Monday, April 23, 2012

DIY Baby Food (On The Cheap, Too!)

When we first found out we were expecting a child, being the foodie that I am, I got all excited about the prospect of making my own baby food.  Yeah, I knew it was going to be awhile (a very long while) before I could actually get into it but what the heck...  I had all that time to do some research on the subject.

Turns out that there are a lot of resources, books, gadgets, gizmos, and unitasking kitchen equipment out there for feeding your child.  And like anything else in the kitchen (and baby) world, there are some products that are worthwhile and three times as many that aren't worth wasting your money on.  I've sort of reserved judgment and refrained from purchasing a lot of stuff up until now and I'm really glad I did.  We started our daughter on cereal and single fruits a couple of weeks ago and I think I have a good solid idea at this point about what's going to be useful and what's not--at least for the "pureed" phase of the game.

Reading Materials
I spent an hour or so at the bookstore thumbing through "baby cookbooks" and volumes on baby nutrition, and  you know what?  Most of them are a load of crap.  The most popular "cookbooks" on the market can basically be summed-up in two sentences: "Here's how to cook and puree food.  Make sue you mix everything with something sweet so your baby will 'like' it."  Each "recipe" is just a repeat of the process used for the previous one but with a different fruit or vegetable.

Well, I already know how to puree stuff and I don't subscribe to the "mix everything with a sweet fruit or veggie" statement because I'm a firm believer that it's a surefire path to a picky eater.  If your baby thinks every food is supposed to be sweet and/or bland, that's how she's going to eat all her life.  If you want to raise a healthy eater, give your baby food that tastes great.

There were two books I did end-up picking-up.  The Everything Cooking for Baby and Toddler Book is one of the few recipe books that doesn't point out the obvious and that doesn't focus on the sweet factor.  Baby Bites is a fairly solid reference for what to feed your kid, when to start, and any and all questions on childhood nutrition.  I will warn you that if you're not breastfeeding, you have to get by the three or so chapters that keep harping, "You know...breastfeeding is better, BECAUSE...X, Y, and Z"  Other than that, it's a great reference guide.  It also contains recipes.

Oh my goodness, can you spend waste a lot of money on equipment and gadgets!  There are entire systems for steaming and storing food and feeding your kid.  The truth is that you don't need any of it.

For feeding, you need inexpensive plastic bowls and plastic or silicone-coated baby spoons.  That's about it.

For making and storing baby food, I've found that all you need is a $25-30 stick blender (this one was just top-rated by Cook's Illustated), a cheap steamer basket for your existing cookware, and old-fashioned plastic ice cube trays, which cost about $2 each at your favorite box store.  Truthfully, you can even get away with a regular blender or food processor if you already have one, but I find the stick blender easier to clean and it takes-up less space.

Here's the general method:
  1. Chop and steam the food (if necessary)
  2. Blend with a stick blender, adding some of the steaming water to thin it out.
  3. Using a spoon, fill the ice cube tray.  Each cube holds approximately 3 tablespoons.
  4. Freeze the ice cube tray.  When frozen, pop out the food cubes and put into into a zip-top bag.  Label it, squeeze out the air, and put back in the freezer.
  5. Each night, take out however many cubes your baby will eat in a day and thaw overnight in a covered container in the fridge.  If sending to daycare, we like to use 4oz mason jars.  You can also re-use store-bought baby food jars.
I've found that if I prepare one or two trays of food each weekend, we have plenty stocked-up for the weekdays ahead and she'll have plenty of variety in her diet.

Choosing First Foods
You should definitely speak with your pediatrician about what, when, and how much to introduce and be cautious with any foods where your family has a history of allergies.

We started with oatmeal (rice tends to be "binding" and also tasteless) twice a day and then added pears.  After the pears, we introduced an orange veggie for "dinner" and began swapping out both the fruits and veggies on a 3-5 day schedule to introduce variety and keep an eye out for any adverse reactions.

You generally don't want to add sugar, salt, or strong spices to first foods.  You can introduce seasonings when you get to meats and it's a good idea to keep the salt levels low even then.  Here are some great (and in some cases, unique) first foods:
  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Apricots
  • Mangoes
  • Passion Fruit
  • Rehydrated pureed prunes
  • Butternut or Acorn Squash
  • Carrots (use organic as conventional are high in nitrates)
  • Sweet Potato
  • Peas (frozen)
  • Green Beans (frozen)
Clearly, once you've introduced the basics and your baby is eating well, the sky is the limit.  We're having a blast.

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