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Babies don't need many calories, but they do need lots of nutrients. Yet some foods commonly offered to babies are essentially junk food – high in calories, sugar, or salt, and low in nutrients.
Because babies are so small, it's easy for them to fill up quickly on the empty calories in junk food, leaving no room for nutrient-rich healthy foods. This nutritional deficit can even hinder development, says doctor and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Christine Gerbstadt.
That's why it's important to know which foods are best for babies and which ones to avoid, including junk food and potential choking hazards. Here's our list of the worst food choices for babies.
Hot dogs and other dangerous foods
Hard, sticky, slippery, chunky, and round foods are unsafe for young children because they can easily choke on them. So don't give your baby hot dogs, sausages, large pieces of meat or cheese, whole grapes, popcorn, chunky raw vegetables, and whole nuts and seeds.
And once you start serving your baby finger foods, be sure to cut food into pieces no larger than half an inch.
Some babies are served soft drinks daily as early as 9 months of age, according to a 2008 survey of infant and toddler feeding habits. The same survey found that by 24 months, more than 10 percent of toddlers were drinking soda every day.
Whether regular or diet, soda provides absolutely no nutrients, and filling up on either type means babies eat and drink less of the nutritious food their bodies really need. Regular soda also contains loads of sugar, which can cause tooth decay.
Another major 2008 study found that about 14 percent of 9-month-olds eat fries at least once a week. That figure goes up to more than 40 percent by 12 months of age, making french fries among the top vegetables consumed by toddlers – and marking the start of an unhealthy habit.
It's a good idea to minimize all fast food because it's loaded with fat, sugar, salt, and calories but low in healthy nutrients. If you do need to grab a bite on the go, look for baby-friendly options. Many chains now offer healthier choices, including yogurt and applesauce.
People define 'processed' in different ways, but in general, the more the food is modified from what was originally caught, raised, or grown – and the longer the list of ingredients – the more processed it is.
"The more processed the food, the more nutritional value tends to go down, and the more the sugar, salt, and fat content goes up," says Kate Geagan, dietitian and author of Go Green, Get Lean.
Meals made specifically for babies can be healthy and appropriate. The best prepared baby foods have few ingredients and no added salt, sugar, or modified food starch.
But ready-to-eat foods meant for older children and adults are definitely not good for babies. "They often contain way too much sodium," says dietitian Eileen Behan, author of The Baby Food Bible.
For example, instead of serving canned pasta entrees, it's better to boil some noodles and sprinkle some cheese on top. And instead of serving deli meats, which are often high in sodium and carry a risk of food poisoning, cut up small bits of roast chicken or hamburger.
Most varieties are nearly all sugar, artificial color, and artificial flavor with a small amount of gelatin to make it wiggly. Homemade gelatin made with fruit juice and sugar eliminates the artificial additives, but it's still essentially just fruit juice and sweetener.
True, gelatin is easy to swallow, but so is Gerbstadt's suggestion for a healthy, baby-friendly dessert: a baked, mashed apple with a sprinkle of cinnamon. "It's naturally sweet and has good fiber, vitamins, and a yummy, smooth texture," she says.
Juice and fruit drinks
Sure, these beverages contain fruit, but that doesn't mean they're healthy. The fiber in fresh fruit is largely lost in the juicing process, and what's left is a whole lot of sugar. Juice can also cause diarrhea in some babies.
"Juice is basically a waste of calories," says pediatrician Ari Brown, coauthor of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year. Using juice to sweeten your baby's food isn't a good idea either: The sugars in juice can make food pass through the digestive tract more quickly, interfering with the body's ability to absorb nutrients.
And don't be fooled by advertisers' claims that juice provides babies with necessary vitamin C. "Babies can easily get their vitamin C from one small serving of fruit," says Brown.
Juice is not recommended for babies younger than 12 months. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies younger than 6 months drink only breast milk or formula. From 6 to 12 months they can have small amounts of water, but breast milk or formula should still be their main beverage.
After your baby's first birthday, cow's milk is the recommended beverage (though your toddler can continue breastfeeding as long as you both enjoy it). You may also now allow a small daily serving of juice, but the AAP recommends limiting juice for all kids.