What are Nutrient Dense Foods for Baby? Tips to Make Every Bite Count

By Nicole Silber, RD, CSP, CDN, Pediatric Nutrition Expert

What are Nutrient Dense Foods for Baby? Tips to Make Every Bite Count

We asked Registered Dietitian, Nicole Silber, RD, CSP, CLC, for her take on the USDA’s 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Nicole is a board-certified specialist in pediatric nutrition and has worked with hundreds of children with chronic medical conditions, food allergies, picky eating, oral-motor and sensory processing disorders, breastfeeding, gastrointestinal conditions, prematurity and obesity.


You may have heard to feed your baby (and yourself) “nutrient dense foods,” but what exactly does that mean? I like to think of nutrient dense foods as foods that pack in, or maximize, the most nutrients per portion. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend introducing a “variety of nutrient dense complementary foods beginning at six months.” I am all in favor of giving baby a variety of real, nutritionally dense foods that cover all the needed macronutrients, as well as key vitamins and minerals.

Babies go through the most rapid periods of growth of the human lifecycle. (Babies typically triple their birth weight in one year!) In addition to growing in weight and height, their systems and organs are rapidly developing, especially their brains, bones, and immune systems. Toddlers’ pace of growth is slower compared to that of babies, are still at a crucial period of development. What babies and toddlers eat matters.

Babies need so many key nutrients to support their growth and development: calories, healthy fats, protein, fiber, vitamin D, zinc, calcium, iron and more. When babies wean off breast milk and formula, they are dependent on a proper diet that gives their small bodies the nutrients needed for explosive growth. Now, babies and toddlers are small, and they eat small quantities of food relative to the amount of nutrients they need. If babies are fed foods lacking in nutrients or too high in added sugar (…a few gulps of sweetened yogurt here), sodium or refined grains (…a few French fries there), they have less room for more nutritious foods.

healthy foods

Ways to Serve Babies Nutrient Dense Meals 

  • 💦 While babies often require thin, smooth purees, as they start eating solid foods, limit the amount of added water these foods have. When shopping for commercially available baby foods, choose varieties that are not diluted with water. Look at the ingredient list on the nutrition label. Avoid varieties that list water as the first ingredient.
  • 🍞 Choose whole grains, like whole wheat bread, whole wheat pastas, oatmeal, and snacks. Choosing whole grains over the refined, white versions, help to offer children key nutrients like fiber and B vitamins often lost during the refining process.
  • 🥑 Add in healthy fats like smooth, creamy, unsweetened nut butters into fruit purees, olive oil, or avocado into vegetable purees.
  • 🥣 Mix iron fortified baby cereals, such as oatmeal cereal, which has some key nutrients like iron, B12, zinc, into fruit purees.
  • 🥕 Encourage plant-based proteins like legumes, such as beans and lentils, which are rich in fiber, but also have some plant-based iron, zinc, and B vitamins. I especially like to blend them with a root vegetable puree and some olive oil for a boost of healthy fats. Every day, I find a new type of bean-based pasta in the grocery store.
  • 🥛 Choose dairy, like unsweetened, whole milk-based yogurts and milks, and skip the sweetened and lower fat options until two years. The sweetened options offer calories from added sugar, which take away the calories from more beneficial nutrients. The lower fat options are a missed opportunity to offer more fat that is needed for brain development.
  • 🐟 Encourage low mercury fish, which is high in protein and healthy fats like DHA.
  • 🧃 Avoid juice entirely through the first year, and then limit juice to a maximum of four ounces of 100% fruit or vegetable juice until two years. Juice can take up space in those small bellies, and displace room for more nutritious foods, like fresh fruit that has more fiber and less sugar.
  • 🍏 Choose unsweetened beverages over sweetened ones.
  • 🥦 Replace fried vegetables with roasted vegetables.
  • 🚫 Avoid foods with added sugar.
  • 🥒 Replace high sodium, refined grain snacks with vegetables and whole grain snacks.
  • 🥜 Opt for cereals without added sugar, and add nut butters, ground nuts and seeds or fruit onto cereals and oatmeal

every bite counts

Nicole is the creator of Tiny Tasters, a series of on-demand and live classes that teach parents everything they need to know about how to feed their babies and toddlers. Prior to her current roles she was a clinical nutritionist at the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia and at NYU Langone/Fink Children’s Ambulatory Care Center. Nicole lives in New York with her husband and her toddlers, Lily and Luna! 

To read more about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-20205, click here.