Most parents strive to pass on palate-pleasing, nutritionally sound food preferences to their little ones—and a taste for the finer (and healthier) things in life starts earlier than you may think.
"Flavors of food can actually travel through both amniotic fluid and breast milk, so a mom's diet can influence what their baby will like months later," says Bridget Swinney, MS, RD, and author of Baby Bites: Everything You Need to know About Feeding Infants and Toddlers in One Handy Book. But there's no need to worry if your diet consisted of saltines and ginger ale—you can still raise a foodie by giving your baby a variety of age-appropriate, healthy choices.
- 4-5 Months: Many infants are physically ready to begin solids somewhere in the fourth or fifth month of life. You'll know your child is ready once he's able to sit by himself—not propped against anything—and has stopped pushing food out of his mouth. He may even take a newfound interest in the contents of your plate, and your eating habits. But there's no need to rush—the AAP and the World Health Organization both encourage exclusive breastfeeding until your baby is six months old—especially if your child is at risk of food allergies.
- 6 Months: Rice cereal is a staple in a baby's diet, but despite it's advantages—the addition of iron, and the ability to adjust the thickness gradually over time—it's important to offer an array of mashed or puréed foods for your baby to enjoy. Swinney says, "The texture of food that infants eat progresses as a baby's eating skills allow. It's important to increase the texture of foods, going from purée to thick purée to mashed to soft finger foods. This progression increases a baby's use of muscles that are important for language development." In addition to the "go-to" rice cereal, Swinney urges parents to get creative with their mealtime offerings, "including puréed meats, which naturally provide an excellent source of iron." Avocado's another great option because the green fruit "provides healthy fats and is easily mashed and thinned to the right consistency."
- 7 Months: Once your little one has adjusted to the texture of solids, it's time to start introducing a variety of fruits, vegetables and meats. Although moms may gravitate toward sweet fruits, Swinney suggests stocking up on leafy greens and hearty vegetables instead. "It's important to broaden a baby's palate towards foods that are not sweet so that he is more likely to like them in the future." Allow a few days between each new food to give yourself time to search for signs of an allergic reaction, including hives, watery eyes, swelling around the face, or difficulty breathing.
- 8 Months: The bulk of your baby's calories should still be coming from breast milk or formula, so don't stress if he's not interested in those steamed sweet potatoes. Instead, eating with his hands is helping your child develop his fine motor skills, which will help him grasp utensils down the road. Introduce finger foods your baby can pick up easily, such as bite-sized pieces of soft cooked carrots, lightly toasted bread, cheese quesadillas, fruit, and crackers. Small pieces will help him practice his pincer grasp, and the variety of tastes and textures offer new stimulation for your budding foodie's developing palate.
- 9 Months: By now, your baby's mastered the pincer grasp and can enjoy feeding himself with a variety of finger foods. Although your tiny epicure may have previously preferred throwing a cup to drinking from one, he's now ready to drink from a straw or sippy cup consistently. Give him a cup with each meal so he can practice the hand-eye coordination necessary to drink milk like a big kid.
- 10 Months: It's officially time to invest in a plastic mat or tarp—if you haven't already—because your baby's ready to practice self-feeding skills with a spoon. Purchase baby-sized utensils, and fight the urge to snatch the spoon when he flings food around. If he gets frustrated, consider a denser texture—like mashed sweet potato, Greek yogurt or oatmeal—to stick to the spoon more easily. Increase the number of times a day you feed your baby solid food, as he'll begin to rely more and more on dishes for nutrition.
- 11 Months: By this age, your infant should be eating 3-4 meals a day, with snacks in between. Coordinate his feeding schedules with the family so everyone can eat together at the table. Your budding gourmand is ready to tackle multiple dishes at a time, and can eat some family friendly meals—like mac and cheese and basic casseroles—right along with everyone else. Swinney warns parents to avoid honey (which can contain the bacterium Clostridium botulinum) and choking hazards, adding, "While it's OK for baby to have culinary herbs, avoid salt, overly spicy chiles and spices."
- 12 Months: His first birthday means saying bye-bye to the baby bottle, and solely using a cup—which, with the help of a lid or straw, your baby should have no problem mastering. Around the same time, you can introduce whole milk into your baby's diet, if he's able to tolerate it. Don't give him skim, 1% or 2% milk at this age—your tot needs full-fat dairy for healthy brain development.
By exposing your child to a variety of tastes and textures, you can cut the chances he'll be a picky eater later in life. Swinney encourages parents to "go beyond what's offered on the baby food aisle to give their babies as many different foods and tastes as possible."