For decades, parents have used infant rice cereal as baby’s first food. And why not? It’s mild in flavour, fortified with iron, easy to digest and takes just a few seconds to prepare. But rice cereal has fallen out of favour with dietitians and paediatricians as an ideal first food for babies. Meat, poultry, beans, tofu and enriched pasta are common foods to start with instead.
When babies start solids, it’s imperative that iron-rich foods are introduced. That’s because babies are born with a reserve of iron that begins to deplete by six month of age if they are breastfed. (Formula contains iron, so it’s less of a concern for formula-fed infants.) Babies need 11 milligrams of iron per day for normal growth and development, and iron is vital for brain health and red blood cell production.
Though rice cereal is fortified with iron, it’s a kind of iron that doesn’t absorb well. Heme iron, found in meat, fish and poultry, is easy to absorb, while non-heme iron, which is found in fortified rice cereal, as well as beans, lentils, enriched pasta, leafy greens and dried fruits, is more difficult.
Plus, rice contains trace levels of arsenic, a chemical that rice grains naturally soak up from soil and ground water. It’s fine to serve rice cereal a few times a week, but excessive arsenic intake can have detrimental effects on a baby’s immune system. Rice—whether as infant cereal, rice cakes or rusks—should not be served at three daily meals. Even organic brown rice. Brown rice actually contains more arsenic than white rice, because the chemical stays trapped in the outer fibrous hull of the grain.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other iron-rich options to feed your baby. Babies will get the most iron from meat—even when it contains less of the mineral than plant-based foods—because it’s better absorbed, but most won’t get the 11 milligrams they need from meat alone. So it’s best to include a variety of iron-rich foods to meet their needs for the mineral, and for all kinds of other nutrients. Here are some great foods to choose from.
1. Red meat (0.5 to 0.8 mg iron per ounce)
Babies don’t have molars yet, so meat needs to be soft and easy to chew. Ground beef is an easy solution, since it’s already in small pieces. You can also puree beef or lamb with some formula or breastmilk, and serve it with a spoon. As baby’s teeth come in and their feeding matures, offer thin strips or small pieces of meat.
2. Dark poultry (0.4 mg iron per ounce)
Thighs and drumsticks have more heme iron than breast (white) meat. You can cook and puree dark poultry with some water or unsalted broth, or offer pea-sized cubes or thin strips that your baby can pick up with his fingers.
3. Egg yolks (1 mg iron per yolk)
Some babies don’t love dry hard-boiled yolks, so try mashing it with some breastmilk, formula, yogurt or pureed vegetables. Or, offer scrambled eggs. You can also make “egg salad” by mashing a whole boiled egg with plain yogurt or avocado. Egg yolks contain non-heme iron, but if you serve them with berries or melon, the vitamin C can help to improve absorption.
4. Baby cereal made from oats, barley or quinoa (4 to 5 mg iron per ¼ cup)
Alternate brown rice cereal with these nutritious options. All of these cereals are low in arsenic, iron-fortified and easy to prepare. Stir them with some breastmilk or formula, and add pureed vegetables and fruit to help your baby better digest the non-heme iron.
5. Beans (1 to 2 mg iron per ¼ cup)
Chickpeas and beans are rich in non-heme iron and are a good source of protein. If you buy canned beans, choose “no salt added” varieties. Puree cooked beans in a blender (baby hummus!), or serve them whole if your baby has good finger control and can pick them up individually.
6. Lentils (1.5 mg iron per ¼ cup)
Like beans, lentils offer non-heme iron and protein. With no soaking required, red lentils cook to an oatmeal-like consistency in about 20 minutes, while brown and green lentils hold their disc shape and cook in about 25 minutes. Serve red lentils with a spoon, or serve brown or green lentils as finger foods or as a puree.
7. Pasta (1 mg iron per ½ cup)
Pasta made from enriched wheat flour contains non-heme iron, but note that whole grain pasta or imported pasta (from Italy) is not fortified. Check the label to know for sure.