When can babies eat nopales?
Nopales or nopalitos (the cactus pads of the prickly pear cactus) may be introduced as soon as baby is ready to start solids, which is generally around 6 months of age. Looking for the cactus fruit or tuna? See prickly pear.
Origin of nopales
The prickly pear or nopal cactus is native to Central America but now grows in many places with hot, dry summers. A vital part of Aztec culture, nopales (or nopalli in Nahuatl) have been used in both cooking and medicine. In modern Mexican cuisine, nopales are a staple, and once you get past their prickly exterior, are amazingly versatile. The youngest, tenderest pads of the cactus are delicious in salads and salsas. Nopales are also traditionally diced and pickled (nopales en escabeche), served whole as a base for cooked filling (huarache de nopal), and even cook up wonderfully whole on the grill.
★Tip: When shopping for nopales, look for those that feel firm in the hand, that are free of bruises, and still have a bright green color. If the spines of the cactus pad have not yet been removed, see if the grocer will do it for you. If not, you can remove them with a knife and thick gloves at home—just watch out not only for the bigger spikes, but also for the fine, hair-like spines on each pad.
Are nopales healthy for babies?
Yes, if cooked; however when introducing nopales, start with smaller quantities as some may experience side effects like headache, nausea, and loose stools.1
With the exception of its spines, all parts of the prickly pear cactus are edible if prepared in an age-appropriate way—from its green pads to its bright flowers of pink, yellow, or orange, to its clusters of jewel-like red fruits (which are also called prickly pears or tunas). Nopales are a source of pectin, a type of fiber known for its gelling effect when making jam. Fiber is important for digestion and microbiome health in growing babies. Vitamin B6, supportive of neurological development, is also present in nopales. Nopales are a rich source of plant phytochemicals including polyphenols, as well as other powerful antioxidants, offering a number of benefits such as supporting heart health and immune function.
★Tip: Nopales can become slimy once they’re cut into. This slime, or “baba” in Spanish, is thought to be part of how the cactus retains moisture in its desert habitat. There are methods of preparation that can reduce the slime, such as tossing the prepared raw nopalitos with a little salt and baking for about 20 minutes or grilling them in strips or whole.
Are nopales a common choking hazard for babies?
Yes, if served raw as they are difficult to chew. To minimize the risk, cook nopales until soft and cut in age-appropriate pieces. As always, make sure you create a safe eating environment and stay within an arm’s reach of baby during meals.
Are nopales a common allergen?
No. Allergies to prickly pear cactus are rare. Contact dermatitis from the spines or tufts of the nopales is common if they are not fully removed before handling.2 Look for a spineless variety or carefully examine nopales to be sure all spines are removed before offering nopales to babies—or anyone!
As you would when introducing any new food, start by offering a small quantity for the first few servings. If there is no adverse reaction, gradually increase the quantity over future meals.
How do you prepare nopales for babies with baby-led weaning?
Every baby develops on their own timeline, and the suggestions on how to cut or prepare particular foods are generalizations for a broad audience. Your child is an individual and may have needs or considerations beyond generally accepted practices. In determining the recommendations for size and shape of foods, we use the best available scientific information regarding gross, fine, and oral motor development to minimize choking risk. The preparation suggestions we offer are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for child-specific, one-on-one advice from your pediatric medical or health professional or provider. It is impossible to fully eliminate all risk of a baby or child choking on any liquid, puree, or food. We advise you to follow all safety protocols we suggest to create a safe eating environment and to make educated choices for your child regarding their specific needs. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or seen here.
6 to 9 months old: Cook de-spined nopales until soft and cut into strips about the size of two adult fingers held together. Offering the strips vertically in the air will help baby grab them and self-feed. Alternatively, you can offer the whole pad for baby to munch on or chop cooked nopales and fold into omelets or other dishes as you like.
9 to 18 months old: Around 9 to 12 months of age, baby develops their pincer grasp, where the thumb and forefinger meet. When that happens, you can start to offer bite-sized pieces of cooked and chopped nopales (in addition to strips for biting practice) or in lieu of strips altogether. One popular combination is scrambled eggs and chopped nopales.
18 to 24 months old: Continue to offer bite-size pieces of cooked nopales, either as a finger food or with a fork or utensil. If you’d like to introduce raw nopales, this is also a good time to do so and will give toddlers the opportunity practice chewing more resistive foods. At this age you can also go back up in size to nopales strips or whole pads (such as huaraches or grilled) for biting and tearing practice. Anything goes!
Recipe: Ensalada de Nopalitos (Prickly Pear Cactus Salad)
Yield: 1 ½ cups (125 grams)
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Age: 6 months+
- 1 fresh or frozen nopalito (prickly pear cactus pad)
- 1 lime
- 3 cups (750 milliliters) water
- 1 tablespoon (14 grams) olive oil
- 1 avocado (optional)
- 1 plum tomato (optional)
Note: Acidic foods like lime juice can sometimes cause a harmless rash around the mouth and on the skin the food touches. Applying a barrier cream, such as pure petroleum jelly, around the mouth can help protect the skin. If a rash does occur simply pat the affected area with a cool, wet washcloth and it should dissipate within 15 minutes or so.
- Wash the nopalito. Check that all thorns have been removed. If need be, use a sharp knife to shave off any lingering thorns.
- Cut the nopalito into 1-inch strips.
- Juice the lime.
- Bring the water and half of the lime juice to a boil in a sauce pan.
- Add the nopalito strips and cook, uncovered, until the cactus has released its sticky juice and softened but not turned to mush, about 10 minutes.
- Drain the nopalitos and rinse with cold water.
- Combine the nopalitos with the remaining lime juice and olive oil in a mixing bowl.
- If you like, gently stir in avocado and tomato that have been cut into age-appropriate sizes.
- Scoop some ensalada de nopalitos into the child’s bowl. Exact serving size is variable. Let a child’s appetite determine how much is eaten.
- Serve and let the child self-feed by scooping with hands. If you’d like to encourage the use of a utensil, simply pre-load an age-appropriate fork and rest it next to the food for the child to pick up. You can also pass the pre-loaded fork in the air for the child to grab from you.
To Store: Ensalada de nopalitos (prickly pear cactus salad) keeps in an air-tight container in the fridge for 1 week.
Nopales have a slightly sweet vegetal taste, with flavor similar to a green bean. They pair well with strong flavors like onion, garlic, jalapeno, cilantro, and chipotle, as well as tangy ingredients like cotija or feta and meats like pork, chicken, and chorizo.
E. Cerda, MSN, CNS, LDN
A. Gilbaugh, RD, CNSC
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
- Gouws CA et al. Effects of the Consumption of Prickly Pear Cacti (Opuntia spp.) and its Products on Blood Glucose Levels and Insulin: A Systematic Review. Medicina (Kaunas) 2019 May; 55(5): 138. Published online 2019 May 15. doi: 10.3390/medicina55050138
- Magro, C., & Lipner, S. (2020). Sabra dermatitis: Combined features of delayed hypersensitivity and foreign body reaction to implanted glochidia. Dermatology Online Journal, 26(4), 13030. Retrieved June 24, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32621682/