Recently I posted on Instagram about a couple packaged products designed to make your life easier as a parent that are also pretty nutritious for your baby. Well… except for one caveat. Salt.
Salt is talked about a LOT in the baby world because it’s one of the main things we want to limit in our baby’s diet, especially in that first year of life. It also happens to be one of the hardest things to limit considering that salt is EVERYWHERE and found in pretty much everything you buy these days.
So does that mean we can’t ever offer a product with salt in it? Is it something to fear and stress over or can we relax about it ever? The key is figuring out where hidden salt in food usually pops up and how to manage it so you don’t drive yourself crazy, while still keeping your baby healthy. We’re going to cover that all here today!
How much is too much?
First, let’s discuss how much salt is appropriate for babies. Babies need some salt for healthy functioning. Up to 12 months of age, the recommendation is for babies to consume less than 400 mg sodium per day. This includes salt found in breastmilk/formula AND solid foods. So considering that breastmilk and formula have about 200 mg of sodium per 24 oz., this means that babies should only be consuming about 200 mg of sodium via solid food daily.
Keep in mind that sodium is a component of salt (table salt is made up of Sodium + chloride). So if you’re trying to determine how much sodium your baby is getting from added salt to a meal, you’ll want to remember that 400 mg of sodium specifically equals about 1 g of salt.
The reason for this recommended intake level is that we assume that babies’ kidneys are still very immature and won’t be able to process high amounts of salt properly. Now the thing is, we don’t have enough research yet to say that this is 100% the upper limit for salt for babies under 1 year old. They may be able to handle more, but without enough research indicating the highest level actually determined safe before developing any risk of poor health effects, sticking to this limit is advised. That and… we’d rather not have our baby develop a preference for salty foods and flavours.
Ok, so 200 g is the limit. Got that. But wow! This is very little when you realize that a typical serving of most processed foods has at least this amount of salt in it!
What this means is that, in order to keep this in check, extremely little to no salt should be added to any of the meals baby is having. Keep this in perspective. If they are only eating homemade meals that day, then a bit of added salt to that meal might be ok. If they are eating out at a restaurant with you, or are consuming any type of packaged/processed food, then definitely be very mindful of not offering other high salt foods or meals with added salt to it.
Basically, some days they will be way under the recommended daily intake of salt, and others they may be over. It’s about overall balance. So let’s learn to identify which common foods are known to have high amounts of salt and which are unsuspecting sources of salt to watch out for!
Foods high in salt
Ok, so as mentioned..salt is pretty much everything store-bought, processed or packaged. It’s a preservative and it makes food taste amazing, so naturally food manufacturers will put it in deliberately. The first foods we usually think of that are super high in salt include:
- Processed meats like deli meats, bacon, ham, and sausage
- Frozen foods like chicken nuggets/chicken breasts, meatballs, dough pastries, any frozen meal etc.
- Pre-seasoned fresh meat
- Soups (Canned or boxed)
- Broths (Chicken, beef, vegetable etc.)
- Store-bought spice blends
- Packaged mixes for potatoes, rice, pasta and stuffing
- Olives, pickles, sauerkraut and other pickled vegetables
- Store-bought salad dressings
- Soy sauce, ketchup, and other condiments
Just to name a few.
But! While these usually come to mind first…did you know that for many people, even if they’re watching sodium intake, these are NOT the biggest contributors of salt to their diet?
Here are foods that actually contribute more to daily sodium intake in the grand scheme of things (because we typically consider them healthy and therefore they make up a larger part of our diet):
- Bread, english muffins, tortilla, and other bread products
- Tomato/pasta sauces
- Cheese and other dairy products like yogurt and milk
- Canned vegetables and beans
- Cereal (not made for baby)
- “Enhanced” or saline-injected chicken
Really? Are these foods we should limit for babies? Well, let’s break them down.
A typical slice of store-bought bread (in this example, I’m using Ben’s Holsum Wheat Bread) has 110 mg of sodium per slice. A typical dinner roll has between 120-160 mg of sodium in each. So, considering many of us offer bread at least once per day (or often we’re serving it at more than one meal), you can see how this adds up quick and may even take up a full day’s worth of sodium for a baby in particular.
One slice of Cracker Barrel medium cheddar cheese has 140 mg of sodium! The majority of cheddar, mozzarella, havarti cheese etc. out there contain about 170 mg of sodium per oz (1 oz = a fingers length). Cottage cheese is one of the biggest culprits! It contains about 800 mg of sodium per cup! And then of course there’s feta and parmesan cheese which contain about 300-450 mg of sodium per oz (over 1000 mg sodium per cup!). So cheese can definitely be an easy food to overlook considering we often sprinkle a little cheese here and little cheese there and then may offer cheese for a quick snack as well.
Offering something to baby like Cheerios as a snack can add up as well…1 cup has 230 mg of sodium. Canned vegetables like canned corn or canned bean can have 300-400 mg salt per 1/2 cup. Regular canned beans like kidney beans, black beans, navy beans etc. often have between 200 – 600 mg of sodium per ½ cup! A big one parents often overlook is store-bought tomato/pasta sauces (480 mg per 1/2 cup!).
Even some types of chicken for goodness sake often contains lots of salt! A 3 ½ oz. chicken breast has about 74 – 116 mg of sodium each (according to nationalchickencouncil.org)…but you should be careful because much of what you find in the grocery store is “enhanced”, “seasoned” or saline-injected chicken which is meant to plump it up and add flavour…which means much more sodium per oz.
How do you manage all this?
Ok – now that I’ve thoroughly scared you (just kidding – I hope you’re not scared off!) – let’s discuss some practical ways to manage this.
First off, hands down the best thing you can do is aim to serve homemade meals as much as possible. Whenever you can make something from scratch and avoid packaged/processed foods – definitely go for it. Make sauces, pancakes, oatmeal etc. from scratch. Aim for homemade soups, meat cooked and seasoned at home, and even condiments/salad dressings made from home if time permits. Now – that’s not to say this is easy. In this day and age, convenience is king and put on top of that the demands of parenting…well, it’s safe to say that sometimes you’ve got to cut yourself some slack.
The key is being mindful and seeing how you can balance things in the grander scheme of things. Maybe one day they eat a good amount of cheese and bread, so the next day you are very conscious of only offering low/no sodium foods. Maybe only offer Cheerios or crackers as a snack one day and the next you focus on fruit and a homemade muffin. Pick and choose your battles and do what you can to make smart decisions wherever possible. With regards to those packaged convenience products I was talking about that I posted on Instagram that you can serve to baby when in a pinch (like Dr. Praeger’s California Veggie Burger or Yves Kale and Quinoa Bites) – it’s all about perspective. If it’s really only once or twice a week that you need the help of something pre-made and lightly processed to put food on the table – well – then just be sure to note that and adjust for it the rest of the week! Keep it truly balanced while continually striving to plan ahead and avoid having these situations come up more often than they should.
There are also many less stressful swaps you can make to help reduce sodium in your baby’s diet, beginning with bread. You can find no or low sodium bread for sure – however you may have to head to the frozen section to find these (remember – salt is a preservative so you may need to freeze this bread to keep it from spoiling fast). My favourite bread for babies is Ezekiel low sodium sprouted bread with 0 mg of sodium!
You can also sub out your typical cracker for Wheat Thins Hint of Salt or Blue Diamond Almond Nut Thins – hint of sea salt or even Unsalted Brown Rice Snaps. Sub out Cheerios for Baby Gourmet Puffies with Probiotics and avoid instant oatmeal packets completely and always go for the real stuff. When offering beans, rinse the can out 2-3 times to reduce the sodium content, or better yet – look for no salt added versions of these and any canned veggies like diced tomatoes or tomato sauces (I love La San Marzano tomato sauce and marinara sauce). The same goes with chicken broths – swap out the regular stuff for the no salt added versions (like Campbell’s No Salt Added Chicken Broth with 40 mg vs 570 mg of sodium per 150 ml).
The idea here is to do your best, read the labels and practice mindfulness around what you’re eating and feeding your baby. This is a good practice to get into for the whole family regardless and yet another reason to keep on trying to inch towards more whole foods in our daily life. Avoid guilt or overwhelm and just truly do the best you can!