Bitter melon may be introduced as soon as baby is ready to start solids, which is generally around 6 months of age. Take care to remove the seeds before serving, as they can increase the risk of choking.
Avoid bitter melon juice, tea, seeds, and extracts, as they may cause gastrointestinal upset, favism, and in rare cases, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Bitter melon is also not considered safe for pregnant women.
Bitter melon is the oblong fruit of a vigorous vine that originated in Africa and spread to the world’s tropical regions, including South Asia and the Pacific Islands, where it has many names: goya, karela, khổ qua, and peria, to name a few. There are many varieties – some with blunt ends and warty skin like a frog, others with pointy ends and jagged skin like an alligator. While its leaves are edible, the plant is commonly cultivated for its fruit, which are harvested when they are unripe for its distinctively medicinal bitter taste. Crunchy and watery in texture like its cousins, chayote and cucumber, bitter melon can be eaten raw, and the fruit’s jade- or cream-colored flesh is often peeled, deseeded, and cooked or preserved to balance its astringency.
★Tip: Bitter melon’s skin color indicates its stage of ripeness and intensity of flavor. Green bitter melons are unripe with a more bitter flavor than ripe ones, which turn orange or yellow as the fruit matures. Size can also affect taste: smaller bitter melons tend to be less bitter.
Amelia, 7 months, tastes cooked and deseeded bitter melon for the first time
Callie, 12 mos, eats bite size pieces of cooked bitter melon
Leila, 14 months, eats a dish of pork, rice and bitter melon
Yes. The skin and flesh of bitter melon are packed with essential nutrients to fuel baby’s growth and development, including fiber, vitamin C, folate, iron, potassium, and zinc. The pulpy flesh around the seeds also contains lycopene, a beneficial plant compound with antioxidant powers in the body. Plus, the fruit is loaded with lutein and zeaxanthin, two nutrients that support eye health.
As the name implies, bitter melon has a distinctly bitter flavor, which is believed to be an indicator of its medicinal properties. The fruit’s medicinal qualities are potentially vast: bitter melon has been studied for many purposes, including its anti-diabetic, anti-cancer, anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, anti-obesity, anti-bacterial, and immune-supportive qualities.
Avoid bitter melon juice, seeds, tea, and extracts as these foods have been associated with negative health outcomes, including gastrointestinal problems, favism, and rare cases of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Yes. Bitter melon is a choking hazard if it is not deseeded, cut, and cooked in a way that is safe for babies and toddlers to consume. To minimize the risk, cut bitter melon into age-appropriate sizes, remove the seeds, and cook the fruit until it is completely soft. As always, make sure to create a safe eating environment and stay within arm’s reach of baby at mealtime.
No. Allergies to bitter melon are rare, and research is limited. However, individuals with allergies to other foods within the Cucurbitaceae family (such as cucumber, melons, and zucchini) may be sensitive to bitter melon. Individuals with Oral Allergy Syndrome (also known as pollen food allergy syndrome), particularly those who are allergic to ragweed pollen, may also be sensitive to foods within the Cucurbitaceae family. Oral Allergy Syndrome typically results in short-lived itching, tingling, or burning in the mouth and is unlikely to result in a dangerous reaction. Peeling and cooking the bitter melon can decrease the risk of developing oral allergy symptoms.
As you would do when introducing any new food, start by offering a small amount for the first couple of servings. If there is no adverse reaction, gradually increase the amount served over future meals.
Every baby develops on their own timeline, and the suggestions on how to cut or prepare particular foods are generalizations for a broad audience.
Halve bitter melon lengthwise, scoop out and discard the seeds, and either keep the halves whole, or cut the halves crosswise to create half-moon shapes that are the width of two adult fingers pressed together. Alternatively, you can cut whole bitter melon crosswise to create thick rounds, then scoop out and discard the seeds. Either way, cook the deseeded bitter melon until soft (the exposure to heat mellows the bitter flavor), then serve the fruit shapes on their own as finger food. If you like, you can balance the astringency by serving cooked bitter melon alongside creamy foods like avocado, coconut, or yogurt; sweet fruits and vegetables like carrot, mango, plantain, or sweet potato; or umami-packed foods like mushrooms or pork. No matter how you serve it, the bitter flavor is strong, so don’t be surprised if it takes many tries for baby to accept bitter melon. If it would make you more comfortable, mash cooked bitter melon to serve in a bowl for hand-scooping or on a pre-loaded spoon for utensil practice.
At this stage, babies develop the pincer grasp (where the thumb and forefinger meet), which enables them to pick up smaller pieces of food. When you see signs that this development is happening, try serving bite-sized pieces of cooked bitter melon with the seeds removed. You can also continue to offer larger pieces of bitter melon or mashed bitter melon for hand-scooping – just be sure to remove the seeds to reduce the choking hazard.
Time to spice it up! Explore the world of curries, stir-fries, salads, and stews that balance the fruit’s bitterness with spicy, sweet, or savory flavors. Babies can enjoy flavorful food just as adults do, though it would be wise to ease them into fiery flavor from chile peppers and other hot spices. This is also an excellent age for baby to practice with trainer chopsticks and forks, so keep offering bite-sized pieces of cooked and deseeded bitter melon to encourage utensil practice.
★ Worried about sodium? Read up on how much baby can have on our Sodium page.
1 ½ cups (175 grams)
1 bitter melon
¼ pound (115 grams) ground pork
¼ teaspoon (1 gram) ground black pepper (optional)
2 garlic cloves
2 dried shiitake mushrooms (optional)
3 cups (720 milliliters) water
Wash and dry the bitter melon. Halve the bitter melon lengthwise, then scoop out and discard the seeds.
Cut the bitter melon flesh into your preferred size. You can either keep the halves whole, or cut the halves crosswise to create half-moon shapes that are the width of two adult fingers pressed together. You pick!
Mix the ground pork with the spice if you are using it. Shape the pork into meatballs about 2 inches in diameter.
Bring the water to a boil. Add the bitter melon, meatballs, garlic, scallions, and mushrooms if you are using them.
Cover and cook until the bitter melon is soft and easily pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes.
Use a slotted spoon, sieve, or colander to lift some of the bitter melon and pork meatballs into the child’s bowl. Exact serving size is variable. Let a child’s appetite determine how much is eaten. Make sure to keep the garlic, scallions, and mushrooms in the broth and not in the child’s bowl to minimize the choking hazard.
Let the mixture cool to room temperature. Set aside the broth for yourself, or store in an air-tight container in the fridge or freezer for future meals. It makes a great stock for curries and stews!
Serve and let the child self-feed by scooping with hands. If help is needed, pass a piece of bitter melon or a meatball in the air for the child to grab from you.
To Store: Stewed bitter melon and pork meatballs keep in an air-tight container in the fridge for 3 days or in the freezer for 2 months.
The acerbic flavor of bitter melon pairs well with creamy foods like avocado, coconut, egg, sweet potato, or yogurt; rich fats from lamb, pork, or sesame seed; sweet fruits and vegetables like bell pepper, carrot, corn, garden pea, mango, or plantain; or umami-packed foods like anchovy, caramelized onion, roasted tomato, or shiitake mushroom. Add complimentary earthy flavor with foods like ground cashew or peanut, legumes like lentils or mung beans, or grains like rice or noodles. Bitter melon’s strong flavor can stand up to bold spices, so experiment with your favorite flavors. Coriander, cumin, chili pepper, and turmeric taste delicious!
J. Truppi, MSN, CNS
V. Kalami, MNSP, RD, CSP
K. Grenawitzke, OTD, OTR/L, SCFES, IBCLC, CNT
S. Bajowala, MD, FAAAAI. Board-Certified Allergist & Immunologist (allergy section)
R. Ruiz, MD, FAAP. Board-Certified General Pediatrician & Pediatric Gastroenterologist
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