Feeding your baby his first spoonful of solid food is exciting -- he's growing up! Most babies are ready to start solids at 4 to 6 months. But until his first birthday, remember that your goal is to introduce your child to solids -- not to fill him up on them. (Breast milk or formula should be the primary source of nutrition for the first 12 months.) Expose him to a wide array of foods from all food groups (unless you know he has a certain allergy). The more flavors and textures he tries early on, the less likely he'll grow up to be a picky eater.

Before you start
Until your baby is 7 months, don't puree your own beets, turnips, carrots, spinach, or collard greens because they may have large amounts of nitrates, which can cause anemia in younger infants. (Commercial baby-food varieties are fine -- they're nitrate-free.) And if you use well water, get it tested for nitrates.

Until your child is 1, avoid honey -- it can contain spores that may produce life-threatening infant botulism.

Until your child is 4, avoid the following foods, which are choking hazards:

Nuts and seeds
Raw vegetables
Hard or sticky candy
Chewing gum
Whole grapes or cherries
Chunky peanut butter (use the smooth kind instead)
The first meal

When to start
While the American Academy of Pediatrics believes that some babies can start as early as 4 months, some doctors recommend waiting until they're at least 6 months old because:

* Your baby simply doesn't need solids before then. Breast milk and formula provide all the nutrition she requires.

* Starting earlier increases the risk of food allergies and obesity.

* By 6 months, your child will have lost her tongue-thrust reflex, which makes her push anything that isn't liquid out of her mouth.

It's sometimes okay to begin solids at 7 months -- some babies may not be developmentally ready until then -- but don't wait longer than that. This is the time when babies really begin to be interested in solids -- you may see your infant curiously eyeing your dinner or opening her mouth as if she'd like a bite. Take advantage of her eagerness to try new tastes.

How to start
Time her first meal so that she's hungry but not ravenous, or she'll be too fussy to try something new. One tactic: Let her nurse or have a bottle for a few minutes to take the edge off her appetite, and then serve solids. Afterward, she can top off the meal with the rest of her bottle or the breast. Feed her in a quiet place so she's not distracted.

What to feed her
Rice cereal is a popular first food. It's easy to digest and rarely triggers an allergic reaction. Make sure it's iron fortified, and...

* Prepare it very thin at first -- one teaspoon of cereal to four or five teaspoons of breast milk, formula, or water.

* Scoop a little bit onto a baby spoon, and put it between your baby's lips.

* If the cereal comes sliding back out, don't worry. Your baby needs to figure out how to swallow something that isn't liquid. It may take several tries before she gets the hang of it.

* If she refuses to open her mouth or begins to cry, try again the next day. If she still balks, wait a week before trying again.

Something to keep in mind: Some experts now believe that fruit and vegetables (either mashed, strained, or pureed) should be a baby's first food instead of cereal because exposing kids to healthy foods from the start can lay the foundation for healthy eating habits throughout life. So it's fine to try mashed bananas, mashed cooked pears, mashed sweet potatoes, pureed peas, or pureed green beans.

How much to feed her
The first few times you offer your baby something she's never eaten before, getting the taste of it on her little lips is good enough. If she likes it, aim for a teaspoon of food at each sitting and gradually give more as she accepts it. If she closes her mouth, turns away, or slaps at the spoon, it probably means she's full. Babies are born with the ability to self-regulate how much food they need, and will eat only that amount. For some meals -- or days -- she may not eat much; on others, she may be very hungry.

Adding to the menu
Introduce new foods one at a time, and wait at least three days in between. That way you won't overwhelm your baby, and if there's an allergic reaction, you'll be able to identify the culprit. (If a food provokes a reaction, such as a rash, vomiting, or diarrhea, shelve it for one to three months before bringing it out again. If your baby still doesn't tolerate it, keep it off the menu entirely until he's a year old. By then, he'll probably have outgrown the intolerance.)

When to feed him
Start by giving him solids once a day, working up to twice a day, and offering breast milk or formula in between. If he's showing hunger cues often during the day, you'll want to start offering an extra solid meal. But if he wants only a few tablespoons at the first sitting and doesn't seem interested in eating much more at the next feeding, don't force the issue. What you're doing is helping him make the transition from eating anytime, anyplace -- the way an infant does -- to something more akin to a toddler's three-meals-plus-snacks routine. But remember: A strict, nonnegotiable feeding schedule is unrealistic.

What to feed him
At 7 or 8 months:
Add pureed meat and poultry (which are a bit harder to digest than rice cereal and veggies) to your baby's diet. You can also add store-bought foods -- often labeled as "second stage" -- that are pureed but have more texture. Cooked carrots, broccoli, egg yolks, and sliced cheese that are cut into very small pieces (one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch to start with) are also good to try.
Between 9 and 12 months:

Phase in soft combination foods, such as macaroni and cheese, pasta with tomato sauce, and casseroles. You can also begin serving finger foods such as rice cake pieces, O-shaped cereals, baby crackers, and bite-sized cooked frozen vegetables.
After 12 months:

Your baby can eat the same things as the rest of the family -- just cut up foods to a manageable size. Try to eat together so he can learn that mealtime is a social event. Don't expect anything resembling table manners though! (If he gets hungry before your family's dinnertime, feed him earlier, then sit him down with some teething biscuits or crackers during your meal.)

How much to feed him
By his first birthday, a typical baby may eat (in one day):

4 to 8 tablespoons of fruit and veggies
4 servings of breads and cereals (a serving is one quarter of a slice of bread or 2 tablespoons of rice, potatoes, or pasta)
2 servings of meat or poultry (1 tablespoon each)
Don't worry if your child doesn't complete a perfect food pyramid each day. Instead, look for signs that he's healthy and thriving.

Offering solids is a gradual process. In the beginning, it's simply about introducing your child to a variety of new tastes and textures. Start with rice cereal or mashed, strained, or pureed fruits and veggies, and work your way up to cut-up table foods by his first birthday. And as much as possible, sit him down with the rest of the family for meals so he can enjoy his food in your company.