Soy is a food eaten all over the world and is even a first food choice for babies in many cultures, especially in East Asia. It can be eaten as edamame (soybean), tempeh, miso, natto, or soy milk (although there are some types that are more ideal at different ages and stages than others).
Unfortunately, the information found online on the topic of soy for babies and toddlers is not always clear cut, and it may leave you with more questions and concerns around the safety of soy for your little one, when and how to serve it, and what the best soy products are.
Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered in this blog!
We’ll cover the research behind the main questions around using soy as an ingredient, various ways to serve it by age and stage, and all the nutritional information you need to know for maximum benefit. We’re also leaving you with a delicious and easy tofu frittata recipe that your baby or toddler will love!
Want to learn how to introduce solids with purées or finger foods from 6-12 months of age? Our Baby Led Feeding course is your step-by-step guide to confidently feeding your baby safely and healthily! Including videos showing you exactly how to serve over 50+ foods in our brand new Texture Timeline™ food library. Get lifetime access to the course here!
At what age can I introduce soy to my baby?
Soy can be introduced to babies when starting solids at around 6 months of age, assuming they show all the signs of readiness to start solid foods. Because it’s considered a top allergen, it’s important to introduce soy (and other highly allergenic foods) as early as possible and continue to offer this food in the diet often.
When introducing an allergen such as soy to your baby for the first time, make sure to only offer one allergenic food at a time, and wait 1-2 days before introducing a new allergen.
Is soy healthy for babies and toddlers?
The short answer is yes! It’s a great plant-based, high quality protein that contains all the essential amino acids (making it a “complete protein”). It’s also an excellent source of fiber, which is of particular importance for toddlers, as well as iron, zinc and magnesium.
Iron is a very important nutrient to focus on for babies. Ensuring they get a high iron food (like tofu) twice a day, when possible, is a great way to prevent iron deficiency from 6 months and up. Because the form of iron found in soy is non-heme (meaning it’s not as well absorbed in the body on its own), it’s best to pair soy with a source of vitamin C, such as peppers, oranges, lemon or broccoli – which increases the iron absorption rate.
Now, there can be some nuances to note with soy regarding health claims and fears, as well as things to look for when buying various soy products, so let’s discuss those now.
Estrogen-like compounds in soy
Soy is a food that’s naturally very high in isoflavones (a type of phytoestrogen), which is a compound that mimics estrogen in the body. As a result, it’s been known to bring with it some controversy.
The long and short of it is that the evidence to date shows there are no confirmed negative effects of soy’s high isoflavone content. In fact, isoflavones have been associated with antioxidants with anti-cancer benefits (particularly breast, endometrium and prostate cancer).
That being said, more research is still required to determine if this is beneficial in all cases, for all people, in different stages, and if it’s based on the type of soy consumed. For example, the extent to which isoflavones can be digested depends on the type of bacteria found in one’s gut. And the amount of isoflavones found depends on whether soy is fermented or not, and the level of processing of the soy products.
Processed vs. unprocessed forms of soy
There’s generally a difference, from a health perspective, between processed and unprocessed soy products, especially for babies and toddlers. Soy products that are more commonly eaten in Western countries like Canada and the US, include soy-based meat substitutes, soy milk, soy cheese, and soy yogurt. Some of these are made from soy milk, while others use soy in the form of isolated soy protein or soy protein concentrate.
In tune with My Little Eater’s overall philosophy on food, unprocessed forms of food, including soy, is always going to be the preference. Generally, the less processed a soy food is, the more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants it contains. On the other hand, the more processed it is, the more salt, sugar, and unnecessary additives and fillers it likely contains – and – the less nutrients available.
Some examples of unprocessed (or minimally processed) versions of soy include:
- Bean sprouts
- Fermented soy products (like soybean paste and natto)
Note: Fermented soy products have been cultured with beneficial bacteria, yeast or mold that can improve its digestibility and absorption in the body – including isoflavone content – and this is a great thing! Fermented foods help populate your baby’s gut with healthy bacteria that positively affects their immunity, metabolism, hormonal system and more.
One thing to note is that soy milk and soy yogurt sit on the fence between being a minimally processed and processed soy product (depending on the brand and ingredients used).
Examples of highly processed soy products include:
- Soy protein isolate and soy protein concentrate
- Soy oils
- Faux meat and textured vegetable proteins
- Soy sauce
There are a few soy products that are best to avoid giving to your baby until after 12 months – these include soy sauce, tamari, and miso. While a small taste of food with one of these ingredients isn’t going to hurt your baby, it’s generally best to avoid them in the first year due to very high levels of sodium. If you need to choose one in a recipe, go for tamari over soy sauce. It’s more likely to be free of additives like MSG, it doesn’t contain wheat (another potential allergen if introducing it for the first time to your baby), and sometimes is made with less salt.
Organic vs. non-organic soy
Soybean crops contain high levels of pesticides, so some parents may choose to buy organic soy products, when possible, to limit exposure to babies. This is because babies may be more susceptible to harm from these chemicals.
Certified organic soy products are also not genetically modified, which may be of interest and concern to some parents.
If you’re able to buy organic and would like to do so, great! But organic foods can often be more expensive, so if cost is a factor for you, please don’t worry! There are still benefits to consuming non-organic soy in moderation, especially when considering that we really want babies to consume a varied diet to broaden their palate and provide more nutritional variety.
Can I give soy milk to my baby or toddler?
Soy milk, along with other non-dairy milks and cow’s milk, can be used in smaller quantities in recipes or when cooking. However, they shouldn’t be offered to your baby as a beverage under one year old. Only small amounts of water in a cup should be offered as a beverage, outside of breastmilk or formula, before 1 year of age.
After 1 year of age, soy milk and other fortified milk alternatives can be offered as a beverage. Kids who have a cow’s milk allergy or who are on plant based diets may use soy milk as a cow’s milk replacement as it’s a good source of calcium, protein, vitamin D and some fat. Soy milk offered under 2 years of age should be fortified, unflavored, and contain full fat.
Is soy-based formula a good option for my baby?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) supports the use of soy protein isolate-based formula for babies who aren’t able to get breastmilk or tolerate cow’s milk based formulas.
However, babies who are allergic to cow’s milk have a 50% chance of also being allergic to soy. So a preferred formula option for these babies is often to just go to a hydrolyzed protein formula where the cow’s milk proteins are broken down, so as not to cause the body to recognize them as an allergen.
While the use of soy-based formulas is deemed safe for healthy, term-infants, it’s not something recommended for preterm babies. Also, because the use of a product that is so high in soy isoflavones (compounds that mimic estrogen) is still being debated and in need of more research, it’s also not recommended that soy based formulas be used for infants until after 6 months of age.
What to look for when buying tofu for babies and toddlers
It can be helpful (though not necessary) to look for tofu that’s been made in a calcium fortified liquid (like calcium sulfate). This can be especially important if your baby or toddler is on a dairy-free diet and is in need of added calcium sources.
In terms of texture options, silken, soft, medium or firm tofu is best for babies and each provides a different texture experience. Silken or soft tofu can be used for smoothies or soups, or is great as a thickening agent for purées.
Medium or firm tofu is best served as a spongy textured finger food or scrambled into a tofu scramble. This texture falls within Phase 2 of the Texture Timeline™ and requires some mashing with the gums and tongue.
Extra firm varieties may be a harder texture to manipulate (though still safe to offer) and would be classified under Phase 3 on the Texture Timeline™. If you feel more comfortable, it can be mashed or crumbled and served for your baby to eat using their pincer grasp (see how to serve tofu in more detail below).
PS – Did you know that tofu can be eaten raw? When you buy it commercially prepared in grocery stores, it’s ready to eat safely straight out of the package, if you choose!
Different types of soy and how to prepare them safely for babies
Soybeans or edamame
As a purée:
As a finger food:
You can incorporate soybeans into a homemade bean burger, or a fritter, for a high protein and nutrient rich food. Cut it into finger shaped strips for your baby to self feed on. Check out the edamame fingers recipe in our 60 Day Baby Led Feeding Meal Plan.
Once your baby has developed their pincer grasp, you can offer boiled or steamed halved soybeans, or whole soybeans that have been mashed or flattened with a fork and have the outer clear skin removed. They can practice picking them up between their index finger and thumb and bringing them to their mouth.
As a purée:
You can mix silken tofu or soft tofu into other puréed or mashed foods and offer it to your baby on a preloaded spoon.
As a finger food:
Cut firm or extra firm tofu into finger shaped strips (1-2 finger lengths wide) that will make it easier for your baby to hold with their palmar grasp to self feed. You can lightly pan fry it on the stove in some oil, and add some flavor to the tofu with different spices, such as cumin, paprika, or even coat it with nutritional yeast!
Once your baby develops their pincer grasp, the tofu can be cut into smaller bite-sized pieces, or crumbled, so that they can pick it up using their index finger and thumb.
PS – you can find a great tofu frittata recipe below, keep scrolling! (It’s from our 60 Day Baby Led Feeding Meal Plan!)
Note: To prepare medium to extra firm tofu for your baby, you have the option of pressing the tofu to drain out the water content, therefore keeping the texture more firm when cooking. This is a good option for when your baby is a bit more experienced and you want a bit of a crispier outer texture. To do this, you can wrap the tofu in a kitchen towel and place a stack of books or a heavy pot on top for 10-20 minutes to allow water to drain from it.
As a finger food:
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and has a cake-like texture. To serve to your baby, cut the tempeh into finger-shaped strips (1-2 finger lengths wide), and cook in a pan in some butter or oil until softened. This shape will make it easier for your baby to hold onto and safer for them to self-feed on.
Once your baby has developed their pincer grasp, the tempeh can be cut into smaller bite-sized pieces that they can pick up using their index finger and thumb. Tempeh can also be crumbled into small pieces and can be used as a substitution for ground beef. You can experiment with adding it in casseroles, pasta, or braised dishes the whole family can enjoy together.
Want to learn how to introduce solids with purées or finger foods from 6-12 months of age? Our Baby Led Feeding course is your step-by-step guide to confidently feeding your baby safely and healthily, including videos showing you exactly how to serve over 50+ foods in our brand new Texture Timeline™ food library. Get lifetime access to the course here!
Tofu Frittata with Tomato Wedges
- 1 skillet
- 1 small bowl
- 2 tsp. olive oil
- ¼ cup white mushrooms (sliced)
- ½ cup carrots (shredded)
- 2 tbsp. green onion (finely chopped)
- ½ pack firm tofu
- 4 eggs
- 2 tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 tomato (cut in large wedges with skin on)
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Heat oil in an oven safe, non-stick skillet. Add in mushrooms, carrots, and green onion. Sauté 3-5 minutes or until carrots are soft.
- Drain and press the tofu by hand, using paper towel. Using a fork, or your hands, crumble the tofu and add to the skillet.
- In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and soy sauce. Press the vegetable and tofu mixture in an even layer in the skillet, then pour the egg mixture overtop making sure to cover completely. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until the egg begins to cook around the edges.
- Place the pan in the oven and bake for 8-10 minutes, or until eggs are cooked through. Cut into fingers, pair with tomato wedges, and enjoy!
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