Tanya Thomas BSc (Hons) RD is a freelance dietician with ten years experience of dealing with children's diets and two young children of her own. She says: 'We all want our children to have the best start in life, with good nutritious foods. But it's sometimes hard to find out what makes for a good diet, or how to deal with common problems, and that can be stressful. I hear the same problems again and again, and this is what I advise parents to do.'
Q: How much should a baby eat?
A: Probably less than you imagine! It's very variable so I always say be guided by your baby. When you start weaning a couple of teaspoons once a day is adequate, though your baby may eat much more. By a year, a main meal of a couple of tablespoons of food is perfectly adequate. While you should aim for five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, a portion is only the amount a baby can hold in his closed fist. For example, for a one to two year old a small floret of broccoli or eight grapes counts as a portion, so a younger baby would need even less. When babies are old enough for finger foods, they may prefer to snack on healthy foods like fruit, carrot sticks and rice cakes.
Q: How can I be sure my baby is getting enough iron?
A: A From around six months your baby will need more than just milk to supply his body's needs for iron. Meat is the best-absorbed source of iron, especially if you give it with something containing vitamin C, which will help your baby's body absorb more of the iron. Aim for one serving a day of iron-rich food if you are giving meat such as red meat, ham or chicken, or two servings if you are giving vegetable sources of iron.
You can find iron in eggs, mashed beans or lentils, puréed apricots and green vegetables. Don't give your baby tea to drink as it prevents iron being absorbed and avoid too much cows' milk once your child is over one, as it contains very little iron but fills up small tummies
Suggested serving sizes:
- Egg: half an egg
- Meat or fish: 1oz (25-30g), a slice of ham, about a quarter of a chicken breast, or a very small sausage
- Pulses: 2-3 tablespoons
At 1 year babies should have a minimum of 1 portion of animal protein from above list or 2 of pulses to get sufficient iron.
Q: Does my baby need vitamin drops?
A Until a baby is six months old he won't need any vitamin supplements. Once past six months, breastfed babies should get vitamin drops specially formulated for babies containing vitamins A and D. Babies who aren't breastfed but drink less than a pint of formula a day should also be given drops.
Q: Why isn't my baby eating?
A: One of the main reasons for babies not wanting to eat is that they are given too much to drink in the form of milk, juice or squash. If a 12-month-old is given two pints of cows' milk a day they're unlikely to want to eat other foods and may become iron deficient. Lots of people panic about babies not eating. If your child is growing well, is healthy and eats a reasonable variety of foods then he will be fine.
Q: Can I raise my baby healthily on a vegetarian diet?
Yes you can, although it might take a little more planning. It is important to give your child a wide variety of different vegetarian foods, including beans, peas and lentils, tofu and eggs for protein and iron. Cheese, yogurt and milk are important for calcium. Raising your child as a vegan is more tricky. You need to give plenty of different vegetables, pulses, tofu, dried fruits, and ground nuts such as almond butter (a bit like peanut butter) - as long as there are no allergies in the family. Remember, babies need a lot of fat and energy but have small appetites so try not to give them too much fibre. The energy content of pulses, for example, lentils can be improved by adding a little vegetable oil.
Q: Help, how can I make my baby eat vegetables?
A: At first try adding puréed or finely minced vegetables to food they already like, such as carrot mixed with banana. Often the naturally sweet vegetables (such as sweet potatoes, yams, carrots and parsnips) are more popular anyway. Offer cooked carrot sticks as finger food too. For older babies, offer mashed up casserole with root vegetables in the sauce or a bolognaise sauce with hidden carrots and courgettes. Some babies like broccoli or cauliflower in cheese sauce. And keep offering. Sometimes you have to offer a new food dozens of times or more until your child will accept them. But don't ever fight about it. Making mealtimes a battle is always a bad idea.
Q: Are jars really a good substitute for home made food?
A Jars are not a bad thing. They are convenient, nutritionally balanced and made without additives and salt. You can feed your baby organically without spending a fortune and they are also very convenient and easy to carry about. But I don't think it's a good idea for babies to be brought up exclusively on jars. Jar food tends to be extremely smooth and some babies find it hard to move on from that texture to lumpier 'normal' food. Also jars sometimes seem less filling than homemade food, and it is satisfying to see your baby grow on food you have made yourself. Your baby should also have some fresh vegetables and fruit. When it comes to healthy convenience food for babies, there is nothing to beat a banana!
Q: When should I give my baby fruit juice?
I wouldn't advise giving a baby juice until he is at least nine months, and then it should be heavily diluted, one to 10 with water. But juice isn't really necessary (although it can contribute to vitamin C intake) and I wouldn't encourage it as it is very bad for teeth and puts babies off drinking plain water. If you do give juice, give it at meal times, never put it in a bottle, don't give it last thing at night, and brush your child's teeth well at the end of the day.
Q: I don't think my baby drinks enough.
Does he have wet nappies? Is he well and alert? In my experience as a clinical dietician, parents vastly overestimate how much their children need to drink.
Q: Is organic better?
Yes and no. I believe that the fewer pesticides and antibiotics our children are exposed to the better. There are studies showing some organic foods such as fruit, vegetables and milk are marginally richer in vitamins and minerals. However, organic food can be expensive and the range of organic food can be more limited. It is probably more important to encourage a wide variety of fruit and vegetables in the diet and buy organic if you can.