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.
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?