I love making homemade baby food, and I've never understood why more families don't do it. It saves you money. In many ways it's so much easier than any other kind of cooking, and you maintain control over the ingredients.
That control matters more when you hear about what's in the baby food you find on store shelves. Tests of 168 baby foods commissioned by Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) found toxic heavy metals — arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury — in 95 percent of the containers tested. While these toxins are a lot of our food, thanks to pollution, they are especially harmful to the developing brains of babies.
If you decide you do want to make your own baby food, here are a few concepts to keep in mind:
Start slowly: From concerns over allergies to making sure they still get enough breast milk (which should be the primary source of nutrition until at least 6 months), it makes sense to introduce solid foods gradually. Wait until your child seems interested and then allow him to explore foods one at a time, waiting a few days between each new food to watch for adverse reactions. Contrary to previous advice, it's no longer recommended to withhold common allergens unless there's reason to suspect your kid may actually be allergic. You still need to be extremely careful of potential choking hazards.
Have a system: As you begin making baby foods, make sure you plan ahead. Make a shopping list so you have ingredients on hand, and batch cook and freeze in large quantities so you're stocking up for the future. While I wouldn't go overboard with gadgets, it's worth investing in equipment that makes things easy — for example soft, silicone ice cube trays and squeezable travel spoons were both big hits in our household.
Focus on quality ingredients: From the environmental to the ethical, there are plenty of reasons to choose local and organic — but I for one believe that seasonal, local ingredients simply taste better too. So I highly recommend visiting your local farmers market, or keep an eye out for organic and local produce at the grocery store as you plan out your baby foods. Even if you don't care about organic and local, it's important to ensure your child eats primarily fresh, whole foods — it's one of the most important ways to give them a healthy start in life.
Understand nutrition: The process of making baby food may be relatively easy, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to be casual about it. As your baby grows, she'll need the right mix of foods to ensure healthy development of both body and mind. As a general rule of thumb, you should aim to make sure your child gets a protein, a whole grain and some fruits and veggies with every meal.
Here are some easy recipes to help you do that.
DIY homemade baby food recipes
Sauteed, pureed chickpeas and peas
Saute a clove of garlic, a pinch of cumin, add a cup or two of chickpeas and frozen peas. Splash in a little broth, and then puree the result. You can leave it a little chunky, or puree it smooth, depending on the tastes and ages of those doing the eating. The adults in our household even loved this dish.
Egg, avocado and breast milk salad
Yes, the "breast milk" part might put grown-up diners off, but the basic recipe is delicious for anyone. Simply hard boil an egg, and then mash it up with half an avocado. Add a little breast milk or formula if you are pureeing it for younger babies. And if you have a family history of egg allergies, remove the egg white for children younger than 1. This puree can be used on its own, or spread on toast or tortillas for a yummy finger food.
Meat for beginners
Meat is a great first food as it provides important healthy fats that promote brain development. It can be a challenging texture for younger eaters though, and may even represent a choking hazard in large chunks. A little chicken breast, turkey or slow-cooked pork is a great way to introduce meat, but be sure to cook it until soft and then puree it. In my family, we like to serve meat with sweet potato, peas or even apricot.
Contrary to popular belief, baby food doesn't have to all be purees. With my second child, Adeline, I had limited time to create purees and baby foods, so the idea of giving her what the rest of the household ate was extremely attractive. That's where I discovered Baby Led Weaning, a concept that recommends giving whole, solid foods to babies as young as 6 months. It's important that foods be at least 2 inches big to avoid a choking hazard, and to allow the young eater to have something to hold onto. In our household, whole wheat or spelt quesadillas became a popular hit — filled with varying combinations of sweet potato, spinach, beans, avocado and cheese. We'd go easy on the salt for the fillings — allowing the grown-ups to adjust the seasoning at the table. And then we'd all just dig in and enjoy the feast. (Clean up afterwards was sometimes less fun!) If you do decide to explore Baby Led Weaning, be sure to read up on how to do it safely.
Macaroni and anything
If my children had to choose one food to exist on for the rest of their lives, it would be macaroni. And while the registered dietitian in me craves more diversity, I do recognize that pasta dishes are a pretty versatile base for culinary exploration. For our younger babies, we often made a soup with sauteed onion, pureed pumpkin, low sodium broth and pastini. (You add the pastini after pureeing the other ingredients.) As they got older, macaroni and cheese, or macaroni and peas, or macaroni and spinach, or macaroni and just-about-anything became a fairly popular staple. To make sure they get protein, we'll sometimes whisk in some beaten eggs and butter into the hot macaroni, or add a little meat. And it's never a bad idea to try whole grain pasta, or mix whole grain and white pasta in equal proportions. Quinoa, millet, brown rice or whole grain cous cous are also great bases for creating different baby- and child-friendly combinations.
Jenni Grover, MS RD LDN, is a registered dietitian and co-founder of Realistic Nutrition Partners in Durham, North Carolina. She specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition, with a focus on whole foods.