Understanding Baby Food Label Stages: A Cheat Sheet for Parents

Think your baby is ready for purees? There are generally three stages to introducing them. Here's what the stages mean and tips for feeding.

mother grocery shopping with baby girl in supermarket
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If you're starting solids with your baby, you may have noticed jars, pouches, and packages labeled with stage or level numbers. Wondering what all of those baby food stages mean—and which one is best for your baby right now?

They're actually pretty helpful. Using a "stages" approach can help keep you on course during those first several months of feeding solids, says Parents advisor Jill Castle, R.D., author of The Smart Mom's Guide to Starting Solids. Between 6 to 12 months, your baby is rapidly changing, not only learning how to eat solids but also expanding her range of flavors and textures. Your goal by age one is a broad and varied diet, and progressing through stages can help you do that.

When we talk about baby food stages, we're mostly referring to store-bought or homemade purees. If you're practicing baby-led weaning, a technique that means skipping spoon-feeding purees and letting babies feed themselves finger foods right from the start, most experts recommend beginning with single-ingredient foods. A few first finger foods include banana, avocado, moist and shredded meats and salmon, and pasta. (You can get more baby-led weaning advice here.)

The key is starting solids at the right time, typically around six months. Begin much earlier than that (especially before four months), and your baby may have a negative experience like choking that can influence how she feels about eating down the line, cautions Castle. Starting too late has drawbacks, too, such as delayed eating skills. If you have any questions about your baby's developmental readiness to eat, talk to your pediatrician.

Stage 1 Baby Food

Stage one baby foods ate best for babies just starting solids (around 6 months). Stage one baby food will typically feature:

  • Thin, drippy consistency
  • Finely-pureed, with no chunks or pieces
  • Often single ingredient

Advice about these first foods has changed a lot. Rice cereal was long recommended as the ideal starter food, but you can now begin with any food you'd like—from veggie and fruit purees to pureed meat.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA), the guidelines that detail introducing solids to babies have more to do with the mechanics of eating than what a baby eats. For example, your baby should be able to hold their head up and move food from the spoon into their throat. But the APA does suggest the following with regard to food choice:

  • Choose smooth, pureed foods to prevent choking.
  • Choose foods that are iron-fortified and include zinc.
  • Choose one "single ingredient" food every 3 to 5 days and watch for reactions.

The APA also recommends testing your baby for a peanut allergy if they have severe eczema or an egg allergy.

Stage 1 Tip

Start with small spoonfuls. You can also mix purees with breastmilk or formula to create a thinner consistency when first starting. And remember that it's OK if those first bites come right back out of your baby's mouth while he's learning to swallow.

Stage 2 Baby Food

Stage two baby foods are best for babies 7 to 8 months who have experience with solids. These foods will typically include:

  • Slightly thicker texture
  • Usually multiple strained ingredients
  • More complex flavors

Around stage two, you may notice that baby food labels will read "strained" versus "pureed." Pureed foods have been blended smoothly to remove any lumps or chunks, making them a perfect option for beginning solids. Strained foods are also smooth, but the food has been "strained" through a sieve or food mill to remove things like skin, stems, and seeds.

Keep in mind that your baby may gag when you progress to new textures, but that doesn't mean she's choking or not ready, says Castle. "It's just something new, and they need some time to adapt," she says. Start with small amounts and go slow. If your baby doesn't seem to want to advance to thicker textures, talk to your pediatrician. "They may have a delay or medical condition that should be discussed," she says.

Stage 2 Tip

Focus on flavor exploration right now. Exposing your baby to a wide variety of foods is key, as it helps build familiarity with different flavors. This can also help you weather picky eating phases that crop up during the toddler years. Research shows that babies who are fed "blends" of vegetables (squash, carrots, and green beans) are more accepting of new vegetables later on than babies fed a single vegetable, says Castle.

Stage 3 Baby Food

Stage three baby foods are best for babies 9 to 12 months and often include:

  • Thicker texture
  • Strained food combinations
  • Often have chunks and pieces that your baby can chew
  • May include finger foods too

If your baby doesn't respond well to lumps of food on her spoon, don't worry (mine didn't either—and neither did one of Castle's!). If you haven't already by this phase, you can start incorporating all kinds of finger foods that your baby can chew as well, like small dices of avocado or tofu, O-shaped cereal, and pieces of well-cooked veggies.

Stage 3 Tip

Watch out for baby "snacks" and packaged finger foods with added sugar. You're better off skipping lots of packaged snacks in favor of a variety of finger foods from your own kitchen.

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