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Your baby's first foods can affect later health

Children grow more rapidly in the first year than at any other time in their lifetime. There is so much rapid growth and cell division in the body that scientists believe infancy and the toddler years are the best window of opportunity to influence adult health.

It’s called “metabolic programming,” the idea that the foods eaten in childhood can have long-lasting — even permanent— effects on how the body grows and functions and wards off disease.

Dr. Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., who coauthored "Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health" and is the author of "The Instinct Diet,"really opened my eyes to the powerful effects of early choices. Dr. Roberts points out that during the early years, as many cells throughout the body are growing, they are sensitive to the availability of nutrients.

“We know that first foods can have permanent effects on growth, strength, the immune system, and intelligence—with long-term consequences for many other aspects of health and even personality,” she says.

Good early habits can help prevent obesity, avoid allergies, optimize bone strength and height, prevent childhood and adult cancers and maybe even boost intelligence.

When my husband and I decided to make homemade purees for our twins Grace and Henry our main rationale was that it’s healthy and delicious. It also helped that my husband, Geoff Tracy, is a trained chef and restaurateur. But the more I researched about nutrition, the more I became convinced that it is absolutely crucial to their lifelong health and happiness.

Babies who eat fresh fruits and vegetables grow up to be children who eat nutritiously. It’s a wonder to watch our 2-year-old daughter Riley eat steamed broccoli pieces like they are chocolate-covered strawberries. From nine to 18 months is an incredible opportunity to train our children's taste buds to enjoy wholesome foods forever. It's the cornerstone of a longer, healthier and happier life.


  • Yield 4 servings
  • 8 months plus
  • A 120-second recipe


  • 1 avocado, nice and ripe but not all brown
  • 1/3 lime
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped well
  • 1 tablespoon minced red or yellow onion


Remove the pit from the avocado and scoop out the flesh from the peel. Place on a cutting board and squeeze the juice from the lime onto the avocado.

Sprinkle avocado with cilantro and onion. Mash with the back of a fork until completely smooth and creamy.

Chef’s notes

This is a restaurant-style guacamole recipe minus the salt. So feel free to make a larger batch, get a bag of chips, give baby a big bear hug, and watch some football together.


  • Yield 36 ounces
  • 10 months plus


  • 4 pounds butternut squash (about 2 medium- sized butternuts or 1 really big one)
  • 16 ounces water
  • 8 ounces whole milk, hot
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg


Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut the squash lengthwise. Remove seeds with a spoon. Place squash flesh side down on a sheet tray. Pour water onto the sheet tray. Roast approximately 60 to 75 minutes until tender. The squash should be bubbling and caramelized.

Allow to cool 10 to 15 minutes so you can hold it without a problem. Spoon out the flesh and pour into the blender with hot milk and nutmeg. Puree until smooth. Pour into two ice cube trays and allow to cool.

Wrap and freeze.

Chef’s notes

There are many types of hard squash available. Butternut just happens to be the most popular and the most widely available. It is also really easy to clean and remove the flesh from the skin after cooking. Feel free to use acorn squash or other hard squashes that you enjoy.


  • Yield 32 ounces
  • 6 months plus


  • 1½ pounds frozen peas (that’s usually 1½ bags)
  • 8 ounces water


Fill a 4- quart pot halfway with water. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat. While water is coming to a boil, get your “green veggie shocking station” ready.

You’ll need:

• Colander

• Large bowl filled with ice and cold water. You want as much ice as possible.

Pour the frozen peas into the colander. Run cool water over them to get rid of any ice crystals (which will allow the boiling water to come back to a boil faster). Pour the peas into the boiling water. Cook for 3 minutes on highest heat.

Pour peas into colander. Run cold water over them and pour them into the ice bath. Allow the peas to chill for 3 minutes. Pour the peas back into the colander and pick out any remaining ice.

Pour peas in the blender and add 8 ounces of cold water. Puree until smooth. Pour into two ice cube trays.

Wrap and freeze.


  • Yield 36 ounces
  • 10 months plus


  • 1½ pounds strawberries
  • 3 bananas
  • ¼ pineapple
  • 8 ounces water


Remove stems of strawberries and then wash the berries. Cut each banana into 4 to 5 pieces.

Cut the pineapple. Cut into pieces approximately the size of the strawberries.

Put everything into a 4- quart pot.

Turn the burner on high and cover with a lid.

Cook for approximately 6 minutes, stirring once.

Pour everything from the pot into a strainer with a bowl underneath to save the juice.

Pour the cooked fruit into the blender. Puree until smooth using 2 to 4 ounces of the reserved juice if necessary to adjust consistency.

Pour into two ice cube trays and allow to cool.

Wrap and freeze.


  • Yield eight 2-ounce pancakes
  • 10 Months Plus


  • 3 cups whole wheat flour
  • 3 cups all- purpose flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar


  • 2 cups pancake mix (from above)
  • 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed (aka flax meal)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 pint buttermilk
  • ½ stick unsalted butter, melted (that is 1/8 pound)
  • ½ cup fresh blueberries


In a large bowl, combine the ingredients for the dry pancake mix. Store in a zipper bag or in a plastic container with a tight fitting lid.

Preheat griddle to 350°F. You can also use a large cast- iron pan or a nonstick pan. Just let it preheat for a while on medium heat— you’ll have to practice a bit to achieve the correct and consistent heat. Pour the pancake mix and the flaxseed into a large bowl. Whisk eggs in a small bowl. Add buttermilk and then melted butter to the small bowl and whisk ingredients together.

Add the egg, buttermilk, and butter mixture to the pancake mix and the flaxseed.

Add blueberries. Slowly whisk together to just combine wet and dry ingredients.

You do not want the mixture to be smooth! Ladle mixture (about 2 ounces per pancake) onto the griddle and cook until golden brown. Flip and cook the other side until golden brown. This should take approximately 5 to 6 minutes.

Chef’s notes

Pancakes will never qualify as a super nutritious food — especially topped with real maple syrup and butter the way we like ’em in our house. But I would be remiss to not include them in the book. This was the recipe I made for Norah at least three times a week during each pregnancy. Norah would eat three big pancakes! The twins started eating these at about eleven months. Henry still whines about the blueberries.

You can use frozen blueberries if you want. They’ll turn the whole batter blue if you add them to the mixture. When using frozen I place them in the pancakes just after they are poured onto the griddle.

You can skip the maple syrup and the butter and top these with Very Blueberry and Apple puree.

Nutrition tip

Flaxseeds and ground flax meal are true nutritional powerhouses. These tiny seeds have an abundance of omega- 3 fatty acids and lignans. Lignans may benefit the heart and have anti- cancer properties.

Norah O’Donnell is the MSNBC Chief Washington Correspondent and author of “Baby Love: Healthy Easy Delicious Meals for Your Baby and Toddler”