by: Keith Ayoob, Edd, rd, fand
Nutrition science constantly evolves, and the past several years have seen dramatic changes in nutrition and feeding recommendations for infants and toddlers. The 2020-2025 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans are the first to issue specific dietary recommendations for ages birth to 24 months.1 And even though less than 10% of infants eat beef in their first 12 months of life, these updated guidelines are encouraging parents to introduce nutrient-dense foods, like beef, to make every bite count in these early years.1, 4, 13, 16
Let’s explore the “whys” and “hows” to introducing beef to your infant or toddler and share a few surprising reasons why beef can be a great early food option for your growing infant.
1. Historically, meat, including beef, was a first food!
Many cultures around the world fed infants meat, including beef, until commercial baby food was invented, in the late 19th century. Before that, everyone made their own baby food by finely mincing or grinding the same food they fed their families. Infant cereal is relatively new.
2. The iron in beef is better absorbed than iron in fortified baby cereals2,3
Iron is essential for growth and development, but the source and type of iron impact the amount of iron that the body can use and absorb.
"It’s clear: Alternatives to beef are NOT beef equivalents! Beef is unique as a complementary food for infants."
3. Beef is about more than iron!
Beef has a whole package of 10 essential nutrients, including:
4. A plate for a healthy gut includes plants -- and beef!
“Plant-based diets” don’t mean eating only plant foods. Some parents may eat a vegetarian or vegan diet and feel their baby should eat a similar diet. However, babies are NOT little adults! Infancy and toddlerhood are the most rapid periods of growth and development, demanding proportionally more protein, nutrients, and even fat than adults do. Their smaller stomachs need to get all this nutrition in smaller bites and serving sizes. Nutrient-dense foods like beef, with 10 essential nutrients, can help meet these needs.
Beef and plants pair well on the plate and it’s important to expose infants and toddlers to a variety of nutrient dense foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and dairy, as well as meat, eggs, and fish.
5. A balanced diet featuring beef supports healthy digestion
For a food to be healthy, your baby’s tummy must tolerate it. A balanced digestive tract has a diversity of healthful (“good”) bacteria, supplied by a variety of healthful foods. Plants and grains are important, and iron plays a role, too. Feeding your baby foods that contain iron can help boost the diversity and amount of healthy gut bacteria, but the form of that iron may also have an influence on growing healthful gut bacteria.11
In a study comparing babies given either iron-fortified cereal or beef:
6. Beef goes beyond nutritional benefits
Every bite of beef delivers new flavors and textures to help support growing infants’ oral and motor development, learning and discovery, and acceptance of new, healthy foods and textures.1,2 Researchers call the period from the first introduction of complementary foods, through 24 months of life, the “flavor window,” a time when infants and toddlers are very open and accepting of new tastes. Around 6 months is an excellent time to prime the palate and introduce children to new flavors, especially for bitter tasting vegetables – the one food kids usually have the hardest time accepting. Science also says pairing these foods with beef (like beef and broccoli) can help make them more acceptable to babies.
Teaching children to enjoy these flavors at an early age can set them up for healthy eating habits for life. Infants and toddlers often refuse new foods at first. That’s normal! It can take up to 12-15 different introductions for babies to come around to liking a new food, so just be patient – and stay the course!
For all the above reasons, and more, beef has unique advantages as one of your baby’s first foods. However, despite these reasons, beef has not always been the most popular choice as a first food. So, why are we starting to see a shift back to beef?
For decades, rice cereal was the first food recommended when transitioning your baby from breast milk or formula. Here’s why:
Typically, rice cereal was followed by other cereals, then pureed fruits and vegetables. Meats, like beef, were often not recommended until 8 months of age, with the introduction of finger foods.
However, there’s no scientific evidence for delaying the introduction of meat, particularly beef. Rice cereal doesn’t have to be the first food! In fact, we know that there are some real advantages to adding beef to your child’s diet.
Now, you may be wondering why there is so much focus on iron in these first two years of life. Well, that’s because iron, whether it comes from rice cereal or beef, is an essential part of an infant’s growth and development. And it turns out, many infants aren’t getting enough.
Increasing evidence points to iron-deficiency’s potential impact on neurodevelopment, cognitive scores, and behavior, even after the deficiency is corrected.17,18
According to, the landmark Nestle Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS), the largest dietary intake study of infants and toddlers ever done, covering 2002-2016:19
Breastfeeding increased during these years, and that’s good, but it doesn’t protect against iron-deficiency anemia. The 2020-2025 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, noted that, more than 3 in 4 exclusively breastfed infants (77%), did not get enough iron during the period from 6-12 months of age.
This is why introducing beef in these early years can offer some unique advantages to infants during this demanding stage of growth and development. Keep reading for some tips on how you can introduce beef to your infant as they grow into toddlerhood!
(1 Serving: 4-oz.)
(1 Serving: 2.5-oz.)
|8% Daily Value (DV)
*Because a jarred ‘beef dinner’ has ingredients aside from just beef, the portion size is typically larger. A daily serving of meat for infants is 2 oz. + https://www.gerber.com/2nd-foods-vegetable-beef-dinner-baby-food ++ https://www.gerber.com/beef-and-gravy
Jarred baby foods can be a convenient option, but nothing beats the real thing! Whole beef, whether it’s pureed, sliced, shredded, or chopped, can provide more variety in texture and flavor. Plus, it’s closer to what the rest of the family is eating for dinner.
By 8-12 months, babies are usually comfortable with pureed foods. Some hints that they’re ready for more challenging textures:
At this point, foods still need to be soft and moist. Here are ways to offer the nutrition of beef beyond pureed textures:
Feeding your baby and toddler family favorites is a joy for every parent. Food is more than its nutrients, it’s a way for families to connect, comfort and celebrate. Being at the table together also helps babies and toddlers learn about food and develop socially and emotionally. There’s a reason “the party always ends up in the kitchen!”
Babies and toddlers love flavor! This can surprise parents, but when you cook for your baby, it’s OK to add the seasonings, herbs and spices your family likes! Just be sure to hold off on the salt or sugar when serving infants and toddlers.
True story: I was evaluating a toddler patient who was underweight and not eating well. His parents gave the caregiver jarred baby foods to give the baby while they were at work. The caregiver told me, “When I give him food I cook myself, he eats really well. Is that OK? I think he likes how I season my food, so he eats more.” She fed the toddler beef and other meats, potatoes, rice, beans, and vegetables, minced and mashed forms of the same foods she’d eat herself.
What you should take-away: