Being in charge of your baby’s nutritional needs can seem overwhelming because the choices are endless, from nutritional content and preparation, to color, taste, and texture.

Should you start by offering your baby applesauce or cereal, or can you start with meat? What’s the scoop on meat, anyway?

For most babies, breast milk or formula will give your baby all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that they need for the first 6 months of their lives.

If you’re exclusively or primarily breastfeeding, your doctor may suggest supplements for iron and vitamin D. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), you’ll want to introduce vitamin D supplements from just about birth and iron after around 4 months. (Formulas are usually fortified with these already.)

Once you hit the 6-month milestone, you can start offering your baby solid food. Traditionally, parents have offered their babies cereal, veggies, fruit and then meat.

But is that the right approach? Maybe not.

Here’s why: At 4 to 6 months of age, the iron stores that your baby was born with are starting to get depleted. Iron is needed for hemoglobin formation and oxygen transport.

You can keep these iron levels high by introducing your baby to foods that are rich in iron. Iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme iron.

  • Heme iron. You’ll find this in red meat, seafood, and poultry. Heme iron is pretty easy for your body to absorb.
  • Non-heme iron. You’ll find this in iron-fortified infant cereals, tofu, beans, lentils, and green, leafy veggies.

Heme iron is the easiest for your body to absorb. Which is exactly why you may want to start offering your baby meat as one of their first foods. In addition lean red meat also has zinc, vitamin B12, fats, and of course, lots of protein.

Is my baby ready?

You bet! If your baby has developed physically to the point that they’re now ready to handle the intricacies of eating solids, then they’re ready for eating meat.

Notice that their tongue thrust reflex is fading — they don’t push food out of their mouth with their tongue. They’ve learned to coordinate breathing and swallowing. They can sit in a high chair. They have good head and neck control.

Okay, so you’ve made the decision to offer meat to your baby. Now which meat is best for baby?

Beef, veal, lamb, mutton, goat, pork, chicken, or turkey? Organ meat such as heart, kidney, liver? What about buffalo meat? Yup, that counts as a meat source too.

The long and short is that all meats are good. But there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

Good to know:

  • Liver is a significant source of iron, with pork liver delivering the highest amount
  • Choose dark turkey meat over white. The dark meat contains 1.4 mg of iron per 100 grams compared to 0.7 mg per 100 grams in the white meat.
  • Chicken liver has almost double the amount of iron that is found in beef liver.
  • Light canned tuna in water offers 1.67 mg of iron per 100 grams.

Do and don’ts:

  • Do make sure that your baby eats fully cooked meat only. No “rare” or “medium rare” for little tummies.
  • Do keep away from deli meats, bacon, and hot dogs. Not only are these meats packed with preservatives and chemicals, the average hot dog contains only 5.7 percent actual meat, according to a 2008 analysis.
  • Do avoid fish that is high in mercury. Fish that’s approved by the FDA for kids is canned light tuna. (Note: The FDA says a serving for a 2-year-old is just 1 ounce, so up to 3 ounces of tuna weekly is recommended for toddlers.)
  • Don’t fry meat for babies.
  • Don’t reheat meat more than once.

What’s the best way to go about introducing meat to your baby? Every new stage in life is a learning curve, and we’ve got you covered whether you opt for jarred baby food or homemade food.

Jarred baby food

No doubt about it: This is your easiest option. Gerber and Plum Organics are two popular options you’ll find at your local grocery store. Meat may come as a standalone option, or as part of a blend with veggies or fruits. When introducing a food the first time, single ingredient foods should be used.

Remember that some brands of baby food include meat only at their stage 2 or 3 foods. If you want to introduce meat earlier, shop carefully or make your own baby food.

Homemade baby food

It’s not as daunting as it seems to make your own baby food. Make sure you’re armed with an immersion blender and you’ll be fine. Just for fun, have a look at our yummy recipes or consider buying a baby food cookbook. Or wing it on your own.

  • Soups: Create a soup with your choice of meat and a mix of sweet potatoes, onions, carrots, and squash. Cook and then blend to smooth.
  • Baking or roasting: While cooking this way preserves most of the nutrients in food, it’s a little harder to blend food that has been baked or roasted. You can thin out the mixture by adding water, formula, or breast milk.
  • Slow-cooker: Using a slow-cooker might be the simplest way to prepare soft and well-cooked meats. Combine meats, veggies, and fruits to taste.

If you don’t feel like cooking a separate dish, don’t despair: Cooking for your baby can be as easy as scooping off part of your own supper. There’s a lot of fun in this. Set aside part of your meal and blend or mash.

Baby-led weaning

Want to skip the puree? Then baby-led weaning is for you. More and more busy parents are opting to let their 6-month-old babies feed themselves finger foods.

Baby-led weaning isn’t just good for parents. By feeding themselves, babies practice hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. They also learn to self-regulate —they stop eating when they’re full. But do remember to check the meat you offer to remove bones and skin.

Good food choices for baby-led weaning:

  • finger-long strips of meat
  • kebabs and meatballs shaped into a finger-sized log instead of a ball.
  • drumsticks
  • lamb chops

Remember it’s important to closely supervise when your baby is eating and avoid foods with a shape, size, or texture likely to cause choking. Discuss any questions or concerns you have with your pediatrician.

Safety first!

No matter how you offer meat to your baby, make sure to cook it at these minimum temperatures:

  • beef, veal, and lamb: 170°F (77°C)
  • pork: 160˚F (71˚C)
  • ground meat: 160˚F (71˚C)
  • poultry pieces and ground poultry: 165˚F (74˚C)
  • whole poultry: 180˚F (82˚C)
  • fish with fins: 145˚F (63˚C)

Good to know:

  • Your baby won’t eat more than a spoonful or two to start with. So feel free to freeze portions in ice cube trays. Move on to larger portions as their appetite increases.
  • Potatoes don’t freeze well, so don’t throw them into your mixture if you’re planning on freezing part of it.
  • Make sure to offer your baby a variety of meats to expose them to different flavors and textures.
  • Anything left over? Remember to refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours.

No, you don’t need to give your baby meat. The American Dietetic Association acknowledges that “well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”

If you choose not to give your baby meats, you should offer them plenty of iron-fortified infant cereals, tofu, beans, lentils and green, leafy veggies. These contain non-heme iron.

It’s harder for your body to absorb non-heme iron, but you can increase the body’s absorption rate by pairing foods that contain non-heme iron with foods that contain vitamin C. Think beans served with tomatoes and cereal served with orange juice.

Good practice is discuss your plans with your baby’s healthcare provider and consider whether to opt for a blood test for your baby so that you can check their iron levels.

Bon appétit! You’re now at the stage when you and your baby can sit down at the table and enjoy a meal together. It won’t be long before they’ll join you in the kitchen and help you prepare it!