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Homemade baby food: worth the fuss?

As I write in this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column, if anyone had suggested to me when my babies were tiny that I make their baby food, I would have given that person the stink eye -- or just burst into tears. Perhaps because I don't have family nearby, I often felt nearly overwhelmed by the work of taking care of a baby, and I was exhausted all the time. The thought of adding another task to the mix wasn't exactly welcome.

MSNBC's chief Washington correspondent Norah O'Donnell and her chef/restaurateur husband Geoff Tracy's recent book "Baby Love" makes the case not only that preparing baby's food at home is better for your child than serving commercially prepared food but also that it's cheaper -- and easy, to boot. In retrospect, it seems as though I could probably have handled the task, after all -- if it had ever crossed my mind.

At 8 1/2 months old, Maya Walker of Upper Marlboro loves the pureed peaches her mom, Adrienne, gives her. (Mark Finkenstaedt - For The Washington Post)

But 17 years ago, making baby food at home wasn't as much in vogue as it is today. In fact, says Amy Bentley, an associate professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University who is writing a book about the history of commercial baby food, there have been times when commercially prepared baby food has been regarded not just as more convenient but also more nutritionally sound than baby food prepared at home; the pendulum has swung back and forth a few times during the past century.

Moving from breast milk to "solid" food is a rite of passage in every culture, Bentley says, one that's accompanied by different rituals and cultural implications and involves different foods. "It's a very important moment, moving from infancy to a later stage," she says. In Western cultures, until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, "infants were not fed fruits and vegetables until they were about two years old for fear of cholera and dysentery." Fruits and vegetables were also shunned for their laxative effect, Bentley says. Babies' diets were more likely to include gruel, beef broth or scraped beef.

At that time, Bentley explains, vitamins had not yet been discovered. In the early 20th century, scientists learned that certain foods provided certain of these key nutrients, and parents clamored for ways to ensure their babies' food contained those vital vitamins. And by the 1930s, Gerber had introduced the first commercial baby food, which was seen by parents as nutritious and convenient, especially since physicians promoted its use. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, commercial baby food's use expanded, and parents started weaning babies from breast milk at increasingly early ages. "In the 1930s," Bentley explains, "using baby food was seen as modern, exciting, educated."

That continued through the 1960s, coinciding with what Bentley calls the "golden age of American processed food," the Baby Boomer generation and women's seeking labor-saving devices. The early 1970s, though, saw a shift back to more "natural" feeding, and affluent, educated households in particular embraced homemade baby food again. "It was seen as a form of cultural cache, to go against the general trend," Bentley says.

Nowadays, Bentley says, people are increasingly scrutinizing commercially prepared foods, including those for babies, for what's been added to them -- particularly sugar and salt. (Many commercial baby foods now contain no added sugar, salt or cornstarch.)

Are you into making homemade baby food? Why, or why not? I'd also like to hear from parents of kids who are, like mine, teenagers: Did you consider making their food at home when they were babies?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | October 12, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Childhood obesity, Family Health, Kids' health, Nutrition and Fitness, Obesity, Parenting  
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Baby food itself is going out of vogue. We're using "baby-led weaning" for my tot.

Posted by: enetayam | October 12, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

my sister also did baby-led weaning with huge success.

Posted by: lavnderdeb | October 12, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I got a book when I was in the hospital with no. 1 (was in the hospital more than a week as my water broke but I didn't go into labor - so I had a lot of time on my hands). I read it and it said how easy it was to make baby food.
It had never even occurred to me, but having all that waste (of jars, and food) seemed like not the best thing. So I started small, and obviously, mashing bananas wasn't that hard, and I would make dinner for mom and dad, and then cook the heck out of whatever veggie we were having, and mash it up after dinner, then freeze it. It worked really well, and wasn't tough at all.
With baby number two, I was back at work by the time he was 6 mos, but still made the baby food, of course, I knew what to do and what to expect, so it made it easier, but really - it was so not very hard at all. And healthier, I thought.

As for when to feed baby, the first one slept thru the night at 12 weeks, when he started to get up at night, I thought: it's time (a little less than 6 mos). Second one never really slept thru the night til 2, so it was harder, but when he got up more than once in the middle of the night, that was the right time...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | October 12, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

I have a 12 y.o. and it never occured to me to make her baby food. I did feel guilty feeding her food that I couldn't bring myself to taste so when #2 came along 9 years later, we made all of her food. Well dad makes it and I mash it. I believe it's why she prefers her food seasoned @ 3 y.o. I am excited about mashing foods again for our 6 mo. old. It's so great to have all of the fall vegetables to begin with and it's encouraged us to try new foods as well. I love and use their recipes.

Posted by: flabbergast | October 12, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

I was a weirdo and a rarity when I breastfed my babies in the 60's. My sisters introduced me to a book called "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding" by LaLecheLeague Internationl, and it was my bible. It was so VERY necessary because doctors of that era had learned almost zilch about breatfeeding, so, if you ran into any problem, you were immediately given a case of bottled formula and advised to switch to bottle-feeding. However, as a Registered Nurse, I knew that breastfeeding my baby was BEST feeding. None of my 4 babies had ANY solid food until about 5 1/2 monthss of age, and they were the healthiest chunks you ever did see. I was also very educated in good nutrition, so I made my own baby food often, concentrating primarily on high protein. When I had a great meal, like beef roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, and carrots, I'd whip up a batch of sorta like hash in my blender, leaving it with small, soft chunks, very palatable to a 5 1/2 month old, and froze this concoction in ice cube trays, dropping these cubes into a baggie in the freezer. It was very easy to take the number of cubes I needed and warm up my "baby food". Many other foods were easily mashed fresh, and occasionally I would buy gerber High Meat Dinners if we were going out of town or somewhere. My doctor HAD told me that the regular baby food meals were lucky if they had even had a chicken or cow waved over the jar, there would be such a little protein in them! Mashed banana, mashed braunschweiger, etc., worked well. I was also careful not to form any allergies, as I had learned from an allergist who spoke once with my nursing class. Certain foods are very BIG culprits in making an allergic child. Cow's milk is one, egg white, chocolate, wheat, and others that you can look up online these days. My babies never had bottles in their lives, though my 2 daughters have bought breast pumps and special breast-like nippled bottles for nursing babies to use because they have also gone back to work while nursing. I didn't return to work till my kids were all in school. Those were fun days! The book is still available on Amazon,com, I'm sure. All my babies sort of weaned themselves by about 12-14 months. Happy babies rarely need to nurse longer, though some mothers continue it much longer.

Posted by: Maerzie | October 13, 2010 1:07 AM | Report abuse

My first ate the commercial food, but the second one refused it. She got whatever we were eating, mashed up or pureed.

Posted by: intheUSA1 | October 13, 2010 7:00 AM | Report abuse

With both our daughter and son, my wife and i talked about, and made them both home made baby food. the only real added cost was all of the tuperware we needed to store it from day to day/week to week. we would boil whatever fruit or veggie necessary, and mix and match them come lunch and dinner time each day. We can't say that it contributed to any health benefits with our children. But we do firmly believe that it was the feeding of cooked/boiled & food-processed fresh veggies that has lead to our children eating and enjoying veggies in thier meals today.

Unlike many parents, we have zero issues having our kids eat the usually rejected veggies such as brocolli, string beans, peas, carrots, ect. It is our view that since they enjoyed those first experiences of 'taste' while eating the mashed up versions as infants, they are used to and enjoy eating them as an 8 & 2 year old.

Posted by: mnofpeace | October 13, 2010 8:41 AM | Report abuse

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