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.
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?
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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