By Claire GagneUpdated Dec 11, 2020
Illustrations: Justine Wong
You knew your baby needed wholesome, nutritious food to grow, but did you know that what they eat also helps their brain develop? “The first 1,000 days of life, from conception until age two, are the most important for brain development,” says Molly Schoo, clinical dietitian, NICU, Paediatrics and Obstetrics at Mississauga Hospital. After introducing solid food at six months, it’s important to start thinking about safe, kid-friendly ways to incorporate these valuable nutrients into your kid’s diet.
Protein is needed to build the structure of the brain and contributes to its size. Neurotransmitters, which send messages to other parts of the brain and tell the body what to do, are also made of protein. Beans and lentils, meat, cow’s milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, and nuts and seeds are all high in protein.
1. Mini egg cupsCombine egg, grated cheese, shredded zucchini and butternut squash and pour into muffin cups; bake until set.
2. Scrambled eggMake a scramble with egg, feta cheese and chopped red peppers.
3. Egg wrapScramble egg, then wrap in a tortilla with tomato.
Zinc helps the body process carbohydrates, protein and fat; promotes immunity; and helps with body tissue growth and repair. Find it in beans and lentils, cow’s milk, yogurt, cheese, nuts and seeds, shellfish and seafood.
1. QuesadillasMash black beans with mozzarella cheese, fold into a tortilla, and grill to make quesadillas.
2. ChiliAdd red kidney beans and chopped bell peppers to a mild chili.
3. LentilsServe cooked lentils in a small dish as a finger food.
More than half the brain is made of fat, says Schoo. It helps build connections between neurons and the nervous system and protects brain cells from future damage. Foods that are rich in healthy fats include avocado, nuts and seeds, and salmon.
1. Creamy puréeBlend avocado with half a banana to make a smooth, creamy purée.
2. Avocado toastMash avocado and spread on toast strips for mini avocado toast.
3. Avocado dipSlice avocado into thick wedges and dip into chia seeds.
Iron is needed to carry oxygen from the lungs to the body and is vitally important for learning and growth. There are two kinds: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is better absorbed by the body and is mostly found in meat, such as beef, chicken, lamb, pork and turkey, and in fi sh. Non-heme iron is found in grain products, like infant cereal fortified with iron; cashew butter; lentils; soybeans; and green leafy vegetables, such as spinach or kale—which all need to be consumed with vitamin C so that the body can absorb the iron.
1. MeatballsMake meatballs with ground chicken and serve with tomato sauce.
2. Chicken stripsPrepare your favourite chicken breast recipe and cut into strips for your baby or toddler.
3. Mixed riceChop leftover chicken and veggies and mix with cooked brown rice.
Choline is super important while the brain is developing in utero and during infancy—it supports learning and memory—so pregnant and breastfeeding mothers should try to consume plenty of this nutrient. Recent research also suggests that it’s important for brain development through toddlerhood as well. Eggs, soybeans, chicken breast, broccoli, quinoa, fish and seafood (such as cod, salmon, shrimp and scallop) are high in choline.
1. Shrimp tacosChop cooked shrimp and serve in a small tortilla with mashed avocado for a simple shrimp taco.
2. Salmon toastMash cooked fresh or canned salmon with a small amount of mayonnaise and slather on infant cracker.
3. Fish sticksMake homemade fish sticks by slathering plain Greek yogurt, Dijon mustard and garlic on cod pieces, dipping in panko crumbs, and baking.
DHA plays a role in intelligence, vision, attention and impulse control by being responsible for the creation, movement, organization and connection of the brain’s neurons. Find it in fatty fish and seafood, ground chia and hemp seeds, ground flax seeds, walnuts and walnut butter, and omega-3-enriched eggs.
1. Chia smoothieBlend chia or hemp seeds in your favourite smoothie recipe.
2. Banana sushiSpread almond butter on a tortilla, add a banana, sprinkle with chia seeds, roll and slice into rounds.
3. Hemp flourGrind chia or hemp seeds into a fine powder and add them to an infant cereal.
Although the food and nutrients your infant and toddler eats is important for brain development, the environment in which your kids eat also affects brain health. “You can be serving all the right foods, but if you’re force-feeding or creating a less fun or calm environment, the child won’t get the same developmental benefits as eating the foods in a calmer environment,” says Schoo. Never force-feed your baby or toddler or use food as a punishment or a reward for good behaviour.