Australian babies generally get their first taste of solid food between four and six months of age (it is recommended parents should exclusively breastfeed for the first six months). While most parents choose commercial baby rice cereal for the initial offering, it certainly isn’t the most nutritious choice. “Baby rice has an incredibly high GI,” says nutritionist Dr Joanna McMillan. “We have this idea that chubby babies are healthy, but if we encourage them to produce a lot of insulin and lay down excessive amounts of fat, we could be setting them up for problems later in life.”
Instead of buying the packaged stuff, Dr Joanna encourages mums to use whole brown rice and mash it up themselves. Alternatively, adventurous parents could try one of the following first foods given to babies in various countries around the world. Dr Joanna gives us the lowdown on the nutritional benefits and drawbacks of each one.
Ngwaci (sweet potato) is commonly offered as a first food as it helps counter the Vitamin A deficiency that is prevalent amongst Kenyan kids.
Dr Joanna’s verdict: “Sweet potato is rich in carotenoids including beta-carotene, which can be converted into Vitamin A in the body. It’s a really nutritious food and a great first food for babies. It’s easy to make it into different consistencies, from smooth purees to lumpier mash and chip shapes as finger food.”
Babies are fed khichdi – a dish of rice, lentils and fragrant Indian spices, from about six months of age.
Dr Joanna’s verdict: “The idea that you have to feed babies bland food is a myth. Because Indian mothers eat hot curries and spices throughout their pregnancies, their babies are used to those tastes from the womb. There are so many benefits to spices – they’re really rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals [plant chemicals]. Also, much of India is vegetarian either due to religious beliefs or because meat is expensive. By mixing rice and lentils in this recipe, they’re creating a nice mix of amino acids so their babies get all the protein they need.”
A popular weaning dish in Japan is okayu – rice porridge with dried fish and veggies or mashed pumpkin.
Dr Joanna’s verdict: “Mums tend to be scared of fish because they’re worried their babies will be allergic, but allergies are still in the minority. Fish is rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids that babies need, and the veggies and pumpkin add a whole lot of nutrients. The Japanese do have to be careful about salt levels though – particularly for babies before their kidneys are mature. The dried fish worries me a little because it could be preserved and dried in salt.”
Dominican bubs eat crema de habichuelas – a puree of black beans and kidney beans.
Dr Joanna’s verdict: “Beans are a fantastic source of plant protein as they have a really good mix of amino acids. They’re also very low GI, so they release slow, steady amounts of carbohydrates. Beans are unique in that they have prebiotics, which are a type of fibre that feeds the good bacteria in the bowel. Babies that have good levels of these bacteria have a lower incidence of not only gut infections but upper respiratory infections too.”
Jamaican babies as young as four months are treated to mashed tropical fruits such as mango, papaya, custard apple, sapodilla (known as naseberry in Jamaica) and banana topped with honey.
Dr Joanna’s verdict: “Mashed tropical fruit is brilliant – it has a lot of naturally present carbohydrates, Vitamin C and fibre. The only problem is that there’s hardly any protein in this meal. But as long as it’s one meal amongst many, it’s absolutely fine. In Australia, we advise parents not to give honey to babies until they’re 12 months of age. Although it’s extremely rare, there’s a very small risk of there being bugs in the honey that can cause illnesses such as botulism. In any case, it seems odd to add honey to this meal given that the fruit is sweet enough. I’d give the fruit without the honey.
Tibetan babies eat a traditional meal known as tsampa, which is made from barley flour and butter tea – a concoction of tea leaves, yak butter and salt.
Dr Joanna’s verdict: “As long as they use wholemeal barley flour, this meal contains slow-release carbs and plenty of fibre. But it’s lacking protein, so it should be supplemented with breast milk or meat. The butter contains Vitamin A and a bit of Vitamin D, which could be important in Tibet if the babies are covered up in winter and aren’t exposed to that much sunlight. The salt is an issue – you shouldn’t give salt to babies under the age of one.”