Being a baby is a lot of work! We do not give them enough credit for the amount of work they do! They have to grow at a very fast pace, have developmental milestones to achieve, and grasp all the new experiences they are exposed to. Learn and understand so much around them!
And to do all of this, obviously, they need a lot of energy and the right nutrition. From birth to about 6 months of age, babies are usually exclusively breastfed or given formula. But beyond the first 6 months, they are to start trying foods beyond milk.
At 6 months of age, most babies do not have any teeth, or a couple of teeth at the most, which is not enough to chew proper solid meals. So one has to begin by introducing other liquids or semi-solid foods like pureed fruits, soft porridges etc.
Once they have more than 4-6 teeth, and are around 1 year plus, you can slowly start introducing foods like cow’s full-fat milk, solid foods that are easy to digest like khichdi, bits of roti, dal with rice etc.
On a baby’s journey towards solids or whole meals, they require meals that are enriched with nutrients like healthy carbohydrates, proteins and fats as well as all the essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.
For this, baby foods need to be inclusive of the main food groups like vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy products and sources of protein.
These foods can be introduced as raw, mashed, cooked, steamed or any way you deem fit. But giving them food from these food groups is essential.
Introducing solid foods for the first time
Babies are usually on breast milk or formula for the initial months and so it is natural that they will not immediately or easily make the switch over to new tastes and textures.
There may be some resistance, but you can make their journey a little easier, by introducing one new texture or flavour at a time, continuing the same for a few days (along with their breastmilk or formula feed) and introducing another new taste or texture, once the baby is comfortable with the previous one.
As the baby grows, you can gradually reduce the formula or breastfeeds and make solids their main source of nutrition.
The number of teeth is a factor, that may alter their solid food journey. Ideally, up to 1 year or so, mashed and pureed meals can be given since they do not have enough teeth to chew. Once the child is over a year old, slowly solid meals can be given.
Having said that, every child’s food journey is unique, some switch over to solids way before time, while some have a very hard time. Be patient with them, forcing them to eat solids or eat a certain way will make them averse to meal times.
4 Food groups and their relevance
#1 Fruits & vegetables: These foods provide babies with ample fibre, energy, anti-oxidants, minerals and vitamins. Serving fruits and vegetables as snacks or part of lunch or dinner is a great idea. It helps your babies build good immunity to battle diseases later in life.
#2 Grains: Grains are often one of the best and main sources of carbohydrates. They give your baby the energy to move around and stay active during the day. Choosing grains that have a low glycemic index is a good idea. Some healthy grains you can introduce in your baby’s meals are wheat, oats, ragi, jowar, bajra etc.
You can explore various food forms like roti or porridges to provide your baby meals with their dose of grains.
#3 Dairy: Key dairy products like milk, cheese, ghee and yoghurt are very important for a baby’s healthy growth. They are great sources of calcium, proteins as well as healthy fats. Serving dairy products is a great way to transition your baby from formula milk to other dairy products. Once the child is over a year old, full-fat cow’s milk can be offered and weaning from breast milk can begin.
Children need a lot of energy to grow and so dairy products must be ‘full fat’ variants.
#4 Proteins: Proteins are the building blocks of growth, and so babies must always be given enough proteins. Protein sources can be vegetarian as well as animal sources. Some commonly used healthy protein sources for babies are lean meats, chicken, fish, cottage cheese, eggs, lentils, tofu and even nuts.
Balanced baby meals
Once your baby is able to eat solid foods, you can create a meal timetable, and ensure they get at least 3 healthy meals and include a lot of healthy snacks like fruits and nuts.
Babies from 12 months onwards can begin with eating balanced meals. It is natural that they will not be able to eat full heavy meals right from the start, but giving them limited portions of wholesome meals will set the habits right.
Here are some examples of well-balanced meals for your kids. You can serve such meal options, from age 1 year onwards, depending on their willingness, dentition and other food habits. But children above 2 years of age, can certainly be introduced to such simple meal habits.
Breakfast: Being the first meal of the day, it needs to be healthy and heavy to kick-start the day. Oats porridge with full-fat milk with a banana, scrambled eggs with a piece of multigrain bread and some cheese, methi paratha with curd, uttapam with coconut chutney, moong dal cheela with vegetables and a glass of milk, Idli with ragi powder and sambar, vegetable upma etc.
Lunch: Simple Indian lunch ideas that are well-balanced can be: roti, jowar bhakri, or rice can be served with curries and vegetables like chana masala, yellow moong dal, sprouted moong bhaji, mixed vegetables, rajma, dahi kadhi, paneer bhurji, etc. It can be accompanied by a bowl of curd or raita like cucumber raita or a glass of buttermilk.
Evening snack: After two full meals, kids are usually not very hungry and a light snack is perfect to keep them full until dinner.
Snacks like, cut pineapple, apples, a full banana, grapes, cut papaya or any seasonal fresh fruit is a great snacking option. You can even try giving them a whole fruit like an apple, for them to bite into and chew.
Healthy nuts like peanuts, almonds or a handful of walnuts are also great for kids to snack on.
Dinner: The final meal of the day, must be served at least 2 hours before bedtime. It can include foods like:
Mixed vegetable khichdi with ghee, vegetable pulao, sambhar and rice, paneer matar gravy with roti or rice, palak paneer and roti with ghee etc.
Healthy fluid intake
Once kids are weaned from breast milk, water is one of the important fluids that they need to intake. It helps in digesting solid foods, quenching their thirst as well as keeping their body internally clean. Full-fat milk is yet another healthy drink they can consume.
One must avoid serving baby drinks that are high in sugar or highly processed drinks. Avoid giving them packaged flavoured milk, packaged fruit juices or any fizzy drinks.
Instead, offer fresh fruit juices, buttermilk or coconut water.
Dealing with fussy eaters!
Firstly the term ‘fussy eater’ must never be used in front of the kid, which invariably becomes a tag and they learn to act accordingly.
Being a role model plays a crucial role in setting the bar with regard to food. Children will never eat healthy foods when they have never seen you eat them or if they see you binging on unhealthy foods.
Starting the practice of healthy eating and setting mealtimes is yet another important step. Healthy foods will not feel foreign or strange when kids have been exposed to them from early on. Their bodies also get adapted to set mealtimes, and they feel hungry at the correct times for meals.
Being a bit firm with them also helps, if they know a tantrum will bend you into serving them other foods or changing mealtimes, they will learn that faster than any good habit you try to instil!
It also helps to discipline them for the long run.
If they just cannot tolerate a certain food group consistently, you must get them checked for any kind of food allergies.
Having said that, they are finally little humans and will get fed up or bored of the exact same foods served daily. Give them varieties of foods, and keep an eye on foods that they especially like or prefer.
Avoid ready-to-eat meals or packaged meals
Foods that are packaged may have ingredients that are not very healthy and may contain preservatives, sugars or other ingredients that may not be best for your child.
As far as possible, it is best to prepare meals for your baby at home. This way you can ensure their ingredients are fresh, hygiene is maintained, nutritional requirements are met, no unwanted ingredients are added and are best suited for your child.
While it may be tough for some to prepare all meals from scratch, with some planning and effort, beat meals for your baby can be whipped up.
Instilling healthy eating habits right from the beginning can be tough, but must be patiently yet firmly done, in order to have healthy and disciplined eating habits for the future.