Cheese makes the perfect snack, whether it’s for you or your little one! It’s yummy, nutrient dense enough to fill you up for a little while, and there’s no preparation involved besides cutting it into slices – perfect right?
Well, almost. There are a few things to consider before offering cheese to your little one. Key characteristics to keep in mind are salt content of cheese, whether it has been pasteurized, and the ingredients used in the cheese making process.
And be sure to check out my 60 Day Baby Led Feeding Meal Plan for over 80 recipes that are safe for your baby starting solids, including some that are perfect for introducing cheese with!
Let’s go through everything you need to know about cheese before offering it to your little one.
As a bonus, at the end of this blog, I’ve included the easiest recipe for making the best cheese for your baby – Labneh!
Is cheese healthy for babies?
Yes, cheese can be a nutritious addition to your baby’s diet when consumed in moderation, as it’s energy-rich and high in fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Cheese can provide valuable minerals like calcium to build strong bones and teeth, phosphorus for healthy bones (needed for the normal growth and development of bones), and magnesium for overall health and optimal growth, all of which are very important building blocks during early development (1). Additional key nutrients found in most cheeses include vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B12, and folate.
When you consider the criteria for choosing healthy cheese for babies, keep in mind the salt content, nutritional composition (ideally made with whole milk), and be sure that it’s been pasteurized.
You want to offer your baby cheese that is minimally processed and nutritionally dense – like Labneh, for example. Labneh is one of the best cheeses for baby as it’s rich in protein and fat, all while having low sodium content. Another benefit of labneh is the fact that it’s a soft cheese spread, which makes it super easy to incorporate into your baby’s diet as soon as they start solids. So be sure to check out the recipe at the end!
Processed vs. unprocessed cheese
While most cheese can be a healthy addition to your baby’s diet, it’s important to note that not all cheeses are equally nutritious. When you’re shopping for the best cheese for baby, processed cheeses should be avoided. Many of them contain extremely high amounts of salt (2 to 3 times the amount in real cheese) and a number of added ingredients, such as preservatives, that aren’t recommended for your baby.
Processed cheeses have a much longer shelf life than real cheese, due to the high amounts of salt and other preservatives added to the products. They’re identifiable in grocery stores as they’re typically shelf stable and found outside of the fridge section in a grocery store. With one exception being processed cheese slices, which are kept refrigerated.
You’ll find real cheese in the refrigerated section, typically with other dairy products like yogurts and butter.
Common types of processed cheeses that aren’t recommended for babies include:
- Jar cheese (Cheez Whiz)
- Cheese and cracker snack packs for children
- Cheese in squeeze bottles or cans
- Cheese slices individually wrapped in plastic
A note about the color of cheddar cheese for babies
We know that many parents are concerned about the bright orange color of many cheddar cheeses, or cheese products, on the market. We recommend paying close attention to labels and opting for cheddar cheese that does not contain synthetic or artificial dyes. Instead, we recommend choosing white cheddar cheese or orange cheddar that has been dyed using annatto (a seed from the achiote tree) as a more natural alternative.
Salt content: Is cheese too high in sodium for babies?
One recommendation I’ve seen many times before is that all cheese should be avoided due to high amounts of salt. But this isn’t true for all cheese, and it can absolutely be part of a balanced diet for babies because there’s so much variety when it comes to cheese!
Some cheeses can be very high in salt, while others contain small amounts. This is because salt is used as a preservative during the cheese making process, so different cheeses contain varying amounts of salt.
Plus, cheese will expose your baby to new textures and flavors. And therefore, I recommend introducing low sodium cheeses to your baby early on in your baby led feeding journey. And if you are looking to serve a cheese that is higher in sodium, try mixing this higher sodium cheese (like cottage cheese) with yogurt or low sodium ricotta to balance out the salt!
We recommend choosing labneh, unprocessed swiss, goat cheese, ricotta and fresh mozzarella for babies under the 1 year of age mark. Our recommendation for the best cheese for baby is based on the amount of salt and fat content, found in different varieties of cheese.
We want you to take special note of cream cheese because certain brands have higher levels of sodium. So, we compared some of the different brands for you! The popular brand Tre Stelle has an organic cream cheese spread with only 60 mg of salt per serving (1 oz or 30 grams), making it a good option for babies.
These top 5 cheeses are among the lowest in sodium, in comparison to most other cheeses. This means they’re safe for baby as soon as they’re ready to start solids. We’ve also considered fat content as a criteria for developing our recommendations, because full fat cheese will provide your baby with lots of different nutrients they need for optimal growth and development (keep on reading for all the details).
Even though we recommend these as the top 5 cheese choices for baby, always read the nutrition label carefully when shopping for cheese, as different brands can have varying amounts of salt. Remember that it’s best to choose cheese that provides less than 100 mg of salt per serving for babies under 12 months of age. This is also true for fat content; inspect the labels carefully to make sure you don’t accidentally buy the low fat version.
If you want to know more about salt recommendations for babies (and how you don’t have to freak out about it as much as we’re sometimes made to think we should), check out my blog – The Truth About Salt For Babies!
Calcium content in cheese
Dairy products, like cheese, are naturally rich in calcium, but calcium levels do vary depending on the type of cheese.
As you begin your baby led feeding journey, around 6 months of age, your little one will be getting the majority of their nutrients, including calcium, from either formula milk and/or human breast milk. The calcium from breast milk is more completely absorbed than the calcium from cow’s-milk-based or soy-based infant formulas. However, higher levels are present in these infant formulas to account for the difference in absorption (2).
So, while your baby is getting most of their nutrients from milk, choosing a type of cheese to serve based on the highest levels of calcium, isn’t really necessary.
Around 12 months of age, and throughout toddlerhood, when milk consumption typically begins to decrease, your toddler’s calcium needs will increase. Changing from 270 mg a day for babies 7 to 12 months, to 700 mg a day for toddlers 1 to 3 years of age (2).
Choosing a type of cheese that is higher in calcium (while still lower in salt) can be beneficial to help your little one achieve their daily dose of calcium, which helps them build strong bones. Cheddar cheese and mozzarella are both good sources of calcium for your toddler. Just remember to still keep an eye on the salt content after 12 months of age.
Labneh, our top cheese choice for babies, is made with yogurt. So, the calcium content of the labneh you prepare will depend on the type of yogurt you choose. Yogurt is generally an excellent source of calcium, but it will vary a little depending on the brand. Although the amount of calcium varies, labneh is still a great calcium-wise cheese option, not only for babies, but for toddlers too!
Should I offer my baby organic cheese?
In short, the answer is no. Both organic and non-organic (conventional) cheese and dairy will provide your baby with all the beneficial nutrients.
The research comparing organic and conventionally (non-organic) produced milk is complicated as there are many factors that influence the nutritional outcome of milk, such as the cow’s diet and the breed of the cow (among others) (3). These are hard to control for, because even with a category such as “organic” or “conventional”, different diets and breeds of cows are used on different farms and in different countries (3).
What we do know is that organic milk in the US ensures cow’s haven’t been treated with any antibiotics. And cows from low-input farms (which are typically associated with organic farming, but can be used on non-organic farms as well), produce higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and CLA – a healthy fat for the brain. This is also seen on farms that feed their cows a high forage diet (which is again, more commonly associated with organic dairy cows, but can be seen in conventionally raised cows as well) (4).
If possible, it’s best to talk to your local farmer, or seek out more information about the farming practices where your milk is purchased from, if these factors are important to you.
Does my baby need full fat cheese?
Yes, it’s best to offer your baby full fat cheese, as this will provide essential nutrients your baby needs for early development. Fat plays an important role for babies and toddlers as it will help them reach their maximum growth potential.
Fat supplies a major source of energy for babies. It also promotes the accumulation of stored fat in the body which works as insulation to reduce body heat loss, and as padding to protect body organs (5). Fat is also needed for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K (5). Fat also provides essential fatty acids that are required for normal brain development, healthy skin and hair, and normal eye development (5).
By choosing low-fat cheese, or other low-fat dairy products, your baby may be missing out on all the benefits from full-fat dairy products.
Does my baby need to eat pasteurized cheese?
Yes, you should only offer your baby pasteurized cheese to avoid the risk of them coming in contact with harmful bacteria that is sometimes found in unpasteurized cheese. The recommendation is to wait until 5 years old, however you can try offering at 1-2 years old for the benefit of exposing your little one to new textures and flavors, if you feel comfortable with the risk.
Pasteurization refers to the heating process of raw milk to a temperature of 161°F for more than 15 seconds. This kills any bad bacteria and makes the cheese safe to consume. It’s recommended to make sure that babies only eat pasteurized cheese.
All cheeses sold in major grocery stores in the United States and Canada should be pasteurized, but always check the labels or ask if it’s not clear. If you are at a local farmer’s market, or a roadside produce stand, there is no guarantee that the cheese you’re buying has been pasteurized, so take extra caution or avoid it if you’re unsure.
Some people believe that high temperatures associated with pasteurization destroys important nutrients in raw cheeses, which is why you may see opposing recommendations for what is best for your baby. However, numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that pasteurized cheeses have the same quality of nutrients compared to unpasteurized cheeses (5,6).
Research has shown that there is a higher risk of complications involved with infections from consuming unpasteurized cheese, particularly for pregnant women and young children (5). However, researchers agree that more studies are needed to accurately determine how risky it really is for pregnant women and young children (5).
When can I introduce cheese to my baby?
You can serve your baby cheese around 6 months of age, just like most other foods. As long as your baby is showing all the signs of readiness, indicating they’re developmentally ready to handle solids, and as long as cheese is served safely. Check out my blog to learn more about the signs of readiness to make sure your baby is ready to begin before you offer that first food.
There’s no specific age in which to introduce one type of cheese over another. Ideally, avoid introducing your baby to cheeses with higher sodium content (more than 100 mg per serving) until after 12 months of age, as discussed above.
And although it’s good to expand your toddler’s palate with new cheeses, limit the amount you offer higher sodium cheeses, like American cheese and parmesan cheese. If you’re offering something that typically would have parmesan cheese sprinkled on top, nutritional yeast is a great substitute. While not actually cheese, it does provide that cheesy flavor and is safe for babies.
Is cheese a common allergen?
Yes, milk and dairy products are considered one of the top 10 allergens recognized in Canada and the United States. Since cheese is an allergenic food, it’s recommended you introduce it to your baby as early as possible after starting solids, and keep offering it to your baby often (7,8).
If your child is considered to be high risk (an immediate relative with a food allergy, if they have other allergenic conditions, or another known food allergy), there may be a benefit to introducing allergenic foods earlier, between 4-6 months of age (7,8). However, this is best discussed with your baby’s doctor or allergist before you begin.
Here is the general protocol for introducing allergenic foods. For additional details check out my blog on introducing highly allergenic foods.
- Stay home and offer in the first half of the day when your baby is healthy.
- Offer the allergenic food in tiny amounts in the beginning, and increase the quantity over a few days.
- Space out the introduction of foods – introduce only one allergenic food per day and wait 1-2 days before introducing a new allergenic food.
- Record symptoms – if your baby is allergic to a food, you’ll typically see a reaction within 10-15 minutes after eating the food. There could also be a delayed reaction, so monitor baby for up to 6 hours after introducing the allergenic food.
- Introduce the same allergen for a second time
- Offer the allergen regularly, as long as baby had no reaction during the first two times
Note: goat cheese may cause a similar reaction to cheese created from cow’s milk. Therefore, if your little one has a cow’s milk protein allergy – it is recommended that you do not offer goat cheese.
If you’re feeling nervous about introducing allergens to your baby, and want someone to help guide you to ensure you get them all introduced in a timely manner – check out the 60 Day Baby Led Feeding Meal Plan! It strategically introduces each allergen, taking into account the need to expose your baby to the allergen twice. And provides recipes that account for where you are with allergen introduction and texture progression, so you never have to second guess if what you’re serving is safe for your baby.
Lactose is the primary carbohydrate found in milk. Lactose is actually lost during the cheese making process, which means most cheese is basically lactose-free. Therefore, you can offer it without negative consequences, if your little one is lactose intolerant (8).
Lactose intolerance typically doesn’t occur in younger children, but is quite common for older aged children (9). If your little one follows a lactose-free diet as a treatment of lactose intolerance, you’ll want to know that most lactose-free products have the same amount of calcium as regular milk products. So, you don’t have to stress about whether or not your little one is getting enough calcium in their lactose-free diet.
Will cheese make my baby constipated?
If your baby is consuming significantly more than the recommended amount of cheese, which is about 1-2 oz of cheese per day, they could develop issues with hard stools and constipation. Cheese has a low amount of fiber and a high amount of fat, so too much cheese can cause issues with digestion.
It’s important to include foods with the right type of fiber and enough fluids in your baby’s diet to avoid issues with constipation, and to promote healthy digestion.
If you want to learn more, check out my detailed blog on everything you need to know about your baby’s poop!
Can I offer vegan cheese?
If your baby has an allergy or sensitivity to dairy products, you can offer them vegan cheese, if you wish. Doing so would be beneficial for flavor and texture exposure.
However, the nutritional aspect of vegan cheeses is significantly different from real cheese. Vegan products, in particular, are made up of ingredients that consist of many preservatives and are typically higher in salt. You will have to read the label very carefully and determine whether or not the product is suitable for your baby.
How often can I serve cheese to my baby?
Cheese and other dairy products are easy to overload on for babies and toddlers, because they taste so good and it’s a familiar food for them. Although they’re getting good fats, protein, and important nutrients – it will leave no room for other important nutrients from other food groups.
That’s why offering cheese to your baby should be done in moderation. Of course you want your baby to get the beneficial nutrients and fat from cheese, but you don’t want to over do it. Too much cheese can lead to issues with digestion and constipation for your baby or toddler, as mentioned above.
Remember that sodium balance is important. Your baby will get small amounts of sodium from other foods throughout the day, so keep your baby’s sodium balance in mind when offering cheese.
Additionally, too much dairy in the diet can also increase the chance of your baby or toddler developing iron-deficiency anemia. Studies have shown that calcium can inhibit iron absorption (10). To learn more about the importance of iron, check out my blog, here.
Therefore, you can offer cheese daily, but if your baby or toddler consumes a lot of it in one sitting, and highly prefers it over other foods, you may want to consider offering it less frequently throughout the week.
When is cheese a choking hazard?
Cheese can become a choking hazard when cut in specific shapes like small cubes, thick slices or when in cylindrical shape (think cheese strings/sticks). These shapes make it the perfect size to get lodged in your baby’s airway and won’t dissolve easily with saliva. That being said, cheese slices can be introduced as a safer alternative compared to cheese sticks.
Thick melted cheese can also be a choking hazard, like cheese melted on garlic bread for example. The texture of the melted cheese can form large globs in the mouth that are tough to break down, and can become stuck in your baby’s airway. Instead, offer thinly spread out layers of melted cheese for new eaters
Eventually, you’ll be able to offer cheese cubes and thick melted cheese when your toddler has developed sufficient chewing skills. Oral motor skills develop at different rates for every child, so there’s no one age I can recommend to start serving your toddler cheese in these forms. It will depend on your child’s personal capabilities and you’re the best person to make that decision, since you know your child best! Be sure to listen to my podcast episode on when to stop modifying foods that are choking risks, here.
How do I safely serve cheese for baby led weaning?
Remember that every baby is slightly different in terms of growth and development. Your little one may not be fully ready for solids by exactly 6 months of age, and that’s ok!
The same goes for toddlers. Eating skills will vary for each child, so it’s important for you to recognize your own child’s skill level and make the best decisions based on that.
Baby (6-12/18 months)
Once baby is ready to start solids, around 6 months of age, you can offer low sodium, pasteurized cheese in a number of different ways, including:
- Ultra thin slices (<1 mm thick) using the slicer side of a cheese grater. A very sharp knife or cheese slicer will also work. This will allow your baby to hold the cheese slice and self-feed.
- Grate or shred the cheese and pile it in a haystack so baby can pick it up easily with their palmar grasp, or they can use their pincer grasp with their thumb and forefinger (once that skill has been mastered).
- Offer a cheese spread, like labneh for example, on a variety of foods like toast or rice rusks. You can also offer other soft cheeses by themselves, or as spreads, like cottage cheese and ricotta. For more info, check out my toast topping blog for my top 10 healthy toast toppings for babies and toddlers!
- Grated or shredded cheese folded into a variety of other foods like mashed vegetables, pasta, eggs, grains, etc.
- Ultra thin layer of melted cheese. A very small amount can be sprinkled on a variety of foods. Remember that thick layers of melted cheese is a choking hazard for babies, as the cheese can turn into a large glob and potentially block baby’s airway.
Toddler (12/18 months+)
One of the most popular items given to toddlers as a quick snack is a pre-packaged cheese string. If you’re offering your toddler a cheese string, I recommend quartering it due to its rubbery texture and perfectly round shape that could lodge in your toddler’s airway.
To be clear, cheese strings should not be offered to babies as they’re a high choking risk, and typically high in sodium. It’s recommended to wait until your little one is at least 12 months of age before you offer a modified cheese string.
Some other ways to offer cheese as a calorie booster for toddlers is to melt it on toast, use cheese spread on things like crackers or naan bread, mix it into pasta or rice, or melt it on top of veggies.
There’s conflicting recommendations about offering toddlers cheese cubes. Basically, it comes down to your child’s eating skills. I personally prefer to offer shredded or thin strips of cheese so they can take bites.
Most children can handle bite sized pieces around 18 months of age, but it’s still a choking hazard since it could easily block their airway. By 2 years of age, you can teach them to take bites – then you can offer bite sized cubes, if you feel comfortable with that.
Time to make the best cheese for babies - Labneh!
This recipe is the easiest thing you’ll make, ever! It has very few ingredients and minimal steps! Plus you can make it ahead of time and keep it in the fridge for at least a week for fast, nutritious snacks and lunches.
Labneh is a Lebanese “yogurt cheese”. It’s something I grew up eating every weekend with our breakfasts, and is deliciously tangy and thick.
What I love about Labneh is that it’s low in salt, high in protein and healthy fats, and it’s the easiest way to provide your little one with more nutrition by adding it to simple snacks like toast and crackers. It also works perfectly as a dip since you can flavor it any which way you like!
Start by choosing a high fat (6% milk fat or higher) cow’s milk yogurt. I recommend choosing one with the fewest ingredients possible.
Yogurt that contains only milk, cream, and active bacterial cultures would be an excellent choice. Click here, to see my blog on the best yogurts for your baby.
Dump the entire container of yogurt (750g) in a bowl, and add ¾ tsp of salt. Do not add salt for babies under 1 year of age.
Place a strainer on top of a separate large bowl. The bowl will just be to catch the excess liquid from the yogurt. Line the strainer with a thick cheese cloth or kitchen towel.
Dump the yogurt mixture into the cloth and fold the cloth over to cover the mixture. Set the mixture aside in the fridge.
Leave the mixture for 24-48 hours. The longer you leave the mixture, the thicker and tangier it will be.
You can serve it by spreading it in a bowl and adding a drizzle of olive oil and any other savory spices you enjoy. You can use it as a dip, topping or spread!
Remember to check out my 60 Day Baby Led Feeding Meal Plan – you’ll get access to over 80 recipes, perfect for starting solids and that the whole family can enjoy. This isn’t just a regular meal plan with a list of recipes, you’ll actually be able to follow along with the plan to strategically introduce allergens, advance your baby in textures, and ensure all nutrient needs are being met.
In the meal plan, you’ll get lots of great recipes that incorporate cheese into your baby’s diet, like:
- Cheesy spinach egg muffins
- Spinach tomato and dill omelet fingers
- Broccoli bites
- Curry chicken rice cups
- Lasagna roll ups and roasted zucchini
- Veggie savory muffins
- Baby quesadilla
- Chicken pot pie muffins
- Crab quiche muffins
- 1 mixing bowl
- 1 large bowl
- 1 strainer
- 1 large cheese cloth or kitchen towel
- 1 container full fat yogurt (750g)
- ¾ tsp salt (optional)
- Add the entire container of yogurt to a bowl.
- Add salt and mix.
- Line a strainer with a thick cheese cloth or kitchen towel.
- Place a strainer on top of a separate empty large bowl and add the yogurt mixture into the cloth, folding it over to cover the mixture.
- Let the mixture set for 24-48 hours in the fridge (the longer it sits, the thicker it will be).
- Drizzle with olive oil and choice of seasonings, and enjoy as a dip or spread!
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- Heyman, M. B., & Committee on Nutrition. Lactose intolerance in infants, children, and adolescents. Pediatrics, 118(3), 1279-1286 (2006).
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