One of the most common questions I get from parents when they are getting ready to start solids is about the best baby led weaning foods to start with. Baby led weaning is continually growing in popularity among parents and ensuring they are fully informed on how to start is important.
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When to start baby led weaning (blw)
Around 6 months of age, when your baby is showing signs of readiness for solids, they also have increased nutrition needs. This is the key window of time to start solids using the baby-led weaning approach. And understanding the best baby-led weaning foods to start with is important to be able to meet their increased nutritional needs.
Each of the key nutrients your baby needs bumps up a bit around 6 months, making their overall nutrition needs higher. This means that breast milk or formula can no longer meet 100% of their nutrition needs alone as they transition from 6 months to 1 year.
The purpose of solid food is to fill in the gap between what they get from breastmilk or formula and what their growing bodies need.
If you are planning to start solids using the baby-led weaning (BLW) method, it is important to know which foods will most contribute to their key nutrient needs.
In this post, I am going to walk you through the best baby-led weaning foods to meet key nutrient needs and to help you feel confident in what you are feeding your baby.
If you are on the fence about whether or not you want to follow the baby-led weaning method, that’s okay! You can also check out this post to walk you through key differences in methods to help you decide what is best for your baby. “Baby Led Weaning vs. Traditional Weaning, which is best?”
Nutrition needs for baby
Regardless of the feeding method, babies have very specific nutrition needs for both growth and development. Meeting these needs with complementary foods will ensure your baby’s body and brain develop appropriately. When you are starting solids, many of the important nutrients your baby needs will come from breastmilk or formula. However, there are some that are not high enough from breastmilk/formula alone as your baby moves from 6 to 12 months. These need to come from a combo of milk and food.
- Vitamin D
During the first 1000 days of your baby’s life (pregnancy + the first two years), nutrition needs are at their highest vulnerability. During this period your baby’s organs, tissues, and brain development are maturing rapidly. Missing out on key nutrients during this time can lead to many issues with development down the road. In addition, the feeding patterns you create during infancy will set the foundation for their eating habits for life.
How to serve food for baby-led weaning
When starting solids using the baby-led weaning method, it is important to remember that your baby cannot pick food up using their fingers yet.
From 6 months to around 9-10 months, your baby will be primarily using a palmer grasp. This means that they will be picking food up using their palm. Because of this, the shape of the food is important.
Provide foods to your baby in the shape of a stick that are longer than their fist.
This will allow them to more easily pick it up and get it to their mouth (they will be biting the food that sticks out of their hand initially. From there, they will progress to be able to open their palm and release the food, but this doesn’t happen right away.
Your baby will start developing their pincer grasp as they near the 9-10 month age range. At that time you can start giving them smaller pieces of food, cut to the size of your pinky tip.
Baby-led weaning foods to start with
When first getting started I like to focus on foods that are high in energy (fat) and iron/zinc. These tend to be the nutrients that most parents leave out. Your baby should not only be eating fruits and veggies, but rather a good combination of food groups right from the start. Here are some of my favorite first foods:
- A slice of avocado (rolled in crushed cereal for grip)
- Banana cut into the shape of a stick
- A thin slice of flank steak
- Sweet potato, cut into sticks and roasted with olive oil
- Thinly sliced peach or pear (very soft fresh OR canned, defrosted from frozen)
- Lightly toasted bread cut into a stick shape and topped with hummus, a smear of peanut butter, or smashed beans
- Egg omelet cut into a strip (option to also mix with cheese when cooking)
Baby-led weaning plate combos
Anytime you serve your baby food it is a chance to maximize their nutrition intake. To do this, it is important to pair their foods correctly. When serving meals try and include these components:
- A high energy food (fat/calories)
- A high iron food (may also contain protein and zinc)
- Fruit and or a vegetable (for flavor and exposure)
- Including fruits and veggies that are rich in vitamin C also helps the body absorb the iron from food.
Iron needs for baby
Iron intake is extremely important for babies. If they do not get enough iron early on, they have an increased risk of neurodevelopmental problems.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfed infants be supplemented with 1 ml/kg/day of iron starting at 4-months. However, this is a debated topic. Discuss this with your own pediatrician to determine if they feel iron supplementation is needed for your baby. Some babies have an increased risk of iron deficiency and may benefit from early supplementation. Many babies do not need iron at all.
Iron-rich food sources for baby
When starting solids, attention should be given to iron-rich foods.
For babies following the baby-led weaning approach, iron is especially important. This is primarily related to the fact that foods containing iron are often more challenging for a baby to self-feed/chew and swallow. Particularly those from animal sources such as meat.
One way to ensure your baby is able to eat and swallow iron-rich foods is by offering them a variety of foods with different textures. You can also offer a combination of textures by including both solid iron-rich foods and puree textured iron-rich foods that your baby can self-feed.
Naturally pureed iron-rich foods for babies
- hummus and other bean spreads
- iron-fortified oatmeal/infant cereals
- blended mixtures of spinach/vitamin c rich fruits (such as in a smoothie or frozen pop)
- Creamy nut/seed butter.
Your baby can self-feed puree foods while following the baby-led weaning method using either a pre-loaded spoon OR using their heads.
Iron-rich food sources for baby
Heme iron (animal-based) is most efficiently absorbed by the body. However, non-heme (plant-based) sources are also important to include in your baby’s diet.
Pairing plant-based iron sources with vitamin C* rich foods will help with iron absorption.
Animal-based iron sources for baby
- Organ meats (liver, especially beef liver)
- Red meat (beef)
- Turkey/chicken (darker meat is higher in iron)
Plant-based iron sources for baby
- Iron-fortified cereal (oatmeal)
- Iron-fortified dry cereal (O’s, Chex)
- Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, peas)
- Dark chocolate (70% or more)
Vitamin C rich foods to help iron absorption in babies
- Citrus fruits (oranges, lemon/lime juice, grapefruit, kiwi)
- American persimmons
- Tomato products (tomato, tomato sauce, marinara sauce, pizza sauce)
- Green, red, yellow pepper
- Potatoes (white and sweet)
- Winter squash
- Spinach & leafy greens
- Broccoli & cauliflower
Zinc-rich foods for baby
Much like iron, zinc is also important for growth and development. Zinc also helps with immune function. Your baby’s body has a limited ability to store zinc, so regular intake from foods is important.
- Meat (especially red meat)
- Dairy foods (yogurt, whole milk after 1 year)
- Legumes (especially lentils)
- Hemp and flax seeds
- Creamy nut butter (cashews are especially high)
- Whole grains (wheat, quinoa, rice, oats)
- Zinc-fortified cereals
Vitamin D rich foods for baby
Exclusively breastfed babies get very little vitamin D from breastmilk, therefore, supplementation (400 IU/day) is recommended starting at birth.
Vitamin D is important because it helps the body absorb calcium which is key for bone growth & strength. Low vitamin D levels have also been linked to many chronic diseases.
Formula-fed babies usually get enough vitamin D from the formula once they drink 32 oz or more per day. Before their intake hits 32 oz, formula fed babies should also supplement.
Vitamin D is one of the harder vitamins to get from food because there are limited foods that contain high levels of vitamin D. The top food sources include:
- Salmon, other fatty fish
- Yogurt and whole milk (after 1 year)
- Fortified cereals
Our bodies also produce vitamin D from sunlight. However, since babies are usually covered up in the sun and wearing sunscreen, this isn’t a good source of vitamin D for them.
Vitamin D supplement for baby
There are many over the counter liquid vitamin D drops that can be purchased to help your baby meet their vitamin D needs.
In alignment with the AAP, I recommend all my clients start a vitamin D supplement at birth and continue for the first two years. Here is a link to my personal favorite vitamin D supplement for babies.
Fat and DHA foods for baby
Two other key nutrients for babies are fat and DHA.
Both are critical in supplying energy to your baby and for promoting brain growth and development. Fat also helps the body absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
You don’t have to count fat grams, just try to include fat sources at each meal.
- Full-fat dairy (yogurt & cheese)
- Breastmilk and formula
- Butter or Ghee
- Coconut oil
- Creamy nut or seed butters
- Vegetable oil (olive and avocado oil are my two favorite)
- Fatty fish (also high in DHA)-Salmon, sardines, herring, canned chunk light/skipjack tuna. (Avoid fish high in mercury)
- Eggs (yolk) (can buy these fortified with DHA)
DHA supplement for baby
If you are vegetarian/vegan or do not serve any fish products in your home, you may want to consider a DHA supplement for your baby.
You can get either fish oil or algae-based supplements. This is the one we use in our home (even though we do cook fish).
Choline foods for baby
One of the often “forgotten” key nutrients for babies is choline. More and more research is emerging about its importance for development both in utero and after birth.
Currently, most prenatal vitamins do not contain choline. However, this is something that will likely be changing in the near future.
If you are looking for an awesome pre/postnatal vitamin that contains choline, this is my personal favorite prenatal, and the one I take. It contains 300 mg choline which is unheard of in most prenatal vitamins!
Adequate maternal choline intake has been shown to help the baby’s brain and spinal cord develop properly and may be as important as folate. Choline needs increase during breastfeeding, so mothers should continue to take a choline supplement postpartum. The daily value for choline is 550 mg/day for women.
If maternal choline intake is adequate, the baby will meet their choline needs via breastmilk. For formula-fed babies, buying a formula fortified with choline is important.
Once your baby starts solid foods, serving choline-rich food is key.
- Beef and beef liver
- Wheat germ
Baby led weaning food ideas
When I first started my daughter on solid foods, I wanted to follow the baby led weaning method, but I also didn’t want to follow a bunch of complicated recipes. So I tried to stick with the basics and items I already served at home as much as possible. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Egg omelet (egg, cheese, finely diced spinach) + wheat toast (with butter or creamy nut butter) + kiwi or strawberry.
- Serve 1 strip of egg and toast and one small wedge of kiwi OR one large full size strawberry.
- Iron-fortified cereal (made according to package with formula or breast milk). Mix in 1-2 tsp. creamy nut or seed butter and then add in wild frozen blueberries. The oatmeal will defrost the berries.
- Let them eat it with their hands OR hand it to them on a preloaded spoon.
- Whole grain tortilla warmed, cut into a strip and then smeared with smashed beans (pinto or black), served with a cooked bell pepper strip and fruit.
- I would often do this on nights we made tacos and if we had meat tacos I would serve some of that stuck to the beans.
- Thinly sliced flank steak, cut into a strip and served with whatever cooked veggies we had with the meal (usually asparagus, which is the perfect shape for baby led weaning.) You can add some extra fat by tossing the asparagus in olive oil, serve with garlic toast (ensure it isn’t too crunchy).
- Chicken breast (cut into a thin strip) + well-cooked carrot stick + rice
- You can use something like hummus to bind the rice and roll into a ball so they can grab it and pick it up.
You can also check out this Easy Pancake Recipe with just 4 simple ingredients, perfect for baby-led weaning. I made this for my daughter all the time and she still likes it even as a preschooler!
How to get more support with starting solids
If you are getting ready to start solids or are already on your way but could use a little extra guidance, I have a full (and very comprehensive) guide Baby’s First Bites, that will help you.
I also work 1:1 with parents to guide them through the starting solids process and would love to talk to you more about this as well.