What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler

New to parenting? Here are the nutrition basics you need to know.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 22, 2010
6 min read

Feeding young children can be a perplexing process, particularly when you're new to parenting.

To help guide you through the first few years of your child's life, WebMD asked several experts to give us the low-down on feeding basics for infants and toddlers. They discussed when, what, and how much to feed your child up to age 3.

Your infant seems hungrier, and you're wondering whether it's time for more than breast milk or formula.

"In nearly all healthy children, 4 to 6 months is the recommended age for starting solid foods," says Ronald Kleinman, MD, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Age is just one criteria for judging a child's readiness, however.

"A child's motor skills and stage of development also help determine when they are ready for solid foods," says Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, MHS, RD, a pediatric nutrition expert and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Before you offer solid foods, your baby should be capable of holding his or her head up, says Tanner-Blasiar. In addition, your infant should no longer have the "extrusion reflex", which causes babies to push anything but liquid out of their mouths. Losing that instinctive urge allows a child to more readily accept spoonfuls of infant foods.

What's on the menu for baby's first meal? Would you believe pureed meat is OK?

"Rice cereal is a customary and safe first food, but most babies can tolerate a variety of foods, including pureed meats," says Kleinman.

While meat is often reserved for older infants, there's no reason to wait.

"There is no scientific evidence that supports introducing foods in a particular order," such as rice cereal, vegetables, fruits, and finally, meat, according to Kleinman.

Pureed meats, such as beef and lamb, provide iron in a form that is highly available to your baby's body. Iron is critical to brain development, and it ferries oxygen to every body cell. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says older infants are among those most affected by iron deficiency. Infant cereals fortified with iron are another good choice for baby.

In fact, the AAP suggests that -- beginning at 4 months of age -- partially breastfed infants (more than half of their daily feedings as human milk) who are not receiving iron-containing complementary foods should receive 1 mg/kg per day of supplemental iron.

The first few weeks of eating solid foods is more about becoming accustomed to spoon-feeding than meeting nutrient needs. After all, your baby is learning to negotiate food that they must keep in their mouth, work toward the back, and swallow.

Tanner-Blasiar says you should expect your child to eat only one or two teaspoons at a sitting during the first week or so.

"When you begin your baby on solid foods, he is still getting the majority of his nutrition from breast milk or infant formula, so he won't eat much else," she says.

Older infants may try to feed themselves. It makes for messy meals, but self-feeding encourages the development of a child's fine motor skills. As they near the 1-year mark, offer your baby water, breast milk or formula from a "sippy" cup to help self-feeding skills along.

"Children are born knowing how to regulate their food intake," says Tanner-Blasiar. "It's a parent's job to respect their child's instincts."

Overfeeding encourages children to override their inborn ability to eat when hungry and stop when full, which may encourage a pattern of overeating that leads to an unhealthy weight.

Infants as young as 6 months are capable of expressing their interest in eating. How will you know they have had enough? Here are some of the telltale signs:

  • Swatting at the spoon
  • Turning their head away from the spoon
  • Pursing their lips tight when the spoon comes their way
  • Spitting out every spoonful you manage to get in their mouth
  • Crying.

If your child seems disinterested in solids when you first offer them, wait a few days and try again. Some children take more time than others to come around to eating from a spoon. While some are consistently poor eaters, most babies eat what they need to thrive.

"If your child is growing and developing in a way that satisfies his doctor, and he is healthy and energetic, then his intake is adequate," Kleinman says.

After age 1, most children don't need infant formula for good nutrition, but you may continue to breastfeed for as long as you and your baby want. Now's the time for baby to give up the bottle, if they haven't already. Children can have full-fat cow's milk or fortified soy beverages to drink from a sippy cup.

With the exception of reduced-fat milks, your child can eat nearly any food after age 1 as long as it's in a form that's safe for them, such as pureed or finely chopped. A family history of allergies makes certain foods off-limits for some toddlers. Check with your pediatrician about your child's special needs.

Toddlers tend to be erratic eaters. Growth spurts, painful teething, and illnesses all contribute to their fickleness about food. So does a general fascination with their surroundings and with their newfound physical prowess. Many times, toddlers are more interested in pulling themselves to a standing position or learning a new word than with eating. One thing's for sure: toddlers eat when they are hungry.

Juice is perceived as healthy, and it is -- to a point. Beverages containing 100% fruit juice supply several nutrients, including healthy plant compounds called phytonutrients. Juice is not a necessary part of a child's diet, however.

The AAP suggests waiting until at least age 6 months to introduce juice to infants, and limiting juice to 6 ounces (3/4 cup) per day until age 6. Because juice is sweet and refreshing, children may come to favor it over breast milk or infant formula, which are far more nutritious.

"Plus, drinking juice can provide lots of unnecessary calories," says Tanner-Blasiar.

After they reache age 2, your child can have the same foods the rest of the family eats.

"It's fine for children to eat what the family eats, but you must make it healthy," says Tanner-Blasiar.

Offer your toddler meals that include a variety of healthy foods, such as whole grains, lean protein, reduced-fat dairy foods, fruits, and vegetables cut up well so your child can chew and swallow them safely. Now's the time to phase out some fat; serving reduced-fat dairy foods is one easy way.

"Fat isn't inherently bad," says Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University School of Medicine. "It's just that children don't need as many calories at this age."

Lichtenstein says that offering children a balanced diet with a minimum of saturated fat (found primarily in fatty animal foods) and partially hydrogenated fat (from processed foods) helps them develop the eating habits necessary to avoid chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer later on.

Older toddlers are generally resistant to new foods -- including meats, fruits, and vegetables -- so you may fall into a rut of feeding your child the same meals over and over. Allow children to become familiar with novel foods by presenting a teaspoon or two alongside their favorites. Avoid calling attention to the new food. If at first you don't succeed, persevere.

"Research shows it can take up to 20 exposures to a new food before your child tries it," Tanner-Blasiar says.

Toddlers have tiny tummies, so they eat small meals. Children may also skimp on eating when they're tired or ill. Healthy snacks can make up for sparse meals, as long as what you offer is nutritious. Between-meal snack foods should be extensions of the meal. Here are some healthy examples of nutrient-rich snacks for toddlers:

  • Whole grain crackers
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Fruit
  • Milk
  • Chopped hard-boiled eggs and scrambled eggs
  • Smoothies
  • Dry cereal
  • Well-cooked vegetables, such as sliced, peeled, sweet potatoes.