When can babies eat prickly pear?
Prickly pear (cactus fruit), if strained and its seeds removed, may be introduced as soon as baby is ready to start solids, which is generally around 6 months of age. Wait to serve prickly pear juice or prickly pear candy until at least 12 months of age and ideally after the second birthday. Looking for the cactus paddles? See nopales.
Where do prickly pears come from?
Prickly pear is the colorful fruit of a sprawling family of cactus that originated in the Americas. The fruit has been harvested by the Nahuan people as food and medicine for thousands of years before colonizers arrived in Central America and took the seeds to Europe, where the cactus plant now thrives in places like the sunbaked slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. Today, prickly pear cactus thrives worldwide wherever the weather is hot and arid, and there are hundreds of varieties to try, with seedy fruits that range in color from crimson to fiery orange to sunny yellow to lime green to deep purple. The fruits taste sweet with a soft crunch like a cucumber when eaten fresh out of hand, and they are often pressed for their refreshing juice – a sweet treat called agua fresca or agua de tuna. In Spanish, prickly pear are often called tuna and the edible paddles are known as nopales, a loanword from the Nahuatl language.
Is prickly pear healthy for babies?
Yes. Prickly pear contains fiber, vitamin B6, and plenty of antioxidants to support heart health and the immune system.
While the seeds of the prickly pear fruit are edible, they can be challenging to separate from the fruit flesh. For this reason, prickly pear is often commercially strained and made into juice, candy, and jellies. Avoid serving juice, candy and processed foods with added sugar to babies under 12 months of age, and ideally, closer to the second birthday. Regular consumption of sweet beverages can reduce the diversity of foods a child is interested in and increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and dental caries.1
Is prickly pear a common choking hazard for babies?
Yes. Prickly pear flesh is slippery and can be firm, two qualities that can increase the risk. Prickly pear fruit also contains copious amounts of hard, though edible seeds which could be aspirated into the lungs. To reduce the risk, peel and mash the fruit, then strain out the seeds, which are edible but too firm, small, and difficult for babies to spit out, which can pose an aspiration risk. As always, make sure to create a safe eating environment and stay within arm’s reach of baby at mealtime.
Is prickly pear a common allergen?
No. Allergies to prickly pear are rare, although allergy to cactus fruit has been reported.2
Prickly pears are often prepared for sale by removing their spines, but if you find the fruit with the spines still intact, be aware that contact with the spines is commonly associated with the development of a rash.3 Even purchased fruit may have hair-like spines on its skin that are difficult to see. To minimize the risk, wash and scrub the fruit with a brush under water, then peel the skin before serving.
As you would when introducing any new food, start by offering a small amount of prickly pear for the first few servings. If there is no adverse reaction, gradually increase the amount served over future meals.
How do you prepare prickly pear for babies with baby-led weaning?
Every baby develops on their own timeline. The preparation suggestions below are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional, one-on-one advice from your pediatric medical or health professional, nutritionist or dietitian, or expert in pediatric feeding and eating. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or seen here.
6 to 24 months old: For babies and toddlers who are still learning how to eat, it is best to mash the fruit and strain the juicy flesh from the seeds, which can be aspirated into the lungs. Wash and scrub the fruit with a brush under water, then peel the skin, mash the fruit, and discard the seeds. From there, use the juice as a sweet-tart marinade for cooked vegetables like carrot, chayote, jicama, nopales, or proteins like chicken, pork, salmon, or tofu. You can also stir some of the juice into mashed vegetables, porridge, or shredded meat. Or try drizzling some juice on top of pancakes, or serve alongside meatballs, bean patties, or cooked fruit or vegetable spears as a dip. Refrain from offering the juice on its own as a drink or processed prickly pear products like jam, jelly, paste, or syrup, which are too sugary for babies.
24 months old and up: Time for the next step! When you feel confident in the child’s biting and tearing skills, and the child understands instructions, try offering a whole peeled prickly pear and model how to bite into the juicy flesh and spit out the seeds by eating a fruit alongside the child. Be sure to stay within an arm’s reach in case help is needed. If you feel the child is not ready for fruit with seeds, continue to offer foods flavored with prickly pear that has been mashed and deseeded. At this age, you can also experiment with prickly pear by serving dishes that you can enjoy alongside the child, such as prickly pear salsa, prickly pear salad, or smoothies with prickly pear juice.
★ How can you help children form a healthy relationship with sugar? Read more here.
Recipe: Prickly Pear Banana Sauce
Yield: 2/3 cup (250 grams)
Cooking Time: 5 minutes
Age: 6 months+
- 1 prickly pear
- 2 bananas
- 1 teaspoon (5 grams) lime juice
- Wash and dry the fruits.
- Peel the prickly pear. One easy way to do this: make a shallow cut lengthwise on one side of the fruit then use your fingers to pull away the skin.
- Mash the flesh, then strain it to separate the seeds from the juice. Discard the seeds.
- Peel and mash the bananas.
- Stir the mashed prickly pear, mashed bananas, and lime juice until mostly smooth. A little texture is okay as long as all of the prickly pear seeds have been removed.
- Set aside some of the sauce for the child. Exact serving size is variable. Let a child’s appetite determine how much is eaten. Store the rest of the mixture in an air-tight container in the fridge or freezer for future meals.
- Serve the sauce as finger food and let the child self-feed by scooping with hands. You can also use the sauce as a topping for pancakes or yogurt, or stir the sauce into soft, scoopable foods like quinoa or porridge.
To Store: Prickly pear banana sauce keeps in an air-tight container in the fridge for 3 days or in the freezer for 2 months.
Prickly pear can be tangy or sweet depending on which variety you have on hand. Try making fruit salad by mixing prickly pear with bananas, kiwi, papaya, pear, pineapple, strawberry, or tomato. Or go savory with a prickly pear salsa of onion, lime, and tomato. You can also use prickly pear juice to marinate and lightly pickle vegetables like carrot, chayote, jicama, nopales, or proteins like chicken, pork, salmon, or tofu.
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
- Fidler Mis, N., Braegger, C., Bronsky, J., Campoy, C., Domellöf, M., et al. (2017). Sugar in Infants, Children and Adolescents: A Position Paper of the European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition Committee on Nutrition. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition, 65(6), 681–696. DOI:10.1097/MPG.0000000000001733. Retrieved July 13, 2021.
- García-Menaya, J. M., Cordobés-Durán, C., Bobadilla, P., Ledesma, A., & Pérez-Rangel, I. (2009). Hypersensitivity systemic reaction to cactus fruit (Opuntia ficus-indica). Allergy, 64(11), 1689–1690. doi:10.1111/j.1398-9995.2009.02109.x. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
- Magro, C., & Lipner, S. (2020). Sabra dermatitis: Combined features of delayed hypersensitivity and foreign body reaction to implanted glochidia. Dermatology Online Journal, 26(4). Retrieved August 13, 2021.