Complementary foods can be gradually introduced to your baby’s diet alongside breastmilk or infant formula at around 6 months of age. Some babies may be ready before this but if you do give your baby solids before 6 months, there are some foods that should be avoided because they are sometimes linked to allergy. Babies born prematurely may be ready for solids a little later than 6 months. Ask your health visitor for advice about what’s best for your baby.
Start slowly; during a milk feed, offer:
- Baby cereal mixed with breastmilk or infant formula
- Soft or cooked (allow to cool before eating) fruit or vegetables, mashed or as finger food such as carrot, potato, sweet potato, yam, parsnip, apple or pear, banana, mango, melon or avocado
Let your baby enjoy touching and holding the food!
There are some foods that babies should avoid:
- Sugar – your baby does not need added sugar. Avoiding sugary snacks and drinks will help prevent tooth decay
- Honey – do not introduce before 1 year as it sometimes contains a bacteria that can produce toxins in a baby’s intestines, leading to infant botulism
- Do not add salt to your baby’s food. Use herbs and spices rather than salt to flavour food
- Whole nuts – they may cause choking. You can use nut butters and crushed nuts in food
- Foods intended for adults e.g. low-fat, low-sugar, artificially sweetened foods
- Raw or undercooked fish or meat
- Swordfish, marlin and shark – these contain mercury which can affect a growing nervous system
Cow’s milk shouldn’t be given as a main drink until your baby is one year old as it doesn’t provide enough energy.
It’s best to let your baby lead you, there a few signs that will tell you when they are ready for solid foods:
- They are able to stay in a sitting position and hold their head steady
- They have begun to develop hand-eye coordination, so that they can coordinate lifting the food and putting it in their mouth without assistance
- They can swallow food and not push it back out again
- They seem to be less satisfied with just their milk feeds
- They are interested when others are eating
A few important things to remember when you start introducing solid foods:
- Never leave your baby alone when eating
- Make sure they are well supported in a sitting position, preferably in a high-chair and start feeding slowly
- Go at your baby’s pace
- Never leave your baby alone with a bottle or give a bottle to help with sleep as it could cause choking as well as damaging teeth
- Never add food to a bottle
- Don’t leave meals until your baby is too hungry or tired to eat
It’s very common for young children to go through phases of being fussy about what they eat. Sometimes eating very little, wanting to eat the same thing every day or refusing to eat certain foods, even ones they liked before!
It’s important not to get too worried – remember this is completely normal, and rarely harmful.
TIPS ON HOW TO COPE
- Try to keep calm! It’s important not to turn mealtimes into a battleground
- Eat your meals together, the best way for your child to learn to eat and enjoy new foods is to copy you and other family members
- Keep portions small at first and praise your child for eating them
- If after gentle encouragement, your child refuses to eat something, just remove it without making a fuss
- Don’t leave meals until your child is too hungry or tired to eat
- Don’t give too many snacks between meals. Limit them to a milk drink and some fruit slices or a small cracker with a slice of cheese, for example
- Try not to use food as a reward; it can lead to an acceptance of sweet foods as ‘good’ and vegetables as ‘bad’. Instead you could use a reward chart which could lead to a big trip out or activity once they collect enough stickers to fill their chart
- Children sometimes get thirst and hunger mixed up. They might say they’re thirsty when really they’re hungry
- Make mealtimes sociable and not just about eating, have a chat and enjoy the full meal experience
- If your child’s friends are good eaters invite them round for tea; children can learn well from good example set by peers
- Children’s tastes change – a food which they once refused may be their new favourite next week! Serve new foods along with old favourites to make them more appealing
- Try mixing up the form in which you offer a food, for example a child might refuse cooked veg but may love the raw version and vice versa
The food children are given at break and lunchtime at nursery school can make an important contribution to their dietary intake and teach them good habits around food. Food served in early years settings has vastly improved in recent years, with many nurseries following government guidelines for nutrition and food quality.
Countries within Great Britain are governed by school food policies that are specific to England, Scotland or Wales.
The School Food Standards set out the requirements for food provided in educational settings in England. They are designed to ensure pupils are offered nutritious meals and snacks during the school day and aim to increase the vitamin and mineral content and decrease fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content from children’s diets.
The Children’s Food Trust provide information for nursery settings and childminders in England.
Also see the School Food Plan
Better Eating, Better Learning was released in 2014 to help schools, local authorities, caterers, parents in Scotland, to work together to make further improvements in school food and food education. It is aimed at those in primary and secondary education but is useful for early years settings too.
Also see Scottish School Meals
The Healthy Eating in Schools (Nutritional Standards & Requirements) (Wales) Regulations 2013 outline the type of foods which can and can’t be provided by schools to ensure nutritious foods are available in nursery schools in Wales.
The under-fives need small, nutritious meals with nourishing snacks in between. The best way to make sure they get all the nutrients and energy they need is to give them a wide variety of nutrient rich foods; ones that provide lots of vitamins and minerals, from the four main food groups. And remember, snacks as well as meals count towards a healthy balanced diet.
MILK AND DAIRY FOODS
Dairy products provide important nutrients for people of all ages, but are particularly important for small children. Milk, hard cheese and yogurt are the main providers of bone-building calcium in the UK diet (see Calcium) and are also rich in protein, which is important for children’s growing bones.
You should aim to give children about three servings of dairy each day, either as a milk drink or in the form of milk-based dishes, hard cheese or yogurt. As well as calcium and protein, milk is packed with vitamins B2, B12 and iodine, and contains phosphorus and potassium too. If your child doesn’t like to drink milk, try to make sure you offer a selection of other dairy foods such as hard cheese and yogurt.
Examples: milk, hard cheese, yogurt.
Between the ages of one and two, it is recommended that toddlers have whole milk to drink rather than skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. Compared with lower-fat milks, whole milk provides extra energy and fat, which are important for growing children. From two years old, you can start to introduce semi-skimmed milk if your child is eating a good variety of foods and growing well, otherwise stick to whole milk. Skimmed milk and 1% fat milk aren’t suitable as main drinks for children under five.
- Milk can also be used in custard, milk puddings, soups and sauces
- A cheesy sauce on pasta or as cauliflower cheese ups dairy intake too
- Try giving yogurt or fromage frais as a tasty pudding or snack
THE NURSERY MILK SCHEME
The Nursery Milk Scheme enables children under five to receive 189ml (1/3 pint) of milk, free of charge, on each day they attend approved day-care facilities for two hours or more. This includes children in pre-schools, nurseries, playgroups, and primary school nursery classes. To find out more visit www.nurserymilk.co.uk
An allergy to cow’s milk is estimated to affect around 1 in 50 infants. Most children will have outgrown it by the time they start school.
If you think your child is allergic to milk, you should consult your GP. If a milk allergy is diagnosed, the doctor will refer you to a registered dietitian for specialist dietary advice.
Neither goat’s nor sheep’s milk are a suitable replacement for cow’s milk; your child’s body will react in the same way as it does to cowss milk. Soya products should only be used if advised by a GP or dietitian, as children who are allergic to cow’s milk may also be allergic to soya.
BREAD, RICE, POTATOES, PASTA AND OTHER STARCHY FOODS
These starchy foods provide energy, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Try to give kids at least one serving from this group with each meal and some as snacks too. For kids, it is important to offer a mixture of white, brown and wholegrain varieties. It’s not a good idea to give only wholegrain starchy foods, because they can be too filling for small children, meaning your child could become full before they have taken in enough calories.
Examples: bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, breakfast cereals, yams, chapatis and sweet potatoes.
FRUIT AND VEGETABLES
Fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals that are great for growing children. Aim for five suitably-sized portions each day, remembering that a toddler’s serving size will be smaller than an adult’s. As a rough guide, one portion is about the amount they can fit in the palm of their hand. As a child grows, portion sizes can be increased accordingly.
Offer as many different varieties as possible; the more colours the better! And remember that frozen and tinned versions provide just as many nutrients and are quick and easy to prepare.
Examples: all fresh, frozen and tinned fruit (in natural juice) and vegetables (in unsalted water), and dried fruit.
Potatoes are a ‘starchy’ food and so don’t count towards the 5-a-day target.
- Making a smoothie with fruit and yogurt or milk is a good way to get your child to eat more fruit, and at the same time, providing them with a portion of dairy.
- To increase your child’s vegetable intake while hiding the taste, blend vegetables into soups and stews.
- Serving different colours of fruits and vegetables together will make them more appealing to young children. Or try arranging fruits or vegetables in smiley faces.
- Try cutting fruit and vegetables into small pieces and offering these as finger foods with a dip. For example, serve carrot sticks with a dip such as houmous, or fruit slices with a yogurt dip.
MEAT, FISH, EGGS, BEANS AND OTHER NON-DAIRY SOURCES OF PROTEIN
Foods in this group provide protein and iron for growing bodies. For more information on the benefits of iron, see Other nutrients. Try to give two servings of foods from this group each day to toddlers eating meat and fish or two or three servings of a variety of alternative protein sources each day to vegetarian toddlers.
Examples: beef, lamb, pork, chicken, beans, lentils, eggs, fish and nuts (see ‘Advice on whole nuts’).
ADVICE ON OILY FISH
Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids; two portions per week is adequate to meet your child’s needs.
ADVICE ON WHOLE NUTS
Children under five years old shouldn’t be offered whole nuts because of the risk of choking.
ADVICE ON PEANUTS
As long as there is no history of food or other allergies in your family, you can give your toddler peanuts. Make sure they are crushed or ground into peanut butter. If your child already has a known allergy or there is a history of allergy in your child’s immediate family (either parent or sibling) you should speak to your healthcare professional before you give peanuts or foods containing peanuts for the first time.
FOODS AND DRINKS CONTAINING FAT AND/OR SUGAR
These foods provide calories, but few nutrients so should only be given occasionally and in small amounts. They should not be used to replace nutritious foods from the other food groups.
Examples: crisps, fizzy drinks, chocolate, sweets, cakes, pastries and biscuits.
By this age, children should be using an open cup or free-flow cup (with no valve) for their drinks; still using a bottle can slow speech development and damage their teeth.
Milk and water are the best drinks for young children. Milk is packed with important nutrients including calcium, protein, potassium and a number of B vitamins, both milk and water are suitable drinks for between meals.
New guidelines recommend reducing sugar intake by decreasing the frequency of sugar-sweetened beverages and fruit juices in the diet. If you choose to give your child fruit juice it should always be well diluted and given in a cup not a bottle and at mealtimes.
Squashes and other soft drinks aren’t suitable for toddlers, even the ‘diet versions’. Not only are they bad news for teeth, their nutrient content is low too. Toddlers who drink them frequently can have less room to eat well at mealtimes. If you do give these drinks to your child, make sure they’re well diluted in a cup at mealtimes. Fizzy drinks should not be given at all.
It’s also best not to give children under five tea or coffee, as these can interfere with the body’s absorption of iron – see our Other nutrients section.
IDEAS FOR HEALTHY SNACKS
- Fresh fruit
- Vegetable sticks with a dip such as houmous
- Small cheese cubes with fruit
- Yogurt or fromage frais
- Small sandwiches (filled with grated cheese, egg, tuna or lean meat)
- Rice cakes, bread sticks or oat cakes
- Toasted muffin or bagel
- Small bowl of breakfast cereal and milk
- Scones, crumpets or pancakes
To help give children a good nutritional start in life, the government runs the Healthy Start Scheme. It allows pregnant women and parents, with young children, on low incomes to exchange vouchers for free milk, fruit and vegetables.
The vouchers can be used in shops taking part in Healthy Start, and also with local milk men. To find out more about Healthy Start ask your health visitor, or visit www.healthystart.nhs.uk
Last reviewed: 03/2017
Next review due: 03/2019