Tempeh may be introduced as soon as baby is ready to start solids, which is generally around 6 months of age. Like tofu, tempeh is made of soybean, a common allergen, and some ready-to-eat brands can contain other common allergens such as sesame and wheat as well, so read labels closely before serving to babies.
Tempeh is a dense cake of dried legumes that have been cooked and mixed with a starter fungus to bind them into a solid mass as the mixture ferments. Historians believe the culinary technique originated long ago on Java, where today the staple food is most often made of hulled soybeans. It can also be made from other plants, including the pulp of coconuts or peanuts after they are pressed for their oil. Some believe tempeh made of these ingredients preceded the use of soybeans, which may have been introduced to Java and its neighboring islands during trade with merchants from Central Asia.
Eunoia, 8 months, eats strips of tempeh.
Cooper, 11 months, eats tempeh for the first time.
Isar, 18 months, eats pasta with a tempeh-Bolognese sauce.
Yes. Tempeh is an excellent food for babies and toddlers that offers a comparable amount of protein as beef at a fraction of the price. It also offers lots of omega 3 fatty acids from alpha-linolenic acid, which helps develop healthy brains and eyes. For growing children, tempeh offers B-vitamins including folate to fuel cell growth, plenty of plant-based iron to support the brain, and calcium to develop the brain and bones. To help baby’s body absorb the plant-based iron, pair tempeh with foods that are rich in vitamin C, like red bell pepper, broccoli, and citrus.
In addition to its beneficial nutrients, tempeh has a hidden superpower: it is fermented. Within fermented foods are probiotic microorganisms that build a healthy gut and digestive system, and soybeans also provide prebiotic fibers that play a symbiotic role with probiotics. The gut is a baby’s powerhouse, and fermented foods like tempeh help the gut bolster baby’s immune system, nervous system, endocrine system, and so much more.
When shopping for tempeh, read the label closely as some brands of tempeh include common allergens like sesame and wheat, so be sure to separately introduce these allergens before offering all together safely. Choose plain tempeh with minimal ingredients and no added sodium or sugar, which you want to limit in a child’s diet.
Wondering if you need to buy organic tempeh? Rest assured that tempeh made from either organic or non-organic soybeans delivers plenty of nutrients to nourish a growing baby. The key is to understand the labels: to be labeled “organic” in the United States, a food must not be genetically modified, among other requirements. More than 90% of soybeans grown in the United States have been genetically modified to withstand pesticides. Studies show that genetically modified foods and pesticides appear to contribute to impaired liver and kidney function in animal testing and negatively impact farming land. You can minimize exposure to pesticides used on soybean farms by serving tempeh as part of a balanced diet with lots of different fruits, vegetables, and whole foods. Occasionally swapping non-organic tempeh for other protein-rich plant foods like beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds also helps.
★Tip: Tempeh can be made from barley, corn, oat, seeds, and other legumes like chickpeas and lentils. Nutritional content varies depending on the ingredients, but generally these tempeh variations are nutritious foods to serve to young children. Be sure to read the label to understand which ingredients are in the tempeh before purchasing and serving.
Yes. The firm texture of tempeh can pose a choking hazard for babies and toddlers who are still learning how to bite, chew, and move food around in the mouth. To minimize the risk, cook tempeh to soften the texture, then cut it into age-appropriate sizes. As always, make sure to create a safe eating environment and stay within arm’s reach of baby at mealtime. For more information on choking, visit our sections on gagging and choking and familiarize yourself with the list of common choking hazards.
Yes. Like tofu, tempeh is often made of soybean, a common allergen, and some brands include other common allergens like sesame and wheat. To complicate matters, recipes and prepared foods with tempeh often include common allergens, such as egg, fish, peanut, and sesame.
When introducing tempeh to baby, start with plain, pasteurized tempeh at home, where you can isolate the ingredient and watch for any adverse reactions. While soy is one of the most common food allergens, there is good news: less than 1% of children are allergic to it, and almost 70% of children outgrow their allergy by age 10. Although a significant percentage of children with soy allergies may also be sensitized to peanut on testing, this does not always translate into a peanut allergy. If your baby has experienced a reaction to soy, they will not necessarily be allergic to peanut, but you may wish to introduce it under the supervision of an allergist. There is no need to remove peanut from the diet if it is already being eaten without any reaction.
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.
Yes as long as it has undergone pasteurization, a process intended to kill off any potentially harmful bacteria. Most store-bought tempeh has been pasteurized, and the food label often says so. Unpasteurized tempeh and tempeh made from scratch at home may be more susceptible to bacteria. Because babies are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of pathogens, homemade tempeh should be cooked before serving to babies and toddlers.
No. Tempeh semangit (overripe tempeh) is best reserved for adults and older children. Overripe tempeh is a popular ingredient in cooking, adding pungent flavor to dishes and lots of nutrition thanks to additional fermentation time. That said, it would be wise to avoid serving it to young children because of the higher risk of foodborne illness.
★Tip: How do you know if tempeh has spoiled? Smell it. If there is a sour note, toss it. An open package of tempeh keeps in the fridge for 3 days.
The fermentation of tempeh helps moderate anti-nutrients, which are plant compounds such as lectins, oxalates, and phytates that are naturally present in soybeans and other legumes. Many of these plant compounds break down during the cooking process and are mostly harmless in healthy people when consumed as part of a balanced diet. They can even offer health benefits, such as antioxidant and anti-cancer properties.
Tempeh and other soy products also contain phytoestrogens, which are plant compounds that mimic estrogen in the human body. More research is needed to determine the impact of phytoestrogens, however, studies have found that they can offer beneficial properties. For example, phytoestrogens in soy may decrease the risk of breast cancer and promote bone health. That said, there is no perfect food, and consuming a balanced diet with a wide variety of whole foods is key to one’s health.
With its firm, sponge-like texture, tempeh is a versatile vehicle for introducing new tastes. Look for inspiration in the cooking of the Indonesian islands, where tempeh is eaten at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Cooks like to marinate tempeh in savory or sweet sauces and fry it with spices and aromatics. Tempeh is also braised in flavorful stocks and hearty liquids like coconut milk, a key ingredient for making the vegetable stew known as sayur lodeh.
Every baby develops on their own timeline, and the suggestions on how to cut or prepare particular foods are generalizations for a broad audience.
Cut tempeh into strips the size of two adult fingers pressed together, then cook the strips until they have softened. From there, serve the strips as finger food, flavor them with butter or oil, and serve alongside vitamin C-rich foods like bell pepper, broccoli, or citrus to help baby’s body absorb the plant-based iron in tempeh. Keep in mind that even steamed tempeh can be quite resistive, which means baby may not swallow much of the food, but munching on and holding the strips is valuable oral motor skill practice. If baby succeeds in biting off a large piece of tempeh, take a deep breath and give the child the opportunity to chew it or move the food forward independently. Coaching baby to spit out too-big pieces of food by sticking out your own tongue can be helpful, too.
At this age, 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 of this development, try serving bite-sized pieces or crumbles of cooked tempeh for baby to practice picking up. Start experimenting with tempeh in your cooking for the whole family and use tempeh in place of ground meat in recipes, or try braising tempeh in flavorful stocks or hearty liquids like coconut milk.
Time to spice it up! Explore the world of curries, stir-fries, salads, and stews that flavor tempeh with spicy, sweet, or savory flavors. Babies can enjoy flavorful and spiced 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. Try offering bite-sized pieces or crumbles of cooked tempeh to encourage utensil practice, and if the child needs help, preload the utensil and pass it in the air for the child to grab from you.
Learn which nutrients are most important for vegetarian and vegan babies in our guide, Best & Worst Plant-Based Foods for Babies.
1 ½ cups (225 grams)
This recipe contains common allergens: coconut (coconut milk), soy (tempeh) and peanut (peanut butter). Only serve to a child after these allergens have been safely introduced.
Whisk the coconut milk, water, and smooth peanut butter until smooth with no clumps. Set aside.
Wash and dry the tempeh. Cut the tempeh into strips the size of two adult fingers pressed together.
Wash, dry, and cut the bell pepper into age-appropriate sizes, discarding any seeds, pith, or stem.
Warm the oil in a skillet set on medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add the tempeh and bell pepper and stir to coat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pepper starts to soften, about 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium and pour in the coconut and peanut sauce. Stir to coat.
Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tempeh and pepper have softened, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, uncover the skillet, and stir in the lime juice. Cool the mixture to room temperature before serving to babies and toddlers.
Scoop some tempeh and veggies into the child’s bowl. Exact serving size is variable. Let a child’s appetite determine how much is eaten.
Serve the tempeh and veggies as finger food. If help is needed, preload a utensil or coach the child to use trainer chopsticks.
To Store: Tempeh and veggies in coconut and peanut sauce keeps in an air-tight container in the fridge for 3 days.
Tempeh has a nutty flavor and a meaty texture that easily absorbs flavors, so try marinating tempeh with seasonings like coconut milk, galangal, ginger, guava, lemongrass, lime, miso, tamarind, or turmeric before baking or frying in peanut oil or sesame oil. Balance tempeh’s earthy flavor by pairing it with fruits and veggies like asparagus, bell pepper, broccoli, carrot, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, mango, snap peas, or snow peas, or play up its umami by serving alongside mushroom, roasted tomato, or soy sauce. Season tempeh dishes chive, cilantro, mint, seaweed, or your favorite spice for an extra layer of flavor.
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)
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