We spoke to registered dietitians about the role of meat in a baby's transition to solid foods

Apr 17 2023, 9:12 pm

Feeding your baby foods like mashed sweet potato, banana, and puréed peas may feel easier and safer, but these foods don’t offer all you need for your baby’s health and development. Meat might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re thinking of starting solids, but it should be.

Babies grow at a rapid rate, and at six months of age, breast milk and formula alone aren’t going to cut it. By this age, a baby’s natural iron stores — those that they’re born with — are starting to deplete. In fact, it’s recommended that a baby should be having more iron in their diet than adult men to help keep up with their iron demands. 

Health Canada recommends iron-rich meat, legumes, fish, tofu, and iron-fortified cereal as first complementary foods to introduce while also encouraging parents and caregivers to introduce a variety of other nutritious foods.

To help you navigate the best ways to introduce iron-rich foods into your baby’s diet and how best to prepare them, we spoke to Registered Dietitians Jessica Penner and Nita Sharda from Happy Healthy Eaters.

Knowing about iron

It’s important to know which foods contain the best sources of iron to help infants through a critical stage for iron status — as an iron deficiency in infancy and childhood can have serious and irreversible effects on brain development and function. Since baby appetites can fill up fast, prioritizing nutrient-dense foods that offer a highly absorbable iron can help make every bite count.

“There are two forms of iron found in food: heme iron and non-heme iron,” Penner and Sharda tell Daily Hive. “It’s important to know that heme iron is better absorbed by our bodies than non-heme iron. This means that while foods like grains, legumes, tofu, and some vegetables do contain some iron (non-heme), this type of iron is not as well absorbed as the heme iron that you find in meat.”

Iron-fortified cereals are often marketed to parents as the go-to first food for babies, but Penner and Sharda say that they only contain non-heme iron — which doesn’t absorb as well in the body.

“In fact, due to the lower availability of non-heme iron, vegetarians need almost two times more iron in their diets than meat eaters. This is important to know when it comes to babies since their iron requirements are high, yet their tummies are small.”

Benefits of beef for your baby

Penner and Sharda say that the iron you get from beef, heme iron, won’t only help your baby absorb more iron, but it also contains other key nutrients like fat, B vitamins, and zinc that contribute to a healthy and happy baby.

“Both [zinc and vitamin B12] are also critical nutrients to developing babies and remain important throughout our lifespan,” they say.

“For sure, iron is a priority nutrient for infants, but zinc and vitamin B12 are also critical for infant development, and babies can become deficient in these if not included in the foods offered to your baby. Beef, a whole food, has the benefit of being a rich package of these key nutrients.”

Improve your baby’s iron absorption

Penner and Sharda provided a few tips to improve your baby’s iron absorption, such as pairing sources of vitamin C with non-heme iron, and coupling meat with non-heme iron sources.

When you include a food source of vitamin C in combination with foods that contain non-heme iron, like pairing broccoli or red pepper with beans, it will boost iron absorption from those foods.

And adding meats like beef, poultry, pork, or fish — even in small amounts — to foods that contain non-heme iron increases the absorption of the non-heme iron from those plant foods by up to 150%.

Penner and Sharda say that, with the exception of liver (due to the risk of too much vitamin A) beef can be served to your baby every day. Since babies are learning to eat and are developing their taste preferences, it can be valuable to offer a variety of flavours and textures. They also say the best way to ensure your baby is consuming enough iron is to offer an iron-containing food at every meal.

How to prepare beef for your baby

Beef is a whole food that is rich in nutrients and can be prepared in a variety of ways for your family, baby included. In fact, Penner and Sharda encourage families to modify their favourite recipes to be baby friendly.

“Gram for gram, beef is one of the richest sources of key nutrients that babies need to get from solid foods — iron in particular,” they say. “As a rule of thumb, the ‘redder’ or darker the meat, the more iron it contains. Beef for example has more iron than chicken.”

While it was once believed that babies could only tolerate a puréed texture at six months — the age when your baby is ready to start eating solid foods — recent research has clarified that there are a variety of textures that are safe for your baby to enjoy.

Penner and Sharda recommend slow-cooking beef cuts like blade or stew meat in a liquid until it’s tender. “Slow cooking in a liquid allows the tough collagen to break down, making it a great, soft ‘pulled beef’ texture for a baby just learning to eat. Or use the tenderest of steak cuts like tenderloin and grate the cooked meat so it’s easy for your baby to manage. We love that families don’t have to buy special equipment to make baby food.”

Ground beef is super handy for feeding babies — because of its crumbly texture when cooked, and you’re able to form it into shapes that can easily be picked up, like a small patty which is a fun and easy-to-chew option for a baby with little to no teeth.

“The best rule of thumb is to pick healthy beef recipes that the whole family can enjoy, and adapt these for baby. That means leaving out the salt (to protect their kidneys) and hot chilli peppers (in case they touch their eyes), and adapting the portion and texture. We love telling parents that they can pass down their family’s cultural foods right from the start.”

From a food safety perspective, you want to make sure the meat is properly cooked for your baby. “[The most accurate method] is to use a digital instant-read thermometer — once you reach an internal temperature for beef that is at least 160°F/71°C, you’re good to go (cool before serving!).”

Baby beef solutions for beginner eaters

Depending on your baby’s ability to eat solid foods, puréeing soft, fully cooked beef in a blender or food processor is one way of introducing it into your baby’s diet.

To help the blending process, you can add breastmilk, formula, no-added-salt broth or water to help achieve the desired texture. Over time you can gradually change the texture, making the blend more chunky, and eventually, move on to finger foods.

“You can either blend a little of your own meal (modified to be low sodium) or you can make a larger batch and freeze it into small portions for your baby.”

Babies learn about healthy eating from the influences around them, so Penner and Sharda say establishing healthy eating habits for the whole family can go a long way in forming balanced diets and enjoying whole foods. They both strongly encourage parents to eat with their babies as often as they can since it’s also a great time for connection and modelling. 

“Exposing your baby to a variety of tastes, foods, and textures early on may prevent pickiness later in life and set your baby up for a lifetime of culinary adventures!”

For detailed information about incorporating iron-rich foods into your baby’s diet, check out ThinkBeef’s Beef for Babies webpage. You can also download, view or order a Baby at the Table booklet, with family-friendly recipes you can adapt to get your baby started on their food journey.

Daily Hive

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