Fennel

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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Poop Friendly:Whether a food has qualities that help baby poop. Yes
Common Allergen: No
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a whole fennel plant ready to be prepared for babies starting solids

When can babies have fennel?

Fennel, including the bulb, fronds, flowers, and seeds, may be introduced as soon as baby is ready to start solids, which is generally around 6 months of age. Never serve homemade fennel puree before 6 months of age, as fennel can contain high levels of nitrates. Furthermore, take care when making fennel puree at home as nitrates can increase with improper handling and storage.1 Fennel served as finger food after 6 months of age does not pose the same risk.

Warning

Fennel, like beets, carrots, celery, green beans, spinach, and squash, can contain high levels of nitrates from agricultural fertilizers, even when grown organically. When consumed, nitrates are converted to harmful nitrites, which, in excess, can result in acquired methemoglobinemia—a condition where oxygen is unable to reach bodily tissues.2 3 Infants younger than 6 months of age are most at risk.4

To reduce the risk of illness, refrain from serving homemade fennel puree to babies younger than 6 months of age, wash the vegetable well before preparing, and serve immediately. Do not store fennel puree. Nitrates can increase with improper handling as well as improper storage.5

Lastly, while fennel tea, fennel water (including gripe water), and fennel essential oils are popular remedies for infant colic, it is important to always speak with your child’s healthcare provider prior to using any of these remedies, as they can be unsafe for babies if used improperly.6

Where does fennel come from?

Today, fennel thrives in sandy fields, on riverbanks, and by roadsides in sunny areas around the world, but the plant originated in the fertile lands around the Mediterranean Sea. This perennial herb has a long history in the region, where ancient Egyptians and Romans cultivated fennel for food, medicine, and ceremonial purposes. Fennel was also important in ancient Chinese, Hindu, and Persian cultures of Asia, where most fennel is produced as food today. Fennel is a key ingredient throughout the diverse cuisines of the continent. The bulb-like stem, stalks, and fronds (those lacy leaves) are eaten cooked or raw, while the flowers and seeds are ground up to season braises, sauces, stews, and spice blends like dukkah, five-spice powder, garam masala, panch phoron, and za’atar.

Río, 8 months, explores fennel.
Sebastián, 11 months, eats pasta with fennel.
Cooper, 14 months, eats fennel cooked into a dish.

Is fennel healthy for babies?

Yes, in moderation, after 6 months of age. While fennel as a finger food is perfectly healthy, homemade fennel puree can contain high levels of nitrates, which can negatively impact the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the tissues.7 8 Infants younger than 6 months of age are at greatest risk.9

Nitrates aside, fennel bulb has a good amount of fiber to aid with digestive function and offers small amounts of vitamin B6 for nervous system and hormonal function. There is plenty of potassium for muscle and heart health, vitamin C to support skin and the immune system, and vitamin K to help build strong bones. Finally, fennel boasts hundreds of phytonutrients – plant compounds with benefits ranging from antifungal and antioxidant properties to digestive benefits and memory-enhancement.10 11 12 Fennel leaves (fronds) and stems are also a good source of unsaturated fatty acids, including plant-based omega-3 fats, which are important for brain development.13 14

Can baby have homemade fennel purees?

Yes, in moderation, after 6 months of age, and only if served immediately. Fennel can contain high levels of nitrates and nitrates can increase with improper handling and storage.15 16 17 Never serve homemade fennel puree before 6 months of age and refrain from storing any homemade baby food prepared with fennel.

Can children have fennel tea?

Yes, after the child’s first birthday and served on occasion, lukewarm, and with no or minimal added sweeteners.18 Do not give tea or beverages other than breast (human) milk or formula to babies under 12 months of age to ensure necessary nutrition from breast (human) milk or formula isn’t displaced by other drinks.

Can fennel extract or gripe water help relieve colic in babies?

Yes. Some preliminary research has shown that, when used appropriately, gripe water (which often contains fennel) and fennel extracts (when diluted with water) may help relieve symptoms of infant colic.19 20 21 That said, causes of colic can be complicated, so talk to your pediatric healthcare provider before offering any treatments to baby.

When can children have sugar-coated fennel seeds (mukhwas)?

Because mukhwas are firm in texture and difficult to chew, we recommend waiting to introduce them until a child is at least 2 years old and has mature chewing skills. Sugar-coated fennel seeds are often used in a variety of mukhwas, a common after-meal treat in South Asian cultures, to freshen the breath and aid digestion. While small in size, fennel mukhwas are a choking hazard and require skilled chewing, so introduce to toddlers with caution. Since they are typically consumed in small amounts, the small amounts of added sugar are fine on occasion for a toddler or young child.

Can fennel help babies poop?

Yes. The fennel bulb has a fair amount of fiber which, in combination with a balanced and varied diet, can help support overall digestive health and bowel regularity. Some research also supports the traditional use of fennel seeds as a digestive aid to relieve abdominal gas and pain.22 23 Note that pooping patterns can vary significantly from child to child. Be sure to talk to your pediatric healthcare provider if you have concerns about baby’s pooping and digestive function.

Is fennel a common choking hazard for babies?

Yes. The fennel bulb’s firm, smooth texture when raw makes it a potential choking hazard. To reduce the risk, cook fennel until soft and serve only the large outer layers of the bulb. Fennel seed may be left whole, but if the size or consistency concerns you, simply crush and grind the seeds before seasoning food. 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 sections on gagging and choking and familiarize yourself with the list of common choking hazards.

Is fennel a common allergen?

No. Allergies to fennel are rare but have been reported. Ingestion, inhalation, and topical exposure to fennel have been associated with allergic reactions in certain individuals.24 25 26 Individuals with Oral Allergy Syndrome (also known as pollen food allergy syndrome), particularly those who are allergic to birch or mugwort pollen, sensitive to foods within the Apiaceae family (such as carrot and celery), or sensitive to peaches, may also be sensitive to fennel.27 28 29 30 Oral Allergy Syndrome typically results in short-lived itching, tingling, or burning in the mouth and is unlikely to result in a dangerous reaction. Cooking fennel can help minimize the reaction.31 32

As you would when introducing any new food, start by offering a small quantity of fennel for the first few servings. If there is no adverse reaction, gradually increase the quantity over future meals.

How do you introduce fennel to babies with baby-led weaning?

an infographic that reads how to cut fennel for babies and shows strips of cooked fennel for 6 months and up, small pieces of cooked fennel for 9 mos and up and raw for 12 mos and up

6 to 9 months old: Cut the outer layers of large fennel bulbs into large wedges and cook until soft for baby to grab, hold, and munch. Alternatively, use a small amount of fennel seed (saunf) to season a soft, scoopable food, such as dal, kitchari, or your favorite grain porridge. You can use the fennel leaves (called fronds) in the same way: simply finely chop the fronds and mix them into mashed beets, potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, and any recipe that calls for fresh dill. To minimize the choking risk, do not serve raw fennel bulb or coated fennel seeds (mukhwahs) at this age. Fennel tea is also best reserved until after the first birthday. If you would like to serve homemade fennel puree to baby, make sure to use immediately and discard any leftovers, as storing the puree can allow unsafe levels of nitrates to build up in the food.

9 to 12 months old: Around this age, babies develop their pincer grasp (where the thumb and forefinger meet), which enables them to pick up smaller pieces of food. When you see signs of this development, try offering small, bite-sized pieces of cooked fennel (about the size of a large adult knuckle) or grated raw fennel. Cook with fennel seed as desired. Continue to avoid mukhwahs at this age, as they are a choking hazard, as well as fennel tea, which is best reserved until after the first birthday.

12 to 24 months old: Offer fennel bulb in ways that encourage biting and tearing practice: you can move back up in size by offering either large wedges or thin slices of cooked fennel bulb, as well as thin slices of raw fennel. Once a toddler understands directions and you feel comfortable with the child’s eating skills, closer to the second birthday, you can try offering raw fennel that has been cut into sticks and model how to take bites.

What nutrients do vegan and vegetarian babies need most? Read our Best & Worst Plant-Based Foods for Babies to learn more.

What are recipe ideas for cooking with fennel?

Fennel tastes like anise and citrus, adding zing to seafood dishes like bouillabaisse, cioppino, cod cakes, and seared scallops. As fennel cooks, its bold flavor softens and sweetens, a beautiful compliment to meats like stewed chicken, porchetta, and rabbit and fava bean stew. Fennel can also hold its own as a hearty vegetable main or side when it is braised, grilled, stewed, or eaten raw. The bulb has a texture like celery, but offers tons more flavor. Try using raw fennel to add bright flavor to classic deli-style chicken salad or waldorf salad. Fennel fronds taste delicious in these dishes, too. You can also use the foliage to add zing to chimichurri, chutney, pesto, salsa verde, or your favorite green sauce.

Recipe: Braised Fennel Wedges with Butter and Citrus

a saucepan with a bit of sauce in the bottom and seven fennel wedges floating in the sauce, with four pieces of fennel wedge next to the saucepan ready for baby

Yield: 3 c (720 ml)
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Age: 6 months+

Ingredients

  • 3 fennel bulbs
  • 4 tbsp (56 g) butter
  • 1 orange
  • 1 tsp (2 g) dried thyme (optional)
  • ½ tsp (1 g) fennel seeds (optional)
  • ½ tsp (1 g) black peppercorns (optional)
  • 1 lemon
  • salt to taste for adults and older children (optional: 12 months+)

Modifications:

  • Olive oil is a delicious substitute for butter if you prefer to keep the dish dairy-free.
  • Omit the thyme or swap it for other woody herbs like rosemary or sage.
  • Fennel seeds can also be omitted, though they add the taste of anise to the bulbs, whose flavor mellows after cooking.

This recipe contains a common allergen: dairy (butter). Only serve to a child after this allergen has been safely introduced.

Directions

Prepare the Fennel Bulbs

  1. Wash and dry the fennel, then trim the root end and leafy stalks from the bulbs.
  2. Halve the bulbs lengthwise (from root to stalk) then halve again to create large wedges.
  3. Pick some fennel fronds (the lacy leaves) from the stalks and set them aside to garnish the finished dish. Discard the rest of the trimmings, or reserve for another use, like pickles or stock.

Brown the Fennel Bulbs

  1. Melt the butter in a large skillet set on medium heat.
  2. When the butter finishes foaming, lay the fennel bulb wedges in the pan with a cut side facing down.
  3. Let the fennel bulbs cook without flipping or stirring until the bottoms begin to brown, about 5 minutes.
  4. Turn the bulbs so that the other cut side faces down. Continue to cook until that side browns, about 3 minutes more.

Braise the Fennel Bulbs

  1. Pour in 2 c (480 ml) of water and increase the heat to medium-high.
  2. While the water is warming, slice 3 large strips of peel from the orange. Try to cut along the outer layer so that there is minimal white pith on the strips. Place the orange peels in the skillet with the fennel and water.
  3. Lightly crush the dried thyme, fennel seeds, and black peppercorns with a spice grinder, mortar and pestle, or the side of your knife. Add the spices to the skillet.
  4. Bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately lower the heat to create a gentle simmer.
  5. Flip the fennel so that the outer layer is facing down and let the vegetable cook uncovered in the braise until it is tender, about 12 minutes. If the water evaporates before the fennel is finished, add more water to the skillet.

Serve the Fennel Bulbs

  1. Transfer the cooked fennel to a serving plate. Drizzle with juice from half of the lemon.
  2. Peel off the large outer layer of some of the fennel wedges and set them aside for baby. Serving size varies. Let a child decide how much to eat.
  3. Season fennel bulbs for adults and older children with salt to taste. Keep the food warm while baby’s fennel wedges cool to room temperature.
  4. Offer the fennel wedges to baby and let the child self-feed. If baby needs help, pass a fennel wedge in the air for the child to grab from you.

To Store: Braised Fennel Wedges with Butter and Citrus keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3 days or in the freezer for 2 months.

Flavor Pairings

Fennel pairs well with barley, fava bean, khorasan wheat, pork, pasta, and rabbit.

Reviewed by

J. Truppi, MS, CNS. Certified Nutrition Specialist®

V. Kalami, MNSP, RD, CSP. Board-Certified Pediatric Dietitian and Nutritionist

K. Tatiana Maldonado, MS, CCC-SLP, CBIS, CLEC. Pediatric Feeding Therapist

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

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

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

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