Food Substitutions for Baby (and You)

We no longer live in a “meat and potatoes” era. Many families have opted out of meats, gluten, and other foods out of choice. Some have had to opt out based on food allergies or conditions like celiac disease. And if you make these choices based on personal preference or health concerns, you naturally may want to provide the same diet for your baby.

It’s very important to be cognizant of the possibility that diets that are too restrictive may have a negative nutritional impact on your growing baby. So it’s important to have some knowledge about appropriate food substitutions that are nutrient dense and provide your baby with quality vitamins, macronutrients, phytonutrients and minerals – all building blocks for growing brains and bodies.

baby drinking milk from a bottle

baby drinking milk from a bottle

CALCIUM/VITAMIN D – very necessary for metabolism and for growing bones and teeth! Early on, breast milk and infant formulas provide are abundant sources for babies. After a year, when some breast-fed babies have weaned, and others are off formula, typically cow milk is a rich source of calcium and vitamin D, as well as protein.

Milk alternatives are abundant now, and you should choose those that are calcium and vitamin D fortified. Nut milk and soy milk are a rich sources of protein, with hemp milk right behind; whereas almond, cashew, rice milks contain negligible amounts. Coconut milk has no protein, and is rich in saturated fats – one should be mindful of the potential negative impact on heart health.

Other rich sources of calcium are spinach (cooked spinach releases more iron to your baby), kale and pinto beans. All these can be prepared in a safe consistency for your little one. Almond butter, sesame and chia seeds, dried or fresh figs, tofu (processed with calcium salts) and fortified breakfast cereals can also provide added calcium.

Good sources of Vitamin D include heading out in the sun twice weekly for 10-15 minutes without sunscreen (earlier or later in the day), flesh of fatty fish and fish liver oils, beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks.

WHEAT/GLUTEN – besides providing fiber and flavor to breads, baked goods and pasta, gluten helps provide structure in order for bread to rise and baked goods to remain lofty. Wheat is present in many unexpected things – in candy, lunchmeat, sauces and salad dressings so eating a wheat/gluten free diet requires diligence with label reading. A wheat/gluten-free diet also requires a commitment to adding extra fiber into the diet in order to avoid constipation.

Good tasty substitutes are available now, more than ever. Brown rice, quinoa (also very high in protein), corn pasta, and sweet potatoes are all abundant in the marketplace. Be mindful that some gluten-free products, in order to taste good, have lots of added sugars and flavorings – so be mindful of those aspects of the nutritional information posted.

FISH – larger fish like salmon and tuna are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids – essential for retinal development, brain growth, and recently confirmed to be beneficial for heart health. Omega 3 fatty acids can also be found in chia seeds, flax meal, walnuts and canola oils.

EGGS – are super high in protein, biotin (essential for converting food into energy and for metabolism of hair and nails) as well as lutein and zeaxanthin – two nutrients essential for vision/eye health. Eggs are utilized as a binder, to help baked goods rise, and just on their own as a delicious food.

Here are some egg substitutes when used for baking:

  • 1.5 Tbsp water + 1.5 Tbsp oil + 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 Tbsp other liquid, 1 Tbsp vinegar and 1 tsp baking powder = 1 egg equivalent
  • Chickpea “water” – believe it or not the liquid leftover from canned chickpeas whips up, just like egg whites, and can be used as a substitute for eggs in baked goods and even flavored meringues. There’s enough protein in that liquid to create structure!
  • 1 Tbsp apricot puree (for binder use only)

As far as other sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, mother nature has gifted us with abundant sources besides eggs: virtually everything in the produce section that is green or has leaves is a rich natural source. So whether you are making a salad, a pesto, or using herbs and greens in other dishes for your baby (or yourself) be assured you are providing these two nutrients.

MEAT/POULTRY – is a rich source of protein, and depending on the animal and cut, a great source of iron, too. However, meats and poultry can be high in saturated fats, and processed meats and bacon may contain preservatives and additives that you may not want to give your baby. Because protein and iron are essential for body growth and preventing anemia alternate sources need to be identified if you are vegetarian or vegan.

Alternate protein should always come from multiple sources. Although several plant based proteins contain every amino acid, some do not, so a mixture of alternatives generally will cover all the bases. Think lentils, tofu, soy milk, black beans, edamame, black eyed peas, quinoa, amaranth, green peas and buckwheat. There are many meat substitutes on the marketplace like seitan (made from wheat gluten), tofu and tempeh. Artichokes are a surprising source of protein (and fiber), hemp seeds, oatmeal, pumpkin and chia seeds pack a punch. Spirulina provides 80% of daily iron needs as well as being a complete protein. Nutritional yeast tastes like parmesan, and contains abundant proteins. Peanut butter contains more protein/gram than any other nut butter, as well as 30 trace minerals and no cholesterol, so it’s a great part of the armory of alternate proteins you can offer your child.

Even if you don’t have to substitute foods for health reasons or personal choice, it’s great for you and your family to dabble in the wealth of new choices out there – not only to expand your menu choices, but also to build a wonderful palate of flavors and nutrients for your baby. Bon Appetit!



About Dr. JJ Levenstein

Dr. JJ Levenstein is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and in 2012 retired from her thriving private pediatric practice in Encino, California. She served on the staff of CHLA and Encino Tarzana Hospitals for 20 years and was consistently voted one of the Best Doctors in America® from 2003 through 2012. Drawing from her experience as a pediatrician and mom, Dr. Levenstein serves as president and co-founder of MD Moms, makers of Baby Silk, the first personal care line for babies developed by pediatrician moms. She serves on the board of United Cerebral Palsy LA, is an active writer and sits on the advisory boards of several child-centered websites. She is an accomplished chef and completed culinary school in 2013! She has had a lifelong interest in child nutrition and all things related to preventive health.

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