Cheese

Food Type:
Age Suggestion: 6 months +
Nutrition Rating:How nutritious a food is with a focus on the specific nutrients babies need for optimal growth. The more nutritious a food, the more stars it will have.
Prep Time:How much time a food takes to prepare safely for a baby. The more time-consuming a food is to prepare safely, the more clocks it will have.
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Common Allergen: Yes (
  • Dairy
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May cause allergic reactions.

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three wedges of different kinds of cheese on a white background

When can babies eat cheese?

It depends on the cheese. Cheeses that are pasteurized (not raw) and low in sodium may be introduced as soon as baby is ready to start solids, which is usually around 6 months of age. Cheeses that tend to be pasteurized and low in sodium include emmental cheese, goat cheese, labneh, mascarpone, fresh mozzarella, paneer, ricotta, and swiss cheese. Cheeses with moderate sodium levels may be introduced sparingly and occasionally starting around 9 months, and higher sodium cheeses should be offered in moderation after 12 months.

>> Just starting solids? See our guides on starting solids as well as our online courses on starting solids and preventing picky eating.

Warning

There are many cheeses that are safe and healthy for babies as soon as they start solids, but some cheeses should only be served to toddlers and older children, either due to high sodium levels or because of an increased risk of foodborne illness from certain methods of preparation. There is no age at which it is considered without risk to offer raw/unpasteurized cheeses to babies and children. When choosing a cheese to offer to baby, search for it here on our free First Foods® database to learn when a particular cheese can be served.

Where does cheese come from?

Cheese can be made from any type of milk. This ancient food has its origins in the area around the Mediterranean Sea, where cheese was made with milk from domesticated cows, goats, and sheep in the 7th century B.C. Further east in Asia, cheese was traditionally made with milk from other animals, like water buffalo and yak. Flavor and texture varies depending on the source of the milk, the type of bacteria used to ferment the cheese, and the preparation method. For example, soft-ripened cheeses like brie are earthier than cheeses like havarti or swiss cheese, whose milder flavor comes from different strands of bacteria and shorter aging periods. The type of pasture or feed the animal eats also affects their milk, leading to cheeses that are specific to one region or even one town.

Kaia, 7 months, tastes fresh mozzarella cheese.
Amelia, 8 months, eats a strip of toast with mascarpone cheese.
Malden, 12 months, eats matchsticks of cheddar cheese.

Is cheese healthy for babies?

Yes, when the cheese is pasteurized, not too high in sodium, and consumed in moderation. Most whole milk cheeses contain plenty of amino acids that our bodies need to build proteins and healthy fats that support cell integrity and build brain tissues. Cheese also delivers many of the nutrients essential for early development like vitamin A for brain, eye, immune, and skin health; vitamin B12 for brain and nervous system development; selenium to support hormones; and zinc for growth and immune function. Calcium levels vary by type, but in general, cheese can be a great source of this bone-building mineral.

While cheese is nutrient-rich, keep in mind that most kinds also contain added sodium, sometimes in excess of a baby’s daily needs.1 2 When serving cheese, opt for types that are low in sodium, such as emmental cheese, goat cheese, labneh, mascarpone, fresh mozzarella, paneer, ricotta, and swiss cheese. As for other pasteurized cheeses that are high in sodium, wait to serve regularly until a baby is closer to 12 months old and offer in moderation.

When shopping for cheese for babies, look for the following:

  • Pasteurized
  • Low sodium (less than 100 mg per serving)
  • Made from whole milk (ideally)

How much cheese can babies and toddlers eat?

Dairy from solid foods can be served a couple of times a day. A serving might look like a few ounces of yogurt, 1 slice of a low-sodium cheese, or cow’s milk that is cooked into a dish (but not offered as a drink). Avoid cow’s milk as a drink until at least 12 months of age. For most babies younger than 12 months of age, the majority of their calcium needs will be met by breast/human milk or formula. At this age, baby is still developing the skills to eat solid foods, so don’t worry about specific serving sizes and amounts consumed.

At 12 months of age, a toddler’s calcium needs increase and many toddlers are weaned off of breast/human milk or formula. At this age, it’s suggested that children have 2-2.5 servings of dairy foods daily. A serving of dairy can look like 1 cup (240 milliliters) of whole milk or an appropriate fortified milk substitute, 1-1.5 ounces (28 to 42 grams) of a low-sodium cheese, or about 6-8 ounces (90 to 120 milliliters) of yogurt.

On occasion, a toddler could eat all of one day’s dairy servings in the form of cheese, but remember that the goal is to have a generally varied diet over time. Toddlers often love dairy, so aim to be mindful of how much dairy the child is consuming in a typical day. Dairy (including cheese) is an excellent source of calcium, but too much of it can displace other nutritious foods and increase the risk of iron-deficiency anemia.3 Remember that children can also get their daily calcium from breast/human milk and formula, certain fish, leafy greens, tofu, nuts, seeds, and more.4 5 6

Do babies need organic cheese?

No. Cheese made from both organic and non-organic cow’s milk delivers plenty of nutrients to nourish a growing baby, especially when served as part of a balanced diet. While not necessary, organic dairy products do have some specific benefits. Dairy products made with milk from organic farms and pasture-raised cows are shown to be higher in omega-3 fats and other nutrients compared with dairy from cows raised on grain.7 Depending on where and how dairy-producing animals are raised, non-organic dairy products may contain more pesticide residues.8 9 That said, organic dairy often has the disadvantage of being more expensive and, in some areas, harder to access. As ever, balance and diversity in the diet are key, so don’t worry if organic food is impracticable – non-organic cheese and dairy products are still a nutritious option for growing children.

When can children have unpasteurized/raw cheese?

It’s a personal decision for which you must calculate risk. While unpasteurized/raw cheeses are consumed by children in many parts of the world, eating raw/unpasteurized cheese carries a significantly increased risk of foodborne illness, to which babies, young children, children with sickle cell disease, and immunocompromised individuals are more susceptible.10 11 12 Several national and international organizations, including the U.S. American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food & Drug Administration, International Association for Food Protection, and the World Health Organization, strongly advocate for only consuming pasteurized milk and milk products. Some hard, aged raw cheeses like appenzeller, asiago, parmesan, and romano pose a lower risk when it comes to foodborne illness.13 14

If you do choose to offer raw cheese to a child, consider the risk in the context of your culture and keep the following in mind: 1) Semi-soft cheeses like edam, fontina, gouda, monterey jack, or provolone, when made with raw milk, pose a higher risk of bacterial contamination.15 2) Smear- or mold-ripened unpasteurized cheeses, including brie, goat cheese, camembert, queso fresco, roquefort, and some others, present an extremely high risk for Listeria contamination (and still carry some risk even when pasteurized).16 17

Can you cook unpasteurized/raw cheese to make it safe for babies?

Not necessarily. Theoretically, heating unpasteurized cheese can kill harmful bacteria and reduce the risk of foodborne illness, but there is not enough evidence for how long to cook various cheeses to ensure their safety. In addition, cooking unpasteurized cheese for too short a time or at too low a temperature could actually encourage the growth of bacteria, rather than kill it off.18

Which cheeses are highest (and lowest) in sodium?

Aged cheeses, like asiago, parmesan, and pecorino, tend to be the highest in sodium as well as cheeses prepared in a brine such as cotija, feta, and halloumi. The lowest sodium cheeses tend to be fresh, mild cheeses, such as fresh mozzarella, labneh, mascarpone, paneer, and ricotta, among others.

Can babies have vegan cheese?

Yes. Read the label carefully and try to choose products that are low in sodium and preservatives. Nutrition varies significantly in vegan cheeses, depending on additives, flavorings, and whether they are nut-, oil-, pea- and/or soy-based. Unfortunately, in general, vegan cheeses do not contain the nutrients common in dairy cheese that are important for early childhood growth, such as protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12, calcium, and other minerals.

A note for vegetarian families: Rennet, an ingredient in many cheeses used to help curdle the milk, can be derived from plants or animals. A quick glance at the ingredients list will typically tell you which form was used.

Is cheese a common choking hazard for babies?

Yes. Cheese is a common choking hazard for babies and children.19 To reduce the risk, slice cheeses thinly or grate and avoid serving cheese in cubes. Alternatively, focus on soft, spreadable cheeses until baby has developed coordinated biting and chewing. As always, make sure you create a safe eating environment and stay within an arm’s reach of baby during meals. For more information on choking, visit our section on gagging and choking and familiarize yourself with the list of common choking hazards.

Is cheese a common allergen?

Yes. Cheese is often made from cow’s milk, which is a common food allergen in young children, accounting for about one-fifth of all childhood food allergies.20 Keep in mind that dairy products from other ruminants such as sheep, goat, and buffalo may provoke similar allergic reactions to cow’s milk dairy products.21 If baby is allergic to dairy, know that it is an allergy that often disappears with time. Research shows that the majority of children with cow’s milk allergy will outgrow it by age 6, and many babies with milder symptoms of milk protein allergy (which can show up as painless blood in stool) are able to successfully reintroduce cow’s milk as early as their first birthday, with the guidance of their doctors.22 Note: Aged cheeses generally contain histamines, which may cause rashes in children who are sensitive to them.23 24

Milk is a common cause of food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome, also known as FPIES. FPIES is a delayed allergy to food protein which causes the sudden onset of repetitive vomiting and diarrhea to begin a few hours after ingestion. Left untreated, the reaction can result in significant dehydration. Thankfully, like other forms of milk allergy, FPIES which presents early in life is generally outgrown by the child has reached 3-5 years of age.25

For those with older children who are lactose intolerant (keep in mind this is uncommon for infants and toddlers), some good news: compared with milk and certain other dairy products, many cheeses may be better tolerated by those with lactose intolerance, particularly aged cheeses, which have lower lactose content.26 Note that if your child is lactose-intolerant, it’s important to find calcium-rich foods to consume regularly to ensure a balanced diet and support bone health. Search for naturally low-lactose cheeses and dairy products labeled “lactose-free.”

If you suspect baby may be allergic to milk, consult an allergist before introducing dairy products like cheese. Based on baby’s risk factors and history, your allergist may recommend allergy testing, or may instead advise dairy introduction under medical supervision in the office. If the risk is low, you may be advised to go ahead and introduce dairy in the home setting. As with all common allergens, start by serving a scant quantity on its own for the first few servings, and if there is no adverse reaction, gradually increase the quantity over future servings.

How can cheese affect baby's poop?

In general, cheese is relatively high in fat and low in fiber, qualities that slow the processes of digestion and pooping. Significant consumption of cheese and milk can be a contributing factor in constipation.

How do you prepare cheese for babies with baby-led weaning?

an infographic with the header "how to cut cheese for babies": a ruler thin slice of cheese for 6 months+, grated for 9 months+, small cubes for 24 months+

6 months+: Offer cheeses that are pasteurized and low in sodium such as goat cheese, mascarpone, fresh mozzarella, ricotta, labneh, paneer, or swiss cheese. For semi-firm cheeses, slicing into thin pieces (as opposed to cubes) will reduce the choking risk while still making it easy for babies to self-feed. If you’re eating a high-sodium cheese like cheddar or feta, it’s okay to share a small bite with baby, but in general, focus on cheeses containing less than 100 milligrams of sodium per serving when you can. Do not offer raw cheese of any kind or pasteurized cheeses that are mold- or smear-ripened, such as brie or camembert. Shredded cheese can be melted into a variety of foods, but sprinkle sparingly, as large globs of melted cheese are not safe for a baby to try to chew.

9 months+: Continue to offer cheeses that are pasteurized and low in sodium. For semi-firm cheeses, grate, or slice into thin pieces to reduce the choking risk. At this age, it’s okay to offer cheeses here and there with moderate amounts of sodium, but when possible, continue focusing on cheeses that contain less than 100 milligrams of sodium per serving. At this age, it’s okay to serve small amounts of certain pasteurized cheeses that are mold- or smear-ripened, including brie. To make these cheeses safer, consider heating them to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius). Continue to avoid unpasteurized cheese of any kind. Shredded cheese can be melted into a variety of foods, but sprinkle sparingly, as large globs of melted cheese are not safe for a baby to try to chew.

12 months+: Offer soft cheeses, melted or thinly sliced semi-firm cheeses, or melted, crumbled, or grated hard cheeses in a variety of ways: on bread, eggs, vegetables or folded into grain or bean dishes. Make sure the child is in a safe eating environment and never serve cheese on-the-go in a stroller, in a car seat, or when your toddler is running around. Continue to avoid cubes of cheese, as well as raw/unpasteurized cheeses.

a hand holding a ruler thin slice of cheese for babies 6 months +
A ruler-thin slice of cheese for babies 6 months+

Check out our 75 Lunches for Babies & Toddlers for easy, nutritious recipes to add to your week.

What are ideas for incorporating more cheese into a child’s diet?

There are plenty of ways to serve pasteurized cheeses to babies and toddlers. Stir mascarpone cheese into oatmeal or your warm cereal of choice. Use soft, scoopable cheese to introduce tart flavor, such as cranberry sauce with fresh ricotta cheese. Try whipped goat cheese with cauliflower florets for dipping or a mozzarella and tomato caprese salad. Older babies and toddlers may enjoy grilled havarti sandwiches with apple butter, or twice-baked potatoes with monterey jack cheese. Some cheeses are even easy to make at home from scratch, like cottage cheese or mozzarella.

Recipe: Low-Sodium Mac and Cheese for Babies

a square white bowl filled with penne pasta covered in cheese sauce for babies starting solids

Yield: 3 cups (720 milliliters)
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Age: 6 months+

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons (42 grams) unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons (16 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ cups (360 milliliters) whole milk
  • 6 ounces (168 grams) swiss cheese
  • ¾ cup (180 milliliters) mascarpone cheese
  • ½ teaspoon (1 gram) garlic powder (optional)
  • ½ teaspoon (1 gram) ground pepper (optional)
  • 8 ounces (224 grams) penne pasta

This recipe contains common allergens: egg (some pastas), dairy (butter, cheese, milk) and wheat (flour, pasta). Only serve to a child after these allergens have been safely introduced. Always check for potential allergens in ingredients listed on the labels of store-bought processed foods, such as pasta.

Directions

  1. Fill a large pot with water. Set the pot on medium-high heat and cover.
  2. While the water is warming, make the pasta sauce. Start by placing the butter in a separate pot that is large enough to hold both the pasta sauce and the cooked pasta. Set the pot on medium heat. When the butter finishes foaming, whisk in the flour until smooth, then whisk in the milk. Cook the mixture, stirring occasionally, until it thickens, about 5 minutes.
  3. While the sauce is thickening, grate the swiss cheese–a great low-sodium choice for babies. When making this recipe to share with toddlers and older children, feel free to experiment with different semi-firm cheeses like cheddar, colby, fontina, gouda, gruyere, havarti, or monterey jack. You can swap in any of these cheeses or use a mixture of several kinds.
  4. Mix the grated cheese and mascarpone cheese into the sauce. Stir until the grated cheese has melted.
  5. Stir in the spices if you like. You can omit the spices or use your family’s preferred seasonings.
  6. Decrease the heat to keep the pot of pasta sauce warm while you cook the pasta.
  7. Increase the heat to high to bring the pot of water to a rolling boil. Do not salt the water when making this recipe to share with babies.
  8. Prepare the pasta. This recipe calls for penne pasta, a larger pasta shape that is easier for even young babies to pick up and self-feed. Add the pasta to the boiling water. Cook until the pasta is soft, between 8 and 10 minutes.
  9. Use a sieve or slotted spoon to scoop the pasta from the boiling water into the pot with the pasta sauce. Don’t worry if some of the pasta water makes its way into the pasta sauce. It helps keep the mixture moist.
  10. Stir to coat the pasta in the sauce, then scoop some mac and cheese into baby’s bowl. Exact serving size varies. Let the child decide how much to eat. Let baby’s serving cool until it is warm, but not hot.
  11. Serve the pasta to and let the child try to self-feed. If you’d like to encourage baby to use utensils, pre-load a fork and place it next to the food for the child to pick up. Alternatively, pass a pre-loaded utensil in the air for the child to grab. Eat your portion alongside baby to model how it’s done!

To Store: Mac and Cheese keeps in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3 days.

Flavor Pairings

The flavors of cheese vary widely, but generally, it pairs well with ingredients like apple, broccoli, cauliflower, chicken, egg, and lentils.

Reviewed by

J. Truppi, MSN, CNS. Nutritionist.

V. Kalami, MNSP, RD, CSP. Pediatric Dietitian & Nutritionist.

K. Grenawitzke, OTD, OTR/L, SCFES, IBCLC, CNT. Pediatric Feeding Therapist.

S. Bajowala, MD, FAAAAI. Board-Certified Allergist & Immunologist (allergy section)

R. Ruiz, MD, FAAP. Board-Certified General Pediatrician & Pediatric Gastroenterologist

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