If you are what you eat, then the developing years are surely the most important time to eat well. As a parent, you may not be able to give your baby or toddler fresh, homemade foods every day — but there are real benefits when you do.
Homemade food is more nutritious than commercially prepared baby foods: it retains more nutrients, especially vitamin A and B; it doesn’t contain additives like food dyes and thickening agents like cornstarch, flour, chemically modified starches or “tapioca” (corn syrup and starch); and it doesn’t contain preservatives to prolong shelf life.
Children’s small bodies and developing systems are more vulnerable to harmful chemicals, too — but if you buy organic, you’ll avoid pesticides, herbicides, hormones, antibiotics, and other additives. Organic foods have other benefits: a study at the University of California at Davis (my alma mater) shows that organically grown strawberries, corn, and blackberries are richer in cancer-fighting antioxidants — sometimes 60 percent richer — than the same conventionally grown crops. Other studies have shown the same results for organically grown peaches and pears.
Some conventional fruits and vegetables, meanwhile, have high levels of nitrites, due to the fertilized soils in which they grow. High-nitrite foods include beets, turnips, spinach, carrots, green beans, butternut squash, strawberries, and cantaloupe. The nitrite levels also increase when these food items are stored in your refrigerator. A baby’s stomach acidity is too low to properly break the nitrites down, so it’s better to avoid the chemicals when possible. Buying organic versions of high-nitrite foods will lessen exposure. If you intend to make your own baby food with conventionally grown high-nitrite foods, wait until your child is older than eight months before you introduce it.
There are other benefits to homemade food, too. Not only is it healthier, it gives you more control over quantity and waste. You won’t have to throw away partially eaten jars of food. Instead you can cook what you know your baby will eat, prolong the life of your homemade food in the freezer, or even polish off the leftovers yourself. You probably wouldn’t even consider noshing from a jar of commercial baby food — and that tells you something.
Ultimately, homemade food tastes better, and allows you to provide your child with fresh, seasonal foods. It also introduces the taste of real foods that you may want the whole family to enjoy together in later years. By making your own food, you’ll know exactly what your child is eating — and you’ll spend less time decoding the labels on all those overly processed foods in the grocery aisle.
What About the Cost?
Making your own food can cost less than buying commercial foods, if you shop smart and cook in relatively large quantities. For instance, a four-ounce jar of baby food typically ranges in price from 60 cents to $1.20, depending on brand and store. But I purchased enough apples for an apple puree for $2 at the farmers’ market, and my recipe yielded 16 ounces: my cost was only 50 cents per four-ounce serving.
You can also stretch your dollar by buying the foods your family already eats. When making baked sweet potatoes, for instance, you can puree some (for baby), cut pieces into soft chunks (for toddler), and leave the rest whole (for adults). When homemade purees are made with whole foods, the leftovers can be made into soups, side dishes, and sauces for the rest of the family. Honest.
Here are a few other ways to make organics more affordable and easier to purchase for your family:
1. Don’t always assume organic is more expensive. Compare the prices of conventional and organic products. You may be surprised that on some items there is little or no difference, depending on where and when you buy. If nothing else, try to buy organic fruits and veggies from the Environmental Working Group’s short list.
2. Buy produce in season. These items should be the lowest priced.
3. Grow your own. Even a small window box can yield some organic herbs or tomatoes. Larger areas can accommodate lettuce, strawberries, broccoli, carrots, and more. A garden is a great classroom and hobby for children and adults alike.
4. Shop at one of the more than 2,500 farmers’ markets in the United States. The produce is as fresh as possible, as it’s usually picked within 24 hours of your purchase. And becoming a regular shopper and getting to know growers is a good way to get the best selection and price.
5. Join a food cooperative. A food co-op is like a buyers’ club for affordable, fresh, local, and organic products. For the cost of a membership, shoppers can influence the kinds of products that are available, and often get a discount to boot. Many co-ops also allow you to volunteer several hours per week or month to pay for your membership.
6. Visit a farm and pick your own produce. Children love to experience something new, especially when it involves dirt and food.
All recipes are from The Petit Appetit Cookbook: Easy, Organic Recipes to Nurture Your Baby and Toddler.
Here’s an easy and more nutritious alternative to the standard buttered noodles. The cottage cheese provides protein, and the cinnamon and raisins give some sweetness. If you’re making this for a child younger than one year, you may want to choose egg-free noodles.
1/2 cup small-curd cottage cheese
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons golden raisins (optional)
Cook noodles according to instructions. Drain and toss hot noodles with cottage cheese, cinnamon, and raisins.
Hummus makes a great vegetable dip for toddlers and a quick hors d’oeuvre for parents. It’s also good on sandwiches, bagels, and toast. At 10 months this was my son’s favorite food, especially spread on small pieces of whole-wheat toast.
Makes 2 1/3 cups
1/3 cup tahini sauce (sesame seed paste)
1 large clove garlic, minced
Juice of one lemon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
If using canned chickpeas, drain and rinse thoroughly until water is clear. Puree chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon, one tablespoon of the oil, and cumin in food processor or blender. Scrape down sides of bowl and add remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Process for 20 to 30 seconds, or until paste-like. If you want a smoother consistency, add more oil or lemon juice and continue to process.
Apples are a great first food because of their sweetness and versatility. Besides being for baby, this puree can be used in all kinds of recipes. Use it to sweeten baked goods, as a topping for pancakes, or even to dress up grilled meats.
Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and Fuji apples have the least amount of acid, and thus are the most tolerable for babies. You can peel apples before or after cooking. Cooking with skins on allows the fruit to retain more nutrients.
Makes four 1/2-cup servings
Place prepared apples in steamer basket set in a pot filled with 1 to 2 inches of lightly boiling water. Do not let water touch fruit. Cover tightly for best nutrient retention and steam for 10 to 12 minutes or until apples are tender. Apples should pierce easily with a toothpick. Set apples and cooking liquid aside to cool.
Scrape apples to remove skin and puree in a food processor with a steel blade. Add tablespoons of reserved cooking liquid to puree to make smoother and adjust consistency.
Place prepared apple quarters in microwave-safe dish. Add 1/4 cup water and cover tightly, allowing a corner to vent. Microwave on high for 3 minutes and stir. Re-cover and cook for 3 to 6 minutes or until tender. Check for doneness, cool, and proceed with recipe above.
These mini-muffins have all the flavor of a big muffin, but fit nicely into little hands. You can also make them in a full-size muffin pan — just increase baking time to 15 to 18 minutes and check for doneness. Be sure you’ve already introduced wheat and eggs before giving these muffins to baby.
Makes 24 mini-muffins or 12 regular muffins
1/2 cup organic oat bran
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup homemade apple puree or applesauce
3 medium organic bananas, 1 mashed (about 1/2 cup) and 2 sliced
1/2 cup organic light brown sugar
2 organic eggs
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease 24 mini-muffin cups or 12 regular muffin cups.
With a fork, combine flour, bran, salt, and soda in a small mixing bowl. Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat or in a microwave for 25 seconds on high. In a large bowl, combine butter, applesauce, mashed banana, sugar, and eggs. Mix together with a rubber spatula. Add flour mixture to applesauce mixture and stir until just blended. Batter will be lumpy and very moist.
Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, filling 2/3 full. Place banana slice on top of each muffin. Bake for 12 minutes, or until golden brown and set. Cool muffins in pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes before turning out.
Here are some quick snacks and lunch ideas for toddlers. Like the typical prepackaged yogurts, applesauces, cheeses, and dried fruits, these snacks do not require much in the way of preparation. They are easy to make and don’t need a formal recipe — only your imagination and your child’s appetite. (Remember, while nuts and nut butters are great sources of protein and some children’s favorites, others can be highly allergic, so many schools are now “nut-free.”)
Vegetables and fruits can be great on their own, but with a little extra effort you can make them special and appealing:
A cored apple stuffed with granola or cereal
Assorted melon (cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew) balls
Cut red peppers and carrots with yogurt or fruit dipping sauce
Spinach leaves stuffed with hummus and vegetable sticks, then rolled up
Lettuce leaves stuffed with egg, chicken, or tuna salad, then rolled up
Pita bread makes a handy and healthy pocket to stuff with your child’s favorite fillings:
Spinach and hummus
Ricotta cheese and herbs
Meats and cheeses
Lavash or flatbread and tortillas make a neat roll-up for little hands. These rolls can also be cut for a special, colorful presentation — kind of like sushi!
Spread with tomato sauce, sprinkle with mozzarella cheese, then roll up.
Spread with bean dip and sprinkle with jack cheese.
Bagels make a good platform for lots of spreads and fillings. You can even cut in half and remove some of the bread, so filling stays in better and bagel is not so filling for little tummies. Or buy mini-bagels, which are easy for children to hold and eat. Here are a few options:
Stuff with cottage cheese and sliced strawberries.
Stuff with omelet pieces.
Spread with fruit butters and/or cream cheese.
Waffles and pancakes are great for snacking or make fun sandwich options:
Layer scrambled eggs and cheese between waffles or pancakes for a breakfast sandwich.
Fill waffle holes with granola, raisins, or other dried fruit.