What do Babies Eat in Italy?

gricia pasta with pecorino cheese

Before I had a baby, I was a bit curious about what babies ate in Italy. They all seemed to be digging into local foods at an early age. Then, Giacomo was born and our real lessons in Italian baby meals got started.

From the doctor’s orders to common practices, here is what to expect when dining with a baby in Italy.

First Foods for Babies in Italy

The idea of what babies should eat as their first food is a bit scientific, a bit cultural, and a lot personal. It is one of the parenting decisions we researched for a long time and then had a long conversation with our Italian pediatrician.

In fact, G’s doctor printed out a recipe for me to make his first baby food and repeated everything to me very, very slowly, I suppose he did that in order to be confident that this straniera he was talking to was actually understanding everything he was saying.

Baby food in Italy is a big deal. Yes, there are jars of horsemeat for babies – but most families make baby food themselves, and have been doing this forever.

jars of horse meat baby food in italian supermarket

In fact, the only place you can really buy baby food is at a pharmacy and you should not expect every pharmacy to have pre-made and packaged foods in stock. There is simply not enough demand. Some supermarkets do stock a limited selection of jarred food as well, but formula babies under 12 months is always the domain of pharmacies.

Also, side note: baby cereal/food in Italy is NOT fortified. The belief is that no added vitamins and minerals are needed if the baby is eating a balanced diet. The only fortified product is baby formula.

So what do babies eat as their first food in Italy?

I was told to boil vegetables (carrots, zucchini and potatoes), then to use the vegetable broth to cook baby cereal (either rice or semolina). I was then told by the pediatrician to puree one of the vegetables (alternating which vegetable the baby would try every day) and mix 20 grams into the cereal. Then, I was told to steam meat, and puree this, adding 20 grams into the dish. Finally, I was instructed to add a swirl of olive oil, a small spoon a Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a teeny dash of salt.

So, babies in Italy eat well. This dish of starch, vegetable, meat, cheese, and olive oil is usually referred to as “pappa” which can mean pap/mush/baby food. So when it is time to eat and the cranky baby is letting you know, you say “è ora della pappa.”

I was told that the baby could start having pappa after he first tried grated pear at four months old (!). All of my neighbors would check on me to make sure that the baby was getting pappa, and as he got older, I was instructed to start varying the flavors – adding tomato, and sometimes substituting legumes or fish for the meat.

As I said, pappa is something that is made at home – so it is not the kind of food that you should expect restaurants to have on call for baby customers.

What to Order For Babies at Restaurants in Italy

Most restaurants in Italy are thrilled to have younger guests. Unless you are at a serious fine dining establishment, most waiters tend to encourage a little bit of noise and try to get big smiles out of baby diners. If you are making a reservation, it is best to give the restaurant a heads up that you are booking the table for X numbers of adults and X number of babies. They will likely try to give you a table with more space or plan an area where you can ditch your stroller.

If you need a high chair, it is called a seggiolone, and most restaurants have one of these, too. However, keeping the baby safe inside is going to be the parent’s duty. Italian high chairs in restaurants rarely come with safety buckles or restraints, and some look truly vintage, with leg holes large enough for a toddler to fall through. I almost always have to keep a hand on Giacomo, juuuuust in case. You can also keep the baby on your lap or in their stroller if there is space. Diners very rarely bring their own travel highchairs and while you are totally welcome to try, expect a few funny looks.

There is no such thing as a kid’s menu in Italy, and there are not really items that are specially made for babies at restaurants either. Our baby moved on to eating table food around 10 months (with lots of exceptions), so we usually try to order at least one dish that is appropriate for him to eat given that he has only seven teeth. This often includes something like lasagna that has a balance of carbs (pasta), protein (meat and cheese), and saltiness without added salt (Parmigiano).

You can also ask if there are any seasonal vegetables available which can be steamed. It is unlikely anything will be blended up but we sometimes order a vellutata (creamy -literally “velvety” – vegetable soup).

Even if there is nothing on the menu that is baby friendly, I promise you that every restaurant is willing to make pasta in bianco. This is literally plain pasta, and they will bring grated cheese and olive oil on the side to allow you to dress it for your baby’s tastes. The pasta can be cut up or you can order the smallest shape of pasta they have. Just be prepared to pay full price – you’ll be charged at the same rate as their cheapest pasta dish, even though there is nothing on it! Ask for a mezza porzione, or half plate, if possible.

When all else fails, bring snacks. No one is going to tell you that you can’t feed your baby outside food. Babies are babies and they will eat when and what they want.

Did Your Baby Really Eat All That?

True to my California roots, after researching and talking to doctors and other parents, I decided that the first food my baby ever ate would be avocado. He loved it.

His second food was pappa, and he still (at 12 months old) often eats baby pasta with parmigiano and a vegetable on the side. However, we don’t mush everything up anymore – he usually eats a simple version of whatever we are having ourselves – and we try to encourage him to feed himself.

Taste preferences are set pretty early in life based on what we are exposed to as young children. We try to vary his diet and include as many safe flavors and textures as possible – but it is already pretty clear to me that he has a preference for “Italian” flavors like Parmigiano and tomato sauce.

If you want to read more about tastes and baby foods, I highly recommend the book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. (FYI – That’s an affiliate link, which means I can earn a small commission at no cost to you if you decide to buy it. It is a book I really own and really do recommend).

What did your baby eat in Italy? Did anything surprise you about the different dining habits with children?

21 thoughts on “What do Babies Eat in Italy?

  1. Elena says:

    I was surprised about… salt. In Romania, the current trend is to start the diversification at six months old and salt and sugar are strictly forbidden, at least until 1 or 2 years old.

    • Natalie says:

      This is totally true! We don’t add any salt to his meals, especially because of the cheese that is sometimes in what he eats

  2. Toni Hilton says:

    My daughter was born here in Piemonte, 21 years ago. And though, I did feed her exactly as you suggest (most of our own meals, unseasoned, and passed through a food mill) it was not the the norm then. At least not here. Prefabricated baby foods were for sale, also in supermarkets and it was considered “il modo moderno” in baby nutrition. When I took her home-made “pappa” to family dinners, I was looked at as a bit odd. (L’Americana strikes again…) She teethed on a rind of Parmigiano. Perhaps that was a period of post post war child raising mentality, because today, I do see young friends feeding their bambini as we did.

  3. Barbi says:

    To cater for Tourists, a lot of the supermarkets around Campo dei Fiori and Navona stock the premade food as well. I remember how shocked I was about the horsemeat when trying to buy food for Lotti. Therefore I decided to buy a steamer blender from avent. Just buy all the nice fresh ingredients, including meat, poultry or fish, chop them up a bit let them steam and blend to you taste. I took some off for me before blending and Lotti had her pappa. It was great. She loved it. I loved it. Today I’m still using it to make soup. Apart from that she went crazy for lemons and olives. And strawberry ice cream ?

  4. Pamela Shonna Ferro says:

    Hi Barbi, horsemeat really? When I was in Verona, I noticed that there was horsemeat was a hot item on most restaurant’s menus. Wow! No thanks.

    • Natalie says:

      It is also pretty common still in some of the villages outside of Rome! I have tried it. I don’t like the idea of it, but the taste isn’t bad

    • Anna says:

      Well, horsemeat is Verona’s typical dish actually. But jars of horse meat and rabbit meat are common all over Italy. I wouldn’t give it to my baby, but to each their own!

  5. Lisa DeNunzio says:

    A very useful and entertaining article if you are traveling with children in Italy. We have friends in Rome and to this day, their 10 year old son still only order and eats ‘pasta bianco’

  6. Fiona sutherland says:

    I remember my son at 8y.o being asked to chose between a big mac & a tripe sandwich for his merenda…..went for the tripe…..

    • Natalie says:

      He knows some baby sign language but he doesn’t speak yet, except for “mama.” He definitely will speak Italian as a mother tongue

  7. Cleona Wallace says:

    Have you ever tried a totseat? We used it a lot with both ours when faced with huge dangerous style seggioloni (https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B002BZHDBQ/ref=oh_aui_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&psc=1). I was a total rebel and never gave ours pappa…I remember the ladies at the nido thinking I was brutal for giving Oscar cannellini and beetroot puree! But it hasn’t worked and Oscar has pretty standard Italian child tastes… pasta pasta and more pasta…

  8. Heather Martin says:

    We are bringing our 20mo to Rome in April. I’m a foodie, and babe is a good little restaurant goer, but I am very intimidated by the fact that it looks like reservations are recommended everywhere. I’m just not confident that we can be on time, and can plan ahead eith a toddler. If we do our main meal at lunch time are reservations still a must?

    • Natalie says:

      Hi! Having a reservation in Rome is always a good idea. The table will be held for you for the entire meal – they very likely won’t be trying to double book. SO, I would say make a slightly later reservation (like 1:30 for lunch even if you want to eat at 1 pm). Your table will be waiting for you if you come a bit early!

  9. Shari says:

    Hi Natalie – you may be interested in reading my incredibly talented friend’s book – From Weaning to Lasagna – Maria Francesca Jaboli. Lei è fastastica!

  10. Coco says:

    Hello Natalie.
    Thank you for your sharing. I heard that Mellin is an old and traditional brand for baby food in Italy. And the baby cheese and FREEZE-DRIED MELLIN BEEF LIO are popular there. Is it true? Have you given your baby Mellin products?
    Thank you.

  11. Brianna says:

    I just moved to Rome from the US with my 4month old baby boy! This article was so helpful. Are there any baby stores here? Is is possible to get US formula? How’d you go about finding a pediatrician?

    • Natalie says:

      Are you looking for a public pediatrician or private? It usually depends on your area. ASL can tell you which doctors have spaces available (and most people ask around in facebook or whatsapp groups for the neighborhood to find the best ones). If you are looking for a private, English-speaking Italian pediatrician, feel free to email me! I just got back from a four-month visit with my daughter. belliesabroad.com is also an amazing resource.

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