The Baby Food Myth

{Hameeda and Greta, summer 2011}

This week, I bought Greta baby food, the kind in a tube, for not quite the first time, but almost. I spend a good deal of time making her breakfasts, lunches and dinners, making sure every meal is loaded with color and nutrients, flavor and texture. But with my new book due in just days,  I knew I needed a few moments of certainty that she'd get her veggies and iron, with or without my constant tending to this tiny detail.

Between my knowledge and training in food and nutrition, and a strong mother's instinct, I feel confident about what we feed Greta. But early on when we were just beginning solids and I felt the intense pressure to do everything exactly right (start solids not too early, not too late, feed her not too little, nor too much). I was constantly checking myself, reading every article I could get my hands on about childhood nutrition. I even tackled the 700-something-page tome, the American Academy of Pediatric's Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, though, I'm still struggling with the chemistry speak.

In these early feeding days, I found one of the best resources, no slight to Greta's pediatrician, or to my own dad -- father of four and family doctor of 35 plus years -- was other mothers.

One day, when our next door neighbors Hameeda and Fahmeeda were cooing at Greta, then about six months old, I asked their mother what she fed her kids at Greta's age.  She is the mother of four vibrant kids who grow taller and more luminous every day. She responded as I suspected she would--she fed them the same foods the rest of the family ate, mashed into tiny pieces. Her family hails from Bangledesh, a part of the world, like most outside of North American and Europe, where the term baby food barely exists. Where spices and flavors don't wait for adult palates, they are introduced from the first days of solids.

I got into a similar discussion with a bunch of foodie mamas on Facebook not long after, led by my friend Tara Desmond, which led me to this article on debunking baby food myths on MSMBC, confirming this exact phenomenon. It says:

As research increasingly suggests a child's first experiences with food shape later eating habits, doctors say battling obesity and improving the American diet may mean debunking the myths and broadening babies' palates.
It's easier — and harder — than it sounds. Easier because experts say 6-month-olds can eat many of the same things their parents do. Harder because it's tough to find detailed guidance for nervous parents.
Detailed guidance may be all around you, in the hands of mothers and grandmothers from all over the world, elders who fed their own children natural, homegrown (or at least locally grown) foods, cooked from scratch.

Making your own baby food, or rather, food for baby, can sound intimidating, laborious and wrought with equipment and waste. I promise you, same tools you use to make your meals, plus an immersion blender or mini food processor for pureeing (for babes 5 to 8 months, and older ones still waiting for teeth) and a good set of BPA-free containers and you'll be in business.

I remember the first time my friend Angie came to visit with her little guy, Leo, not long after Greta was born. Midway through our play date, she whipped out a Tupperware with a heady, brown puree which he gratefully gobbled up.

"Beef bourguignon," Angie said frankly. Of course.

And with that I knew that anything, well, save the raw fish and runny yolks and nuts and other early eater no-nos (talk to your pediatrician about these) could be baby food, or food fit for a baby, as the case may be.

Among the many things we feed Greta regularly are pureed vegetable soups and stews, pasta (whole wheat or plain, in every shape and texture), cooked a little extra. Vegetable maki rolls. Rice and beans. Veggie tempura. Lasagna. Eggplant parmesan (a total winner). Roasted mushrooms. Scrambled eggs. Hard boiled eggs. Soft boiled eggs. Cheese soufflé. Chunks of mango and fresh berries and homemade applesauce. Broccoli. Kale. Whole grain breads. Beets with ricotta. Barley, farro and risotto. At first everything was pureed (5 to 10 months), and then smashed (10 to 14 months), and then cut into bite-sized bits (15 months and beyond). We get the occasional yucky tongue (she does not do the texture of quinoa), but for the most part, she'll try almost anything. Even recently, mussels.

Hameeda and Greta play together many nights of the week, and on these foods Greta's grown so big I bet she'll catch up with Hameeda in no time. Well, not quite. But she's certainly thriving.

When time is at a premium and convenience trumps cost, there are nutritiounally sound and even some delicious (yes, I've tried them--I try everything before it goes into Greta's mouth) blends of commercial organic baby foods. And when I need them (for traveling, for example), I prefer the ones in a tube to those in a jar. To me, they just taste more fresh. Among those, I generally opt for less is more--mango and spinach, peas and pears, rather than uber blends that don't teach young palates how to learn to love each fruit or vegetable on their own.

But If you're just starting to feed your little one, or even if you're already a year into it as we are, I urge you to make these convenience foods the exception, not the norm. Don't deprive your babe of the smells and sounds like that go with growing up in a home of homemade cooking, experiences and habits that get ingrained in their lives from day one. Don't let them miss out clanging their pots and pan lids together on the floor, while you clang at yours on the stove. There are tastes, textures, and a whole culture and conversation about food that is missed out on when tiny hands don't have the opportunity to roll raw ingredients between their hands, to wonder at the colors on your cutting board, to taste and smell them all for themselves.

Feeding Greta right takes considerable and constant care. I'm not pretending it's always a breeze. But I'm more proud of how much love I put into that than almost anything I've ever done in my life. She is strong, resilient, a very curious and healthful eater. And we have so much fun together in the kitchen. I hope that's a feeling and experience that every parent can know for themselves. Sure, there will be cheddar bunnies and days that you lean a little heavy on help from Yo-baby. We all do. But make mealtime something special and you'll be giving your baby a lifetime of good habits and memories that will serve them well, for the long haul.

Mamas, new and old, I'd love to hear from you. What have you learned and loved about feeding your babes, and what advice can you share for other parents whose littles are just embarking on the wonderful world of food?


Unknown said...

I absolutely love this! I love making food for out daughter, Annie (14 months), and it isn't always as hard as people may think. Although, there are times it is challenging and I do get help from the tubes too, tee hee. Thank you for sharing!

misterrios said...

It's funny to think about my sister making her own baby food for her daughter, when she hardly cooks herself. Of course it was mostly plain veggies and plain fruit, but she had the technique down.

Hope I can also master pureeing and mashing, but of course, with my favorite foods...

Lola said...

Lovely post! You should make a cookbook for baby food. :)

Sara Jennings said...

such a great post! my lil babe and I shared a smoothie this morning: carrot juice, plain greek yogurt, kale, ground flax seed, frozen mango and cucumber. we both loved it. I need to get more daring with him at dinnertime though - thanks for the inspiration!

Sarah Copeland said...

I'm so glad you all came to read and share what you love about feeding your babes. I hope Annie grows up big and strong (I'm sure she'd be a great playmate for Greta!).

Misterrios, I think that's so often the case that mothers and fathers become way more interested in cooking once they start feeding their babes! It's a great time for a little food makeover for everyone!

Lola, one day, I'd like to! :)

Sara, I can only imagine how delicious it is growing up in your house. And those beautiful babies are such a testament to how every minute of the love and work we put into feeding them is worth it! Thanks for stopping in!

debbie koenig said...

I just found you via Tara D--LOVE this post! FWIW, my cookbook for new parents came out earlier this year (Parents Need to Eat Too) and it's all about this. Recipes for grownup food, and each ends with instructions for transforming it into baby food. Cook once, feed everyone. It's amazing how complicated we make child-raising in this country--this idea that we can get everything *right* if we just drive ourselves crazy over every single detail...

momskitchenhandbook said...

Delicious photo. Great post. I'm linking to my FB page for all those new mommies.

Sarah Copeland said...

Debbie and Katie, please forgive my late replies! Debbie, I am so glad you came to read, and thrilled that you love the post. I know and adore your new book. What an important topic and a smart way to get new parents thinking about all of these things. I'm SO glad you included recipes for transforming grown up food into kiddo food. I've started taking photos of meals I make for us (my husband and I) and the plated Greta-sized version of it to share with friends who really feel stuck by what to feed their babies. Showing it visually makes it so clear--wow, they really can eat what we do!

So glad you stopped in and I hope do again!

Katie, thank you for posting for your mommy friends and followers. You are really leading the way for us newbies. :)

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Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.