Nourishing babies and toddlers optimally can be extremely challenging in our culture. Proper nutrition is the core for a healthy body and it affects all other areas of your children’s lives and well-being. You want to create the best foundation possible for your children establishing the roots for them to have a lifetime of health.
When it comes to the Paleo diet and babies, toddlers and children, there is a lot of reluctance often due to the misconception that a Paleo approach is synonymous with a low carbohydrate one. This is simply false. A Paleo diet can be low-carb, high-carb, or moderate-carb and modified in many ways.
When it comes to children, the extreme end of the low-carb spectrum tends to be less than ideal. The ketogenic diet (extreme low-carb, high-fat) has been tested extensively in children and is a very effective treatment for medication-resistant childhood epilepsy. Unfortunately, the diet is often accompanied by many side effects, especially gastrointestinal problems.
Other research has shown that children can safely eat a moderate-carb diet, well within the Paleo norms that includes options from fruits to sweet potatoes and plantains.
Special Nutritional Considerations for Children
Children are not simply small adults. They do have specific nutritional needs. It is easily possible to fill all of those with a Paleo diet.
Calcium is particularly important for children, especially girls (who are more likely to develop osteoporosis or other bone problems later in life). Dairy is a Paleo gray area and some children do tolerate it well but there are many calcium-rich sources of Paleo friendly foods including bones (bone-in salmon and sardines) and leafy green vegetables. Both of these have more absorbable calcium than what is obtained from dairy.
Iron deficiency is particularly common in children with weight concerns. These children eat as much iron as anyone else, but the low-grade inflammation in their body prevents them from absorbing and using the iron. The solution is healing the inflammation rather than supplementing.
Low Vitamin D status is a problem for anyone who spends most of their time indoors. The best source of Vitamin D is sunlight: send your children outdoors to play!
When it comes to first foods, think nutrient-dense real foods. If you are eating these kinds of foods while breastfeeding, your baby is already exposed to the taste of them. Breastmilk taste changes based on what you are eating. The first year of introducing foods to your baby is mostly experimenting and tasting different foods. Most calories and nutrients can be obtained from breastmilk or quality formula.
The most common recommended first food in North America is iron-fortified rice cereal. Initially this may seem logical. Babies naturally need more iron than they receive from breast milk at around age six months. However, iron-fortified processed foods are a relatively modern invention and the Paleo lifestyle would question giving a fortified food rather than a food that naturally contains iron and other nutrients.
One could further deduce that the increasing need for nutrients like iron at around 6 months could direct to what first foods should be. If a baby is going to need a certain nutrient at a certain time that is not supplied by breast milk, it would make sense that there would be a built-in way for baby to get this nutrient that is not reliant on modern fortified foods. This is how children have thrived for millennia.
There are several important reasons for the iron need at this age and a natural way that babies get it:
Many pathogenic bacteria (including E. coli) need iron to survive and the missing iron may be a way of protecting baby from these bacteria as he or she starts eating solids.
Babies also at age 4-6 months start wanting to spend more time on the ground on their bellies in preparation for crawling. In a non-sterile world, this put babies in contact with dirt on a daily basis, and dirt is a natural source of iron and zinc!
A baby does have a dietary need for more minerals and the focus should be on giving them foods that naturally contain these nutrients without the need for fortified and artificial nutrients. Rice is not naturally a source of these nutrients and possibly not intended to be a first food for baby!
Most starchy foods may not be the best choice as first foods for a baby because at age 4-6 months, babies do not produce sufficient amounts of an enzyme called amylase which is used to break down most carbohydrates. This means that starchy foods like rice can be irritating to baby’s digestive system and lead to discomfort in some babies. These foods are more likely to sit and begin to decompose in the gut, which may increase the likelihood of allergies to this particular food.
Furthermore, habituating a baby to the taste of sweet foods first would make it difficult to introduce less sugary foods like the sour and bitter flavors in vegetables.
There is also a longstanding misconception that your baby will sleep better with rice cereal. It might fill their stomach, but it is filling them with a nutrient-void food like product.
Where To Begin
You can absolutely start your baby off right by feeding them Paleo foods, properly cooked (when necessary) and mashed or pureed.
Best First Foods
Depending on baby’s ability to chew and swallow, you can puree, mash, or give soft chunks. Avocados are nutrient dense and loaded with good fats. Infants need a high fat diet for their developing brain, eyes, and neurological system.
Many pediatricians might warn you about starting eggs early because of possible allergies. The egg white does contain many different proteins that pose a risk to an immature gut. However, the yolk is gentle on the gut and loaded with healthy saturated fat and nutrients. Of course, choose only the best quality eggs.
Liver from grass-fed or pasture raised animals
Depending on your baby’s ability to chew or swallow, you would give small pieces or a puree. Liver from pasture raised animals is extremely rich sources of B vitamins, vitamin A, and iron. The iron in liver is bioavailable-meaning it will be digested and assimilated by baby’s body, unlike the iron fortified cereals and baby foods.
Loaded with vitamin A and good carbohydrates these often taste good and work well when mixed with stronger meats like liver and fish.
Niacin, iron, choline, high in good omega 3 fats, nutrient rich, grass fed beef can be slow simmered or pureed as well as mixed with other vegetables.
Bone broth or bone marrow
Teething babies love to suck/chew on bones! As long as the bone does not have pieces sticking out that they can choke on, it can help with their teething and they may even suck nutrients from it. Of course, quality is key, ensure the bone is from a grass-fed or pastured animal. You can scoop out the nutrient dense marrow from roasted marrow bones and serve it mixed with a little avocado or sweet potato. You can also add bone broth to your baby’s food.
These fish are an excellent source of the fatty acids essential for brain development. Wild salmon is also rich in vitamin D.
Sticks of cooked vegetables
As long as the tongue thrust reflex is gone (usually after 6 months), babies can chew on cooked vegetable sticks. Steam until tender and give them the little sticks to hold.
Mashed roasted squash or pumpkin
High in vitamin A, pumpkins and squash (both w inter and summer) are great for mixing with grass-fed beef or liver
Seasoning and spices
Get your baby use to different flavors! Play around with cinnamon, cumin, garlic, ginger, curry, dill, oregano, sage, thyme, basil, mint, lemongrass, pepper. You want them to enjoy flavorful food just as you do. Baby food need not be bland. Babies of different ethnicities can enjoy the flavor of ethnic foods just as adults do.
And lots of them. Babies brains need fat, especially healthy, stable saturated fats. Fat insulates the brain, helps develop good eyesight, and satiates baby. You can also cook baby’s veggies and meats in pastured lard and tallow or try some duck fat or chicken schmaltz. You can use coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil in their food. Once tolerance is established you can feed your baby raw full fat grass-fed milk (after 1 year), full fat yogurt or kefir (after 1 year), a spoonful of ghee. With ghee, the milk proteins have been removed, leaving a fat rich in CLA, and fat-soluble vitamins, great for a growing brain. Raw cheese and goat cheese are a good option here too. Beware of giving your baby, toddler, or child anything labeled low-fat or fat free
Toddler Friendly Finger Foods
You have to plan ahead and pack real food snacks with an icepack when venturing out or traveling. It may not seem as easy as a boxed or packaged snack, but you will adjust! Some handy snacks include sliced up hard boiled eggs, steamed veggie sticks (until tender), oven roasted sweet potato fries or jicama fries, small cut up pieces of chicken or other tender slow cooked meats, avocado slices with pink salt, well-sourced deli meats rolled up, roasted cauliflower, kale chips, seaweed snacks, and berries.
Babies have their own taste preferences, opinions, and growing levels of independence. Not every baby will tolerate the same tastes and textures, and even if they do, they may do it at different paces. The key to introducing new flavors or textures is to repeatedly try, and to try differently. There are, of course, many ideas of what makes a correct ‘first food’ as there are so many options. Foundationally, when following Paleo principles, start with nutrient-dense and non-starchy whole foods that have a low chance of causing an allergic response and let your baby be as independent as possible when eating.