Recent trends in child nutrition and health have proven that breastfeeding is the best nutritional choice for newborns. But the culture of artificially feeding babies does not stop at the bottle.
Modern American marketing genius has caused most parents to think that there is some special magic in the little glass jars of baby food sold at the market. It's so ingrained it seems obvious: dogs eat dog food and babies eat baby food.
The truth is that prepackaged baby foods are expensive, nutritionally inferior, and only slightly more convenient than the do-it-your-self kind.
The Case Against Prepackaged "Baby Food"
Quality control: When a parent opens a vacuum sealed jar, he or she is trusting that the factory workers, management and various government inspectors have all done a good job of selecting fruits and vegetables suitable for her child's consumption.
Questionable nutritional value: At a glance, the contents of the baby food jar looks fine. No hazardous chemicals, colors or dyes. But on close inspection, there are some nutritional traps.
- Very often the second or third ingredient is cornstarch. While perfect for thickening the Thanksgiving gravy, cornstarch should not be a staple of any diet. Cornstarch is not only a processed white carbohydrate of little nutritional benefit; it also is rich in amylose, a starchy sugar. Some theorists see a link between American obesity and our reliance on corn products in pre-prepared foods.
- In addition, many jarred baby food fruits and desserts contain sugar, fruit juice concentrates or corn syrup. These should only be consumed in small amounts by most people, and should be totally avoided in infants.
Lastly, the closer to raw a food is, the higher the nutrient content. Raw foods are more nutritious than cooked, and fresh is more nutritious than jarred.
Bland taste: There's no doubt about it. Jarred baby food is not appetizing. Parents frequently complain about their older children's preference for bland, processed foods but we teach our children to like bland foods when we give them pre-packaged baby foods.
Teach Your Child to Eat
There's more to learning how to eat than just how to hold a spoon. The nutritional choices you make for your child now set the groundwork for the nutritional choices you child will make for the rest of her life. At this early stage of eating solids, calories count more than ever. Empty calories not only fail to give your growing baby valuable fuel, they also teach her to eat things that are bad for her.
For example, if you teach your child to end meals with pudding and cake, then you are unreasonable in expecting him or her to ever be someone who likes unsweetened, raw fruit for dessert.
It's true that most children will develop a liking for sugary foods and salty processed snacks. This does not mean that you yourself should teach them this. The longer you can hold off introducing these foods, the better your chances at instilling good eating habits that will make these foods treats, not staples.
Simple substitutions can make huge changes in your child's food preferences: wheat toast instead of crackers or cookies; water instead of sugary juices; fresh, unsweetened fruit instead of Jell-o®, candy or pie.
Benefits of Homemade Baby Food
Quality: You select the fruits, vegetables and meats your child eats. You ensure that they are clean, blemish-free and ripe.
Nutrition: There are no hidden preservatives, sweeteners or thickeners that add empty calories and excess sugars to your child's diet.
Taste: As your child becomes comfortable with eating solids, you can introduce more interesting and complex flavors than are available in jarred foods. Your child will more easily adapt to your family's eating style and be more likely to be an adventurous eater when he or she gets older.
Cost: It's much cheaper to make your own food than to buy pre-prepared. A single serving jar of green beans goes for about sixty cents. A batch of fresh green beans costs about $2 and generates more than ten servings.
Feeding Your Baby from Your Kitchen
Your pediatrician will provide guidelines for food introduction, including ways to protect against allergies and guard against choking. Many doctors advise beginning with a rice cereal and then slowly adding fruit and vegetable purees. Ask your doctor's recommendation for a brand of whole grain brown rice cereal for even better nutrition. Other suggest beginning with vegetables, fruits and meats.
Fruit purees are easy and quick to prepare. A banana can be mashed with a fork, and tastes so much better fresh than jarred -- which increases the chances that your child will grow up to like fresh banana in her cereal or her lunch box.
In addition to bananas, mangoes, papaya, and avocado may be mashed and eaten raw by themselves or in combinations. Fruits like apple, plum, pear, and berries (strawberries should be introduced later because of the risk of allergy) can be lightly steamed and then strained and mashed.
No special equipment is required for these early foods, although a hand ricer is cheap and indispensable.
For teething children, cut grained bread into interesting shapes with cookie-cutters. Bake until the bread is cracker-hard and then store in airtight container at room temperature. These make excellent snacks and are great for gnawing.
Once the baby is ready for so-called "Stage Two" foods, you can begin cooking meat and vegetable combinations and even start blending your own table foods for him to share in. The key, of course, is to keep the baby's food very low in sodium and to introduce other seasonings gradually.
Also, it's very convenient to make large batches of pureed foods, freeze them in ice cube trays, and then store the cubes in freezer bags for later use.
At one time during my daughter's infancy, we had six Ziploc bags in the freezer, filled with cubes broken down by vegetable, fruit and protein. "A cube of protein and one of vegetable for dinner," I would tell my sitter on my way to work, "and a cube of fruit for dessert."
The nutritional groundwork we lay in our babies will dictate the relationship they have with food for the rest of their lives. Homemade baby food is a cheap, easy way of helping our children stay healthy for a lifetime.