allergens and provide some ideas for how you can introduce them to your baby. 

How to introduce peanut butter to baby

Peanut butter is the allergen that freaks most parents out, luckily there are a ton of ways you can offer peanut butter to your baby safely. 

One important thing to note is that you want to make sure you are mixing in the right amount of peanut butter. Many parents miss this important step.The recommended dose is 2 g of peanut protein.

You can print out this free guide by the National Institute of Health for step by step directions, but I will also review them below. 

The first peanut protein introduction

For the first introduction, I recommend one of the following three methods for introducing peanut protein. These ensure you are mixing enough peanut protein into the food they are eating. *It is important that your baby has already tolerated the food you choose to mix the peanut butter into.

Once you have established tolerance, you can use a variety of other methods to offer repeat exposure to peanut protein.

  1. Cereal: Mix 2 tsp. creamy peanut butter into 2-3 tbsp. of previously tolerated baby cereal, thin with breastmilk, formula or water to consistency tolerated by your baby. 
  2. Fruit/vegetable puree: Mix 2 tsp. creamy peanut butter into 2-3 tbsp. of previously tolerated fruit or vegetable puree, thin with breastmilk, formula or water to consistency tolerated by your baby. 
  3. Peanut butter puffs: Mix 21 bamba (or similar) puffs with 4-6 teaspoons of breastmilk, formula or water to soften them. For older babies who can handle dissolvable textures you can give them the puffs whole. See below for my favorite brands. 

Peanut butter puffs for baby

These are a few of my favorite peanut butter puffs, all of which I have personally tried and used with my own daughter and clients. You can get all of them easily through Amazon, or at various grocery stores. 

How to use peanut butter powder

You can also use peanut butter powder or peanut butter flour to introduce peanut protein to your baby.  Follow the same mixing guidelines as with creamy peanut butter (2 tsp. powdered peanut butter mixed with 2-3 tbsp. of baby cereal or puree fruit/veggies.)

5 simple peanut butter recipes for baby

Once you have established tolerance of peanut protein in your baby using the correct dosing, you can start offering peanut protein in tons of different ways, here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Peanut butter yogurt: Once you know your baby can tolerate both peanut butter and yogurt separately you can mix them together. Use either powdered peanut butter OR creamy peanut butter mixed with plain unsweetened yogurt (regular or greek are both fine). You can also use a dairy alternative if you are vegetarian/vegan (make sure you trial soy first if you choose to use a soy based yogurt.)
  2. Baby-friendly PB & J: Puree or mash a few strawberries and 2 teaspoons of peanut butter or powdered peanut butter together and spread on lightly toasted bread (be sure you have offered wheat first if serving wheat bread). Tastes like a yummy PB & J!
  3. Peanut butter sticks: Smear thinned peanut butter on a slice of lightly toasted bread. Cut into long strips so that your baby can hold onto the bread “stick.”
  4. Peanut butter popsicles: blend peanut butter with your favorite fruit (bananas, strawberries, blueberries or mango work well) and breastmilk or formula. Pour into baby sized popsicle molds to make a delicious teether! 
  5. Powdered peanut butter smoothie: blend powdered peanut butter with your favorite fruit (we love PB & banana) plus breastmilk or formula and let your baby drink it. Bonus if you help them learn to drink it using an open cup!

How to introduce tree nuts to baby

Introducing tree nuts to baby is very similar to introducing peanut protein. In fact, you can follow almost all of the same ideas but instead of using creamy peanut butter, you can use creamy almond or cashew butter. You can find both in most grocery stores (I love the selection at Trader Joe’s). 

If you can’t find a tree nut you want to try out in creamy nut butter form, you can turn most nuts into a powder using a food processor, make sure it is a fine powder so it can dissolve well into the food you mix it into. 

Tree nuts to try out with your baby 

Offer these in creamy nut butter or powder form mixed into other foods, do not give your baby whole nuts or nut pieces which can be a choking hazard.

  • Almond butter
  • Cashew butter
  • Hazelnut butter (don’t use nutella, it is packed with added sugar which we want to avoid until after 2 years as much as possible.)
  • Pecans 
  • Walnuts
  • Pistachios

How to introduce egg to baby

Eggs were one of my favorite first foods to serve my daughter. They are such a nutrition powerhouse! Packed with protein, fat and other key nutrients like choline and vitamin D, they make a great meal choice for babies. 

Similar to peanut protein, research has shown positive results with early introduction of egg protein preventing egg allergy in kids. 

Scrambled eggs for baby

Make traditional scrambled eggs and then add a small amount of breastmilk or formula and blend them into a puree. 

Baby led weaning eggs

If you are following the baby led weaning method with your baby, my favorite way to serve eggs is by making an omelet and then cutting it into strips.

Make the strips long enough that they stick out of the sides of your baby’s hand when they pick them up. This will allow them to easily bite the ends since they can’t open and release the food out of their hands very well at 6 months. 

You can also add lots of great spices this way into the egg mixture, garlic powder, onion powder and paprika are a few of my favorites.

Baby led weaning pancake

Probably my favorite recipe for babies and toddlers are these baby led weaning pancakes. They are super popular with my daughter (even now as a toddler) and also popular with my clients.

To make them:

  • Mash 1 ripe banana in the bottom of a bowl, add two eggs and ¼ tsp of cinnamon or even something like pumpkin pie spice (optional).
  • Mix well and then spoon a small amount (⅛ c) onto a hot pan or griddle.
  • Cook just like regular pancakes. (One thing to note is that these pancakes are delicate, so be sure to cook on low medium heat for slightly longer and be careful when you flip them because they do tend to fall apart more easily.)
  • When you serve them, you can hand the whole mini pancake to your baby to gnaw on, or cut them into strips. These are super soft and easy for them to eat. 

*You can also make these and then puree them, add a small amount of breastmilk or formula to help them blend. 

Egg salad for baby

Egg salad is a great way to introduce eggs and is super soft and easy for baby to eat and swallow. It’s also a great way to transition texture if you are starting with purees. You can slowly make it more chunky.

To make: 

  • Cook your hard boiled eggs (or buy pre hard boiled) and then dice them up like you would standard egg salad.
  • I like to smash avocado with the hardboiled eggs instead of using traditional mayo.
  • For baby led weaning you can spread the egg mixture onto a lightly toasted bread strip OR hand on a preloaded spoon.
  • If you are following the traditional method, puree the hard boiled egg, avocado and small amount of breastmilk or formula and serve. 

Egg & peanut butter recipes for baby

Once you have introduce both peanut butter and egg to your baby individually and you know they are not allergic, you can provide repeat exposure by combing the two. Here are a few recipes that I love from the National Peanut Board.

  1. Peanut butter sweet potato bake
  2. Peanut butter egg scramble
  3. Peanut butter oatmeal with egg
  4. Peanut butter muffins

How to introduce wheat to baby

The easiest way to introduce your baby to wheat products is by offering them either a wheat based cereal (like a wheat farina) OR wheat bread. You can also try a soft wheat cracker as well. 

Best bread for baby

One important thing to remember when picking a bread to serve to your baby is that you want to avoid breads that contain honey. Many store bought breads will have honey in the ingredient list, so look closely. 

My favorite wheat bread to start with for babies is the Food for Life low sodium Ezekial bread, which contains sprouted wheat and significantly less salt than most breads. You can get it at a ton of different stores so it is super easy to find. (Check the freezer section in some stores)

How to serve wheat bread to baby

If you are following the baby led weaning method, lightly toast the bread and then cut it into finger length strips. Once you establish tolerance to wheat, it makes a great vehicle for other toppings (like peanut butter, hummus, egg salad, avocado, pureed beans etc.)

If you are starting with purees, you can soften the bread with breastmilk or formula and blend it. Once you establish tolerance you can then add other mix ins. 

Wheat cereal for baby

Cereals are an easy way to expose your baby to wheat because they are naturally puree and easy to use whether using the traditional or baby led weaning feeding method. 

Gerber makes a wheat based cereal and there are also a variety of other brands out there.

Serve the cereal first made with formula or breastmilk and then once you know your baby tolerates the wheat you can add mix ins like peanut butter, puree fruits etc. You can let your baby self feed by loading the cereal on a flat spoon and handing to them, or just dumping some right on the tray and letting them go at it!

How to introduce fish to baby

Fish (especially salmon) makes a great first food for baby. It’s a good source of fat and omega-3 fatty acids which are important for their developing brains. Other easy to serve fish options are tuna (go for skipjack canned in water or oil with no salt added) and cod. 

Baby led weaning salmon

Salmon was one of my daughters first fish exposures, we personally love salmon and my in laws make it a lot. It’s super easy to serve following the baby led weaning approach because you can cook it the way you like and then just serve it as is to your baby. It already has a soft texture which makes eating it simple (just watch for bones!)

My favorite way to bake salmon is to get a fillet, drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice, plus some cracked pepper and wrap it in aluminum foil and then bake in the oven at 375 for 15-20 min (or until cooked through.)

Avoid adding salt before cooking when serving your baby to minimize their sodium intake. You can salt your salmon piece individually. Be sure you check their salmon for bones really well and then just dump some on their tray and let them pick it up. It can get messy, but that is half the fun!

Salmon puree for baby

You can also puree the baked salmon (cook the same as above), just mix with a bit of breastmilk, formula or warm water and serve it to them with a spoon.

Baby led weaning salmon patties

Salmon patties are an easy go to dinner that take very little time. You can make them with leftover cooked salmon or canned salmon (which is what I normally use). 

To make:

  • In a bowl, add 6 oz canned salmon, ½ cup finely chopped onion, ½ cup breadcrumbs (low sodium), 2 eggs and some cracked pepper, you can also add in chopped parsley (optional) but I never do because I rarely have it.
  • Mix all ingredients and then form into patties using your hands. Heat a pan with oil (I usually use avocado oil) and then cook the patties until browned on both sides.
  • I usually make larger patties for the adults and then mini patties for the baby. You can hand them the whole patty (super easy for them to hold.) 

*These are also simple to puree if you are more comfortable with that for your baby. Just add a small amount of warm water, breastmilk or formula, and blend. 

Baby-led weaning salmon quiche

I love quiche because it’s super simple to make and you can also freeze it for later. Min (also a dietitian) over at MJ and Hungry Man has this baby-led weaning salmon quiche recipe that I want to try out with my little one when it’s time to start solids (at the time of writing this I am pregnant with baby #2!). I actually stumbled upon this recipe when searching for quiche ideas and saved it!

I’m not a huge recipe follower because I like to keep things so simple, but quiche is great for babies because it is easy to hold and chew on and this seemed pretty easy to make. Just make sure you introduce egg before making this recipe!

*Just like other recipes, this too can be easily pureed. 

How to introduce shellfish to your baby

Unless you’re an avid seafood eater or a pretty good cook, you probably don’t eat a ton of shellfish at home. I find the easiest way to introduce shellfish is via shrimp. 

Some simple ways to offer shellfish

  • Boil shrimp until cooked and offer a large whole shrimp to your baby to gnaw on. They don’t usually have many teeth when first starting solids so will be gumming the shrimp and can still get the flavor and exposure. 
  • Shrimp salad. Cook shrimp and then finely chop it up and mix it with some garlic powder and plain greek yogurt or mayo and then serve plain (on a preloaded spoon or on their tray) or spread on a strip of lightly toasted bread. You can also blend this mixture for them to eat puree. 
  • Crab/lobster salad. You can also serve crab and lobster the same way as above in whole cooked form or in the form of a “salad” which is often much easier for babies to eat. 
  • Crab cakes. Use the same method as used for the salmon patties but use crab meat, super simple.

How to introduce dairy to baby

This topic is often confusing to parents because when they think of dairy, they think of milk. Most parents know not to serve milk before their baby turns one. However, the introduction of dairy is very important.

We want to avoid serving milk as a beverage, because as a beverage it would likely replace formula or breastmilk which is needed until one for key nutrients. 

However, your baby can and should have milk products before one. Just like the other top allergens, you want to introduce your baby to dairy around 6 months when starting solids. 

Dairy products to serve to baby

  • Cheese
  • Cottage cheese
  • Yogurt (plain, unsweetened)
  • Milk (okay to offer in recipes but not as a beverage until after 1 year)

Dairy is probably one of the easiest to serve to babies. You can give them cheese mixed into other foods or plain. You can also serve them yogurt which is a naturally pureed and easily consumed dairy item. 

Yogurt for babies

Many of my clients think they have to go a buy special baby yogurt. But that is not the case at all. In fact, there is nothing special or different about baby yogurt compared to adult yogurt (except maybe the marketing).

Skip the baby yogurt brands and just buy a plain, unsweetened whole milk yogurt of your choice (regular OR greek are fine.) 

You can serve yogurt loaded on a spoon (greek is best for baby led weaning because it is thicker and does fall off the spoon) or you can dump some on the tray and let them get messy with it. 

If you want to try a flavored yogurt, just use the same plain yogurt and puree your own fruit to use as a mix in. Then they get the fruit flavor without all the added sugar that comes with store bought fruit yogurts. 

How to introduce soy to baby

Many people have concerns about soy products. Much of the concern is about whether or not it affects hormones (especially in boys.) I am not going to dive into that topic in this blog post, but know that soy is perfectly safe to serve to your baby (in reasonable quantities) and should be introduced as a top allergen. 

Tofu for baby

One of the easiest ways to offer your baby soy is by using tofu. There are so many ways to use tofu and tons of great recipes circling the internet. My personal favorite way to serve tofu to babies is to simply cut it into strips and pan fry it on each side or bake it in the oven. 

How to prepare tofu

I like to buy the extra firm tofu, because I prefer the texture. When you are ready to cook it you want to take it out of the package, wrap it in a paper towel or a cheese cloth type towel and then add some weight to the top to press it. I usually just set cookbooks on top for about 15-20 min. This gets out the extra moisture. From there you can cut it in various different ways. 

Baby led weaning tofu sticks

For baby led weaning I like to cut the tofu into thin strips. Once your baby gets older you can cube it and they can practice their pincer grasp.

To make:

Add the strips (or diced tofu) to a bowl, drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive or avocado oil, add 1 tablespoon seasoning of choice (I like garlic powder) and then toss with 1 tablespoon of cornstarch. The cornstarch is what helps it get crispy when you cook it.

Spread the sticks out on a baking sheet and bake in the oven at 400 degrees for 25-30 min. You can also cook these in an air fryer. When I use my air fryer I usually cook them at 375 degrees for about 15-20 min. 

If you plan to serve it puree, you can puree it with breastmilk or formula after cooking and still have the same great flavors. 

Other easy ways to serve soy to babies

  • Soy yogurt
  • Edamame hummus

In Conclusion

Introducing allergenic foods to your baby can feel scary and overwhelming. However, research has told us repeatedly that early introduction (around 6 months) when starting solids can actually prevent food allergies in children. 

Key points to introducing baby food allergens

  1. Early introduction around 6 months of the big 8 allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, wheat, fish, shellfish, dairy and soy) has been shown to reduce your baby’s risk for developing a food allergy.
  2. Every baby falls into one of three risk categories, assess your baby’s risk by following the guidelines noted above. If your baby is high risk or if you have anxiety about allergen introduction, talk with your child’s pediatrician first. It’s a good idea to discuss with your child’s pediatrician even if you fall into the moderate or low risk categories.
  3. Wait until your baby is around 6 months of age when they are showing signs of developmental readiness for solids.
  4. Be sure they have had successfully eaten other non big 8 allergenic foods and are in good health (no current illness or fever present.)
  5. Introduce each of the big 8 allergens one at a time and leave space between introduction of each so you can identify if a food has caused a reaction.
  6. Offer allergens early in the day and not before bedtime so you can monitor your baby closely.
  7. Follow the best practices for mixing when introducing peanut protein (2 g peanut protein).
  8. Provide your child repeat exposure to the top allergens.
  9. Have fun with feeding, enjoy the process and let your baby get messy!
  10. Reach out to a pediatric dietitian (like me) if you need extra support throughout the process of starting solids.

How to get more help with starting solids

I hope this post on baby food allergens was helpful. If you want a detailed step by step guide to starting solids from A-Z you can check out my e-book “Baby’s First Bites” which will walk you through everything you need to know in the starting solids process, including baby food allergens, sample menus and meal timing by age. 

While I cannot answer individualized health related questions via this blog, I am happy to answer any general questions you have below. Feel free to leave a comment or connect with me via the contact page if you would like to set up a 1:1 consultation to help you through the starting solids process.

*Special thanks to my intern Britt Richardson for her contributions to this post.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which means Element Nutrition Co. gets commissions for purchases made through links (at no extra cost to you). As an Amazon Associate, Element Nutrition Co. earns from qualifying purchases. All opinions are my own. 

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Jessica Gust, MS, RDN
P 805.550.1724 F 805.476.1435
[email protected]
405 E. Branch St. #102 Arroyo Grande, CA 93420

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