If parents share one thing in common, it’s their desire to feed their babies the healthiest food possible.
It’s no wonder then that many parents — fueled by information about the health benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and some kinds of fish — are interested in preparing their own baby food. In fact, the top recommendation in the government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is to eat more vegetables and fruit.
Bottomline, the recommendations, which were developed by the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, come down to steering away from refined and processed foods with unhealthy amounts of sugars, salts, solid fats and other additives.
“Consistently good nutrition, meal after meal, is a foundation for a healthy childhood,” says the American Academy of Pediatric’s website, “Healthy Children”, pointing out that in preparing foods high in nutritional value, parents can build the family meals around selections like fresh fruits and vegetables; whole grain cereals and bread; low-fat or nonfat dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheeses; and lean and skinless meats including chicken, turkey, fish and lean hamburger.
Why these nutritious foods are so important in a child’s diet — especially in today’s world of fast foods that contain high amounts of fats and sugars — can be seen when looking at what kids actually eat.
It’s nothing less than shocking
According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the top three sources of calories from foods that kids from 2 to 18 years actually eat come from refined grain desserts (cookies, cakes, brownies and doughnuts, for example); pizza; and soda.
In his video, “What Parents Should Know about the USDA Guidelines,” Dr. Alan Greene, author of “Feeding Baby Green,” and clinical professor of Pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine, points out that the only vegetables that made the dietary guidelines’ list of the top 25 foods that kids actually eat were french fries and potato chips. And the only fruit on the list was fruit juice, which came in 20th place. Whole grains didn’t even make the list.
Greene believes that because the dietary guidelines only addressed diets for people 2 years of age or older, they represent a missed opportunity.
“It’s hard to teach kids to radically change their diet,” he says, referring to something called “neophobia,” which he describes as a natural built-in suspicion of new things.
He poses this question: What if we can catch kids before that age and teach them to love whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits and to not want refined flour, solid fats or added sugar?
Greene refers to this line of thinking as “nutritional intelligence.” From his observations as a pediatrician, a baby’s natural interest in exploring new tastes shuts down at about 13 months. At that point, they tend not to like new foods. But they generally do like the taste of foods they’ve been eating before then. In many cases, it might take 15 attempts before a baby accepts a new food — but 90 times for a child 2 years old or older to accept it.
In another video, Greene calls the stage of a baby’s development before the time that food neophobia kicks in “a wonderful window of opportunity” for parents to help babies develop a taste for healthy foods. Yet most of what parents feed their children is processed foods.
“It’s no wonder that by the age of two, kids’ diets are terrible,” he laments. That’s why he urges parents “to train a baby’s taste buds for a lifetime of good eating habits.”
Greene says that making homemade baby food with a food grinder is far cheaper than buying jarred foods. And he carries a small food mill to show parents how to do it.
Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, professor of Pediatrics at the Medical College of George and chair of the Committee on Nutrition, American Academy of Pediatrics, told Food Safety News that “with a little planning and appropriate guidance, parents can buy their own foods and make baby food.”
“‘Natural’ foods are less salty and less sweet than processed foods and will go a long way in establishing good food habits,” he said.
What NOT to feed babies
But before parents head out to their local farmers markets, farm stands, grocery stores, or even their own gardens in search of fresh produce and other healthy foods, they should heed some advice from the USDA and infant nutrition experts such as Bhatia, about the foods they shouldn’t feed their babies until they’ve reached a certain age.
As wonderful as those fresh carrots, spinach, green beans, broccoli, cabbage, celery, beets, turnips, and collard greens may look at the farmers markets or in the stores, they should only be fed to babies 6 months of age and older, according to the USDA.
That’s because these vegetables, when prepared at home, can be high in naturally occurring nitrates, which can be converted to nitrites in very young babies. When that happens, the nitrites bind the iron in the blood and make it difficult for the blood to carry oxygen. In the case of a very young baby, if the nitrites are high enough, the baby can develop a condition called methemoglobinemia, which causes difficulty in breathing and blue skin.
In contrast, Bhatia said that commercially prepared baby foods from these vegetables are screened for the presence of nitrates, which are found in the soil.
When using well water to prepare baby food, parents should have the water tested for nitrates. It should contain less than 10 ppm of nitrates.
And while honey is often praised as a healthy food, parents should never feed honey or products containing honey (honey graham crackers or other baked goods made with honey, for example) to babies until the baby is one year old. The same holds true for honey, corn syrup (dark or light), and maple syrup. That’s because these sweeteners can sometimes be contaminated with spores of a potentially deadly pathogen called Clostridium botulinum, which can cause an illness called “infant botulism,” according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other health associations.
Although most babies recover fully with proper medical care, infant botulism can trigger severe reactions and sometimes even death.
Symptoms of infant botulism typically appear between 18 and 36 hours after the infant consumes the bacteria. Constipation is often the first symptom of botulism that parents notice. Other symptoms, which tend to occur in the following order, include flat facial expression, weak cry, decreased movement, trouble swallowing with excessive drooling, muscle weakness and breathing problems.&nb
And, yes, those farm-fresh eggs so popular with farmers market shoppers look as wholesome as can be. But parents need to know that egg yolks (thoroughly cooked), shouldn’t be introduced to infants until they’ve reached 8 months. And egg whites and whole eggs should not be fed to children younger than 1 year. USDA advises that egg whites contain substances that may cause allergic reactions in babies.
All eggs should be properly refrigerated and thoroughly cooked to reduce the possibility of contamination with harmful bacteria such as Salmonella. That means the egg shells should be washed with water before cracking them open.
As for raw milk, despite health claims made by raw-milk advocates, the USDA and other federal and state public-health agencies warn that babies should never be fed raw milk because it could be contaminated with pathogens that could make a baby very sick — or even kill the child.
In the case of pasteurized milk, the advice is typically to hold off until the baby is 12 months old. Many health authorities also warn that cow’s milk is not as nutritious as breast milk or infant formula and may cause anemia in babies under a year old.
And while fish is touted as a healthy food, the USDA advises parents of babies to steer clear of shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tile fish, because they may contain high levels of harmful mercury.
The USDA also advises against adding sugar, maple syrup, corn syrup, molasses, glucose or other syrups to foods or beverages served to babies.
Home-canned foods should also be avoided because they may contain harmful bacteria if they were improperly canned. But commercially canned and frozen foods can be pureed, although parents should check the amounts of salt and sugar in them and avoid those with high amounts, as well as those in heavy sugar syrups.
Dr. Bhatia said that another “no-no” is unpasteurized juices because they can contain harmful bacteria.
Keeping baby from choking is another important consideration. For that reason, here are some of the “natural” foods the USDA warns parents not to feed babies:
— Raw vegetables, which includes green peas, string beans, celery, carrots, among others
— Hard pieces of cooked vegetables
— Cooked or raw whole corn kernels
— Whole grapes, berries, cherries, melon balls, or cherry and grape tomatoes (cut these foods into quarters, with pits removed, before feeding older babies)
— Uncooked dried fruit, including raisins
— Whole kernels of cooked rice, barley, or wheat (these foods should be finely ground or mashed before feeding them to babies)
— Wheat germ
— Whole pieces of canned fruit (cut them up instead)
— Whole beans
— Fish with bones
— Plain wheat germ
— Tough meat or large chunks of meat
— Peanut butter or other nut or seed butters
— Chunks of cheese
What about allergies?
The USDA and other health authorities advise parents to introduce one new food at a time and wait 4 days to a week between each new food, watching the baby closely for reactions.
According to the American Dietetic Association, eight foods cause 90 percent of food allergies in children: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (pecans, walnuts), fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. In adults, four food groups cause almost all allergies: fish, shellfish, tree nuts and peanuts.
Signs that the baby may be allergic to a food include diarrhea, rashes, vomiting, coughing, wheezing, mucous, general irritability, hives, and stomach pain.
If a baby has hives, difficulty in breathing, or goes into shock, immediately call 911.
For children under 6 months of age, citrus fruits such as oranges, tangerines, grapefruits, pineapples, or tomato juices or tomato foods may cause allergic reactions.
Peanut butter and other nut and seed butters, for example soy nut, almond, cashew or sunflower seed butter, and nuts and seeds may also cause allergic reactions in some babies.
Shellfish and fish can also trigger an allergic reactions. For that reason, the USDA advises parents not to feed any shellfish, including shrimp, lobster, crab, crawfish, scallops, oysters, and clams, to babies less than one year of age.
More information about allergies is available here.
What’s good for your baby
Babies often start on vegetables and fruits around 6 months of age.
According to the USDA, home-prepared vegetables (cooked and processed to the appropriate texture) such as broccoli, asparagus tips, cabbage, cauliflower, green beans, green peas, kohlrabi, plantain, potatoes, summer or winter squash and sweet potatoes are good vegetables to start with. But again, vegetables containing naturally occurring nitrates shouldn’t be fed to babies until they’re 6 months of age.
In the case of home-prepared fruits that can be mashed after peeling if ripe and soft enough, good choices are apricots, avocados, bananas, cantaloupe, mango, melon, nectarines, papaya, peaches, pears and plums. Stewed pitted dried fruits can be pureed or mashed.
But apples, pears and dried fruits need to be cooked before they can be pureed or easily mashed.
Meat and meat alternatives such as poultry, fin fish, cheese, yogurt, cooked dry beans and peas, and eggs can generally be introduced to a baby of 8 months, although some pediatricians recommend starting them on these foods at six months.
Lean meat and poultry are preferable, according to the USDA. Strained or pureed well-cooked lean beef, pork, lamb, veal, chicken, turkey, liver and boneless fin fish are good choices for young babies. But as the baby’s eating skills improve, meat and poultry can be served ground or finely chopped.
Dr. Bhatia, American Academy of Pediatrics, said that parents can progress with fruits and vegetables and meats until the baby is 8 to 11 months old, when table foods can be added.
“The ultimate goal is to promote your healthy-eating and culturally based diets in your child,” he said.
And he reminds parents that as they are adding new foods, they are introducing new flavors, smells and tastes to their infant. “It may take several tries before you conclude that your baby is not going to take that particular food,” he said.
So many advantages
The advantage for parents in preparing their own baby food is that they’ll know just what what they’re feeding their babies. No more peering at labels to see what’s been added to the food.
And as Dr. Bhatia pointed out, it also gets their baby used to eating the same food their family is eating.
A young mother on an outing with her baby at the Mount Vernon, WA, Farmers Market would agree. As her baby, Kate, 18 months, happily dined on a fresh peach, Nicole (prefers her last name not be used) told Food Safety News that she has never fed Kate jarred baby food. Instead, she mashes up some of the same food she’s eating, something she’s done ever since Kate was old enough to start eating sol
id foods. Mashed avocados and bananas are two of Kate’s favorites.
“She’s a very good eater,” Nicole said happily. “She likes healthy food.”
Then, too, according to the Cooperative Extension of The University of Maine, there’s some cost savings to be enjoyed for parents who make their own baby food. For example, parents who prepare their own green beans for baby food rather than buying the jarred variety save an average of $60 in six months. Those who make meat-based baby food save even more.
But Kate Yerxa, Maine’s statewide educator for nutrition and physical activity at University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said price isn’t the only reason why people want to make their own baby food. She says it can also be healthier.
“Some commercially prepared baby foods have a lot of fillers,” she said in the university’s publication about making fresh baby food at home.
Fortunately, common kitchen equipment will generally do for making baby food. The USDA recommends using a simple metal steamer, available in supermarkets, to cook vegetables and fruit because it will reduce the loss of vitamins in cooking.
Other equipment can include a blender or food processor to puree foods, including fruits, vegetables and fruit, to a very smooth texture.
A fine mesh strainer can be used to puree soft cooked or very ripe fruits and some vegetables by pushing the food through the strainer with the back of a spoon.
A baby food grinder or food mill will puree most foods to a smooth texture and will puree meats to a coarser texture.
And in the case of older infants, a kitchen fork can be used to mash foods or a knife can be used to finely chop cubes of food, which should be no larger than 1/4 inch to reduce the chances of choking.
The Baby Center, an onsite resource for parents, offers information about these pieces of equipment:
— A portable hand-turned food mill with different blades for various textures of food — an item that the center says is a favorite with many parents.
— An all-one baby-food maker, which first steam-cooks and then purees fruit, vegetables and meat. Some models even defrost and reheat previously prepared food.
— A non-electric and portable baby food grinder, a very inexpensive and easy-to-use tool that breaks down chunks of food but doesn’t provide a choice of textures.
— A hand blender that purees food like a blender does, but instead of placing the food into the blender, the blender is put into the food.
— A regular kitchen blender or food processor, although they might prove to be less than ideal for small jobs.
— A good old-fashioned fork for mashing foods such as sweet potatoes, avocados, and bananas.
— Storage containers and ice cube trays for refrigerating and freezing extra portions.
How to prepare baby food
To prepare the food, parents should start out with good quality fresh food, ideally preparing the food immediately before feeding the baby.
The USDA advises parents to wash fresh vegetables and fruit very well with clean cold running water to remove dirt.
Next, remove pits, seeds, skins and inedible peels from fruits and some vegetables. Edible skins and peels can be removed either before or after cooking.
For vegetables and fruit such as apples, pears and prunes that need to be softened, parents can cook them by either boiling in a saucepan with a small amount of water or steaming in a saucepan until the produce is just tender enough to be pureed or mashed or eaten as a finger food.
Although a microwave can be used to cook vegetables until soft, it’s important to make sure none of it is too hot for a baby to eat. To avoid that, stir microwaved food well and let it sit for a up to 15 minutes before serving.
Produce can also be baked or boiled to soften it.
After cooking, puree or mash food with liquid until it reaches the desired smoothness.
Dr. Bhatia, American Academy of Pediatrics, said that pureed fruits can be prepared from fresh cooked fruits and vegetables, with no salt, sugar or fat added to the vegetables. He also said that it may be necessary to add breast milk, formula or water to some pureed foods to make the consistency right for the baby.
“Puree means a liquid-like smooth texture in keeping with the developmental age of the infant,” he said.
According to the Baby Center’s website, grains like quinoa or millet can also be pureed or ground in a food mill. Cook them first according to package directions. For older babies, whole grains make fabulous finger food.
In the case of meat and poultry, the Baby Center advises removing the skin and trimming the fat before cooking. The cooked meat can then be pureed in a blender or ground up in a food mill with a little liquid. For older babies, the meat can be chopped into very small pieces.
Don’t add sugar, syrups, salt, seasonings, oil, butter lard, cream, gravy, sauces, or fat drippings to the baby food, advises the USDA. However, some parents like to add seasonings they use at home so the baby becomes accustomed to the foods they eat. But that generally doesn’t happen until the baby is 7 months or older.
The Baby Center also recommends dishing out only the estimated amount of food the baby will eat at that feeding and tossing what’s left over because the baby’s saliva will get into the mixture and make it easy for bacteria to grow in the food.
The center also advises parents to refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container and use them up within a couple of days. Parents can also freeze leftovers in ice cube trays or similar devices. After the cubes are frozen solid, they can be removed and stored in plastic freezer bags. Fruits and vegetables frozen this way will last 6 to 8 months. Meat (including poultry) and fish will last 1 to 2 months.
Go to this video to watch a demonstration from the University of Maine of how to freeze baby food.
When and what?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting solids between four and six months of age. Although many parents wait until six months or later to begin doing that, they should follow the cues of their baby and consult with the baby’s pediatrician about the best time to start. Each child is unique and therefore has different nutritional needs.
Also, at this age, breast milk or formula doesn’t provide the increasing energy needs of a baby. That’s why American pediatricians believe that this is a good age to start introducing a baby to solid foods.
Even so, it’s important to keep in mind that breastmilk or iron-fortified infant formula is still a baby’s primary source of nutrition.
Before babies are 4 to 6 months old, they can’t swallow solid food. One sign a baby is old enough to start feeding solid foods is that he or she will stop pushing food o
ut with his or her tongue.
Here are some other signs to watch for:
— Sitting up with minimal support (highchair);
— Showing good head control;
— Showing an interest in food (trying to grab food off your plate); °Turning his or her head to refuse food when not hungry;
–Continuing to act hungry after breastfeeding.
Parents need to keep their babies safe from food poisoning by following basic food-safety principles. Here are some of them offered by the USDA.
Before preparing the food, wash all bowls, utensils, pots and pans, equipment, such as a blender, food mill, food processor, baby food grinder, or cutting board, the sink, and counters in hot soapy water. Rinse and sanitize. Allow to air dry.
Wash your hands — and your baby’s hands.
Do not allow freshly cooked foods to stand at room temperature or between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 2 hours. Bacteria that can make the baby sick can grow between these temperatures.
Immediately after cooking, refrigerate or freeze freshly cooked food to be stored and label it with the date and time it was prepared.
Do not let the food sit at room temperature because harmful germs can grow in the food at that temperature.
Check the temperature of the refrigerator. It should be at 40 degrees F or below to keep food safe.
Use refrigerated foods within 2 days, except for meats, poultry, fish and egg yolks, which should be used within 24 hours. Throw out any food not used within those times.
For frozen baby foods, the freezer temperature should be 0 degrees F.
Don’t refreeze baby food that has thawed out.
When reheating refrigerated or frozen baby foods, bring the temperature up to 165 degrees.
Learn how to use a thermometer to check for proper temperatures.
Before serving, thoroughly wash your hands and the baby’s hands and surfaces that your baby might touch.
Keep produce separate from meat, poultry and fish — both in the shopping cart and the refrigerator. When in the grocery store, ask the cashier to bag meat, poultry and fish separately from other foods.
Immediately after purchasing meats, poultry, finfish and dairy products such as cheese, store them in a refrigerator — not in the door section — and remove them right before use. Don’t let them sit out at room temperature. Also, make sure they’re securely wrapped to prevent juices from dripping on to and contaminating other foods.
Do not thaw frozen meat, poultry or fish on a kitchen counter or in standing water at room temperature. Germs grow rapidly as food thaws at room temperature.
To avoid spreading harmful bacteria to other foods, don’t allow raw or partially cooked meat, poultry, fish or their juices to touch other foods or the surfaces, serving plates, or utensils used to serve or prepare other foods. For example, don’t use a fork to test a piece of meat, poultry or fish when cooking and then use the same fork to mix a cold vegetable dish.
Go here for more food safety tips for pregnant moms and babies.
Recipes for baby food are simple and generally involve nothing more than getting the food to the right consistency for the baby’s stage of development. But many universities have baby-food recipes, and the Internet has a vast array of sites for parents.
To get started, parents can go here for age-appropriate baby food recipes from Annabel Karmel, the best-selling author of 17 books on baby and children’s food and nutrition.
And parents shouldn’t forget to enjoy the pleasure of introducing their baby to healthy new foods. The look on a baby’s face when trying out his or her first taste of mashed banana is priceless. Get the camera ready!