Japanese children are introduced at an early age to foods such as rice, dashi, tofu, and fish. Learn all about baby food milestones in Japan and what the Japanese feed their very hungry little ones.
Have you wondered what Japanese parents feed their tiny tots? Hint: it’s not 🍣 or 🍤 or 🍜! Then what are some of the first foods that Japanese babies eat?
Hello there, I’m Kayoko. I’m a contributing writer for Just One Cookbook based in Tokyo and a mother to an almost 2-year-old daughter.
Like many new parents, when the time came to start the transition to solid food, I searched high and low for information regarding the bewildering new world of baby food.
My Own Baby Food Experience
You might be reading this because you’re about to start the solid food journey with your baby, and is interested in introducing Japanese food to her/him. Or just a curious reader! You’re not alone, we have received so many requests on Japanese baby food in the past like this:
I have a hungry toddler and I’ve been wondering what babies and children in Japan eat on a day-to-day basis. I adore Japanese food and your homestyle dishes but when I offered them to my child, he wasn’t too thrilled with the new foods.
I’d love to find out more about what Japanese parents feed their children and if I can incorporate some dishes to his meals. Thanks!-L.L. (a JOC reader)
Through my research and findings, I found it fascinating that the information regarding baby food in Japanese and in English (primarily U.S. based) was starkly different. This includes cultural practices, messaging, and the varieties of food offered.
For instance, many baby food sources in the west list avocado, mango, nut butters, and fortified cereals as introductory foods for babies. Baby-led weaning (BLW) is well-known and there are lots of resources about this topic. However, as you’ll soon learn, Japanese babies are fed Japanese foods like rice, tofu, and dashi from an early stage. Most Japanese parents spoon-feed their babies these foods until they are able to use utensils much later.
Although I cannot compare with parents living outside of Japan, I’d like to share my personal experience on introducing solids to my daughter and baby food in Japan. Keep in mind this is just one parent sharing her observations and discoveries, and so I hope you enjoy learning about the different cultural aspects.
💁🏻♀️ Please note that I am not a nutritionist, dietician, or expert in the field of baby food. For those who wish to introduce Japanese foods to your baby/child, please do your own research, vet your sources and consult your pediatricians.
Japan Baby Food Information
In this post, I’ll cover:
- Japanese Baby Food Guidelines
- Basic Japanese Food Given to Babies
- Japanese Baby Food Stages
- Japanese Foods Not Suitable for Babies
There is a big world full of mothers and fathers out there that feed their babies and children differently. It is impossible to do a fair comparison of baby foods around the world; however, through my research, there are several aspects I found interesting and perhaps unique to Japan.
1. Clear guidelines from the government
Baby food in Japanese is called Rinyushoku (離乳食; literally “food separated from milk,” refers to food given to a baby between 5/6mo to 18mo). In Japan, babies typically begin eating solids after the 5-6 month checkup.
Information regarding Rinyushoku is largely based on the guidelines by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW). It is established by a board of doctors, healthcare providers, and registered dieticians. The guidelines range from the size and softness of the cooked vegetables, the thickness of the rice porridge when certain foods can be given to the baby… it’s quite specific!
For the most part, regardless of what baby food recipe book you pick up, you won’t find conflicting information regarding types of food and the stages given. Because of this consistency, most parents and childcare facilities follow these guidelines (MHLW 2019 info in Japanese).
Other non-MHLW approved baby food practices have slowly gained traction in Japan among some parents and pediatricians. Notably baby-led weaning (BLW), the practice of babies self-feeding finger foods rather than being spoon-fed (I personally did a mix of purees and BLW). There are some books and resources in Japanese, but most babies are spoon-fed initially until they move on to more solid foods and are able to use utensils.
2. Emphasis on introducing Japanese food
Similar to other countries, babies are exposed to the traditional/native cuisine of their culture at an early age to ultimately build an appreciation for their cuisine later in life.
In Japan, babies are given rice, tofu, natto, seaweed, dashi, and other Japanese ingredients at an early stage. Parents then gradually incorporate more foods and dishes to a simplified Ichiju Sansai meal around 2 years old.
3. Pressure to make baby food from scratch
Perhaps this is a universal headache felt by parents around the world, but there is tremendous pressure to prepare baby food from scratch! While there is a diverse and affordable selection of ready-made baby foods, most Japanese baby food cookbooks feature labor-intensive recipes of pureeing, straining, mashing, and grinding meats and vegetables by hand.
Many cookbooks emphasize that preparing baby food from scratch is an act of love during a relatively short period of a child’s life. This may be true, but it is quite the hurdle for any parent whether s/he is additionally balancing work or not. In fact, a 2016 poll to Japanese guardians by the MHLW found that 33.5% of responders said that their top concern regarding baby food is preparing it. Talking to friends with children, many said that they struggle to feed their children nutritious, homemade food without overburdening themselves with all the cooking.
As for Japanese pre-made baby foods, the food companies must align with the guidelines by the MHLW. They undergo rigorous screening and must label their products according to the appropriate months. These baby foods are available powdered, freeze-dried, retort pouches, and containers for easy prep.
Despite its wide availability, I felt a slight twinge of guilt picking up a few pre-made meals for convenience. There are many cookbooks that help you meal prep for the week. However, I found that a mix of store-bought baby foods and foods prepared from scratch was a healthy balance for both myself and my baby.
4. Resources for baby food
When researching baby food in the U.S., I noticed that there are lots of amazing resources by registered dieticians and feeding specialists. This information is shared on their websites, Instagram accounts, or paid seminars (I personally relied on @feedinglittles, @solidstarts, and @newwaysnutrition).
While these extremely qualified and tech-savvy individuals provide a tremendous amount of quality research-based information, I found it curious that U.S. government agencies weren’t actively promoting their resources on baby food (there are some, as this page by the U.S. Department of Agriculture). It seemed like most parents were off on their own to find reliable information. Of course, as a multicultural and diverse country like the U.S., a blanket guideline that considers all the various food cultures and observances would be near impossible. It makes sense that parents go seek information that suits their family’s and babies’ needs.
In Japan, it’s a stark contrast with an abundance of books on baby food, most following the MHLW guidelines. Plus, many pediatrician clinics, local municipal offices/wards, and NPOs offer seminars and workshops for new parents (in person or online, and most are free!) to learn more about baby foods.
When my daughter had her 5/6 month checkup at our ward office, the pediatrician gave us a booklet of baby food recipes and directed me to a link to online classes if I was interested. I ended up picking a baby food cookbook at the bookstore and mostly followed along.
So, what do we feed babies in Japan? I’ll be sticking to the 5 months – 18 months period when babies experience their first taste of Rinyushoku. Once the baby graduates from Rinyushoku, the next step is called Youjishoku (幼児食; literally “toddler food,” refers to foods post-Rinyushoku up until around 5 years old).
Babies are exposed to a variety of Japanese and non-Japanese foods through their baby food journey. In this article, I’ll be focusing only on Japanese food.
No price for guessing this right: a Japanese baby’s very first food is white rice. It is our number one staple food after all. Rice is easily digestible, versatile, affordable, and rice allergens are relatively uncommon. Babies are first given a very watery rice porridge called Jubai Gayu (10倍粥; literally “ten times rice porridge,” which is white rice cooked with 10 times the amount of water). Then gradually given less watery porridge over the next several months.
This porridge can be made by adding extra water when cooking rice in the rice cooker. Or microwaving cooked rice with water, then ground up to a somewhat smooth paste. It’s also available in powdered form, which just needs to be reconstituted.
To add some flavor to purees and rice porridge, babies are given small amounts of dashi (Japanese soup stock). Made with water steeped in kombu seaweed and sometimes bonito flakes, dashi is a favored choice over salt, soy sauce, or miso because of its low sodium content. A little bit of dashi adds a boost of taste to the food, especially for babies learning new flavors. It’s also used to thin out purees.
As powdered dashi tends to have additives and a lot of salt, homemade dashi is recommended, whether fish-based, mixed, or vegan (kombu or shiitake). You can also find low sodium dashi packets suitable for babies. Leftover dashi can be frozen in ice cube trays for easy use next time.
Dashi can be given to babies in the early 5-6 month period.
3. Soybean Products (Tofu, Natto, etc)
Tofu, natto, koyadofu, and other soy ingredients such as kinako, soy milk, and yuba (dried tofu skins) are excellent sources of plant-based protein. Silken tofu can easily be crumbled up for easy spoon-feeding. Once the baby is able to eat more solid foods, s/he can transition to firm tofu cut into cubes, which can be picked up with a fork or fingers.
Natto (fermented soybeans) is a Japanese superfood, which provides a good source of probiotics. And yes, it is known for its sticky, slimy texture and pungent smell that many foreigners describe as smelly cheese. Since it requires an acquired taste, the Japanese know it’s best to introduce natto to babies as early as possible. Natto can be served as is or chopped up and snuck into rice porridge or purees. There is also finely chopped natto called Hikiwari Natto (ひき割り納豆), which is available wherever natto is sold.
We leave out the soy sauce-based seasoning and mustard as they are high in sodium. If the smell puts your baby (or you) off, pour hot water over the natto and drain well. That should remove some of that funkiness.
My daughter loves natto from the first day we served it to her and she prefers to eat it as is, which was picking up the beans with her fingers and smearing it all over her face (cue in the eye-rolling and the messy clean up afterward).
For older babies, we also serve fried tofu such as atsuage and aburaage by first draining the oil out with hot water and chopping it into manageable pieces.
4. Japanese Noodles
The Japanese love noodles just as much as rice, so naturally, we start serving wheat-based noodles such as udon and somen noodles to our babies in the early 5-6 month period. For easy digestion, we would cook the noodles until soften and chop them up into tiny pieces.
Dried noodles have salt added to extend their shelf life, so make sure to wash and drain the cooked noodles very well. I personally found somen noodles tricky to serve as the thin noodles clung to everything: the bowl, clothes, hair, basically everywhere! Udon was much more manageable and my daughter was able to pick up the cut noodles with her fingers for BLW.
Soba noodles are made with buckwheat, which is a known food allergen. Just be cautious when serving.
5. Non-Caffeinated Tea
Not a food, but non-caffeinated tea such as mugicha (麦茶; barley tea) is a popular drink often served to babies, usually when they start solids. There are mugicha tea bags and drink packets especially for babies and little children.
Since mugicha is naturally non-caffeinated, normal mugicha packets will also suffice. I always have a pitcher of mugicha in the fridge year-round and would pour a glass for my daughter during mealtimes or pour it into her water bottle whenever we went outside. Of course, tea should never be served as a replacement for breast milk/formula.
The MHLW guidelines divide the baby food stage into 4 sections, starting at the 5-6 month mark until the baby “graduates” at 18 months.
Stage 1: 5-6 Months
An example menu I fed my daughter
- Okayu (Jubai gayu 十倍粥)
- Udon or somen noodles, cooked until soft and chopped up into tiny pieces
- Finely crumbled silken tofu
- White fish such as cod, sea bream, or flounder steam cooked, then mashed up and thinned with dashi
- Vegetable purees such as tomato, pumpkin, carrot, daikon, komatsuna, taro root, and napa cabbage
Like in many cultures, the first stage of baby food is all about purees and soft foods. As mentioned above, a baby’s very first food is white rice, which s/he will continue to eat by the spoonful for the first few days. The portions tend to be small and given once a day, as the main source of nutrition still comes from breast milk/formula.
Other purees such as vegetables, cooked white fish, and crumbled silken tofu are commonly fed to babies during this time. Besides rice, starches mashed or finely chopped such as udon and somen noodles cooked very well, white bread, oatmeal, potatoes, and taro root can also be fed.
I initially served rice porridge and the vegetable/protein dish separately but ended up merging the two dishes for a donburi-style meal for easy prep.
Stage 2: 7-8 Months
An example menu I fed my daughter
- Okayu (Nanabai gayu, 七倍粥, literally “seven times rice porridge,” rice that’s cooked with 7 times the amount of water) with chopped natto
- Canned tuna flakes mixed with diced cooked vegetables and dashi
- Cubed silken tofu
- Soup made of pureed kabocha and soy milk
The 7-8 month period is characterized by the baby’s ability to chew with her/his gums, close the lips and swallow, and so the foods transition from purees to diced foods. Parents usually start giving the baby two meals a day to start building a routine of mealtime.
As I did a mix of spoon-feeding and BLW, mealtimes were a messy ordeal. But thanks to the constant cleaning after mealtime, our dining table and floor were always (near) spotless!
Stage 3: 9-11 Months
An example menu I fed my daughter
- Lightly seasoned and chopped yaki udon
- Egg omelet with steamed fish flakes
- Ground chicken patties with natto and chopped vegetables
- Boiled unsalted edamame chopped up and mixed with yogurt
By this period, babies are able to chew soft foods similar to a ripened banana texture. Parents usually transition their baby to 3 meals a day, where they get most of their daily nutrition from foods instead of breast milk/formula. They may also be more adventurous to eat with a fork, spoon, or hands.
My daughter was a ravenous eater, so we didn’t have any difficulty feeding her 3 times a day, but some of my friends struggled with uninterested babies, and stuck with 2 meals.
Stage 4: 12-18 Months
An example menu I fed my daughter
- Small onigiri (rice cooked normally) wrapped with nori
- Miso soup (lightly seasoned with miso)
- Tamagoyaki with diced broccoli and onion (no seasoning)
- Kinpira gobo (very well cooked, lightly seasoned and with no chili peppers)
- Spinach ohitashi
By this time, many mothers have stopped breastfeeding/giving formula and are feeding similar foods that the rest of the family is eating, just with less seasoning. The food should be soft enough that it can be crushed with the back of a spoon.
I enjoyed serving our daughter the same food we were eating (added more spice and flavor in our portions) as not only was it so much easier than prepping food just for her, but because she seemed so much more interested in what we were eating and would try to snatch food off our plates. It seemed like she was learning about the communal aspect of eating!
Babies’ immune system is delicate, their teeth and jaws are still developing, and thus they cannot process many foods that older children and adults can eat with ease. Here are some foods that should never be served to babies.
The sticky chewy texture of mochi is a choking hazard and should never be served to babies and young children. Most parents wait until at least 3 years old when the child has grown all of her/his baby teeth and is able to properly chew and swallow food. Mochi is a hazard that there are unfortunate cases of suffocation from eating mochi by young children and the elderly every Japanese New Years. Even if you cut the mochi into tiny pieces, the stickiness can lodge into their tiny throats, so wait until they are older to safely enjoy.
While brown rice is nutritious compared to white rice, it is highly fibrous and difficult for babies to digest. Even if cooked into rice porridge, the hard hull will remain. Therefore, it’s best to give white rice.
Sashimi and Raw Seafood
Any raw seafood, even sashimi-grade is not suitable for babies. Not only is the texture difficult for babies to chew (think octopus, squid, shrimp, and shellfish), the risk of parasitic infections and food poisoning is not worth the potential rush to the hospital. While the MHLW and other agencies do not give an exact age when raw seafood can be safely consumed, most parents wait around 3-4 years of age.
Sushi with cooked toppings such as boiled shrimp, unagi, and vegetables can be served to toddlers, but babies should skip it entirely.
Shirataki and Konnyaku/konjak
Shirataki noodles and konnyaku/konjac are products made of yam plants. As the texture is rubbery and difficult to chew, they should be avoided during the baby stage, even if cut into manageable pieces.
Seasoned Nori, Tsukudani, and Tsukemono
Seasoned nori, tsukudani, and tsukemono are common rice accompaniments in Japan. However, due to the high sodium content, they should be avoided completely. Unseasoned nori is fine, although it can stick to the roof of the mouth so it should be given with caution. In the early stages, you could serve shredded nori mixed into rice porridge or cooked rice for easy consumption.
I hope this gave you an insight into what Japanese baby food is like. Although I only touched upon one aspect of Japanese baby food, babies here are exposed to lots of non-Japanese foods as well, such as bread, pasta, oatmeal, cheese, and more!
Again, I am not a nutritionist or an expert on baby food, if you do wish to feed your baby Japanese food, please consult your doctor/pediatrician. Ultimately, you as the parent know what’s best for your baby!
In part 2, I will address some of the questions asked by readers that Nami asked on her Instagram a while ago. If you also have questions, please post in the comment box below!