In the Kitchen with Baby

by Cynthia Lair

A Guide to Making the World's Most Nutritious, Fun Food For Your Child

baby feeding himselfAs parents, we are given an opportunity to revisit what it means to nourish. Babies and young children wait expectantly for their parents to feed them. The choice of what goes into an infant's mouth is up to us, at least while our children are small. Most of us want to feed our children the best food possible, but often the line between nutrition education and advertising is thin.

Americans fork over $1.25 billion every year buying commercially prepared baby food. Many parents take their cues about when to start their babies on solid foods from baby food manufacturers. If the cereal box says it's safe for four-month-old babies, parents assume this to be true. Of course it behooves the baby food companies to have parents start solids as early as possible. But does the baby benefit? Studies show that the early introduction of solids may be linked to an increase in childhood food allergies.

There are obvious physical signs of a baby's readiness for solid foods. These usually don't occur until about six months of age and include the ability to sit up unattended and the tendency to grab or reach for food. Some cultures use the appearance of teeth as a sign of readiness. Many parents aren't aware that during a baby's first year, he can get almost all of the nutrition he needs from breastmilk. The first few months of eating solids are therefore less to provide nutrients than to accustom a baby to new tastes and textures.

Have you checked out the taste and texture of commercial baby cereal? Pour some commercial rice cereal in a bowl. It has no smell. The taste is the very definition of bland. The cereal is made from refined rice that has been processed and precooked. Refined grains have nothing to offer but carbohydrates. Whole grains, on the other hand, contain not only carbohydrates but also protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, essential minerals, and life. The germ is still intact. If you put a whole grain in water, it sprouts. If you put commercial baby cereal in water, it makes paste. Why train your baby to want this? By pre-toasting organic whole grains, grinding them in a small electric grinder, and cooking the grains with water, you can create a fresh, delicious, nutrient-dense cereal with taste, texture, and aroma (see recipes, page 40).

Commercial baby food is convenient, it's true. But the price for this convenience is high. Besides paying companies to blenderize food and put it in jars, you also pay them to dilute the food with water and sometimes to add starchy fillers such as tapioca, rice flour, and modified cornstarch. Even the companies producing organic baby food sometimes use fillers. Such additives lower production costs and help mask off-flavors.

In 1995, the Center for Science in the Public Interest did an evaluation of commercial baby food. Their published findings concluded: "To give your baby the most nutritious and economical food, prepare your own baby food whenever possible. Using a blender or food processor, it is easy to puree most foods."

Is Organic Necessary?

Many parents wonder about the importance of organic food for their infant, given that organic produce and grains sometimes can be more expensive than their non-organic counterparts. The answer is that pesticides are a concern. Even traces of the chemicals can irritate the immature digestive system of an infant. Congress unanimously passed a Food Quality Protection Act in 1996 that requires all pesticides to be safe for infants and children.

Yet in a recent comprehensive study done by the Environmental Working Group, pesticide levels in the US food supply were found to be at unsafe levels for children aged six months to five years. According to the report, peaches, apples, pears, grapes, and commercial baby foods which use these fruits are the most common sources of unsafe levels of organophosphate pesticides. To protect your child, buy organic baby food; or better yet, make fresh food for your baby from a variety of organic grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.

Getting Fresh

The bottom line is that the best way to ensure the quality of your baby's food is to make it yourself. Fresh food has the maximum in vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. Foods lose nutrients when processed. A little jar of army-green peas with a two-year shelf life simply can't compare to the smell, taste, color, and vitality offered by garden-fresh peas that have been steamed and mashed.

Some parents worry that they must always supplement their child's diet with prepared foods that contain iron, since there has been considerable publicity in recent years about iron deficiency in infants. Several factors can lead to such deficiencies. One is a mother who was anemic during pregnancy. Another is the common practice of cutting the cord too early, before pulsing has ceased. Apparently this can decrease the iron stores transferred from the mother. Choosing formula over breastmilk is also a factor. Babies absorb iron from breastmilk better than from iron-fortified formulas. If the mother's iron levels are sufficient, a child who is breastfed for a year will most likely maintain normal iron status.

Cynthia Lair teaches for the nutrition department at Bastyr University (Seattle, WA) and is the author of the cookbook, Feeding the Whole Family: Whole Foods Recipes for Babies, Young Children & Their Parents (Moon Smile Press, 1998). Visit the web site,

Copyright © Cynthia Lair. Permission to republish granted to, LLC.