September 28, 2005
Feeding Time at the Zoo

frozen food.jpgA while back, Barrett suggested I write something about the food I make for the Boy. Initially, I dismissed the idea because it seemed to me so basic: steam/boil food, purée, cool, serve. Also, I was afraid it would turn into just an excuse to post cute baby pictures. I reasoned that this is a site about food, not babies, and if you are interested in laugh-out-loud kid stories, you should be reading Motherhood is not for wimps, not Too Many Chefs.

But the exchange with Barrett did set me thinking more about what I am doing and why. And I realized that my dabblings in the world of baby-food might be of interest to current or potential parents out there. If you are in that group, welcome to my world. It's a messy one.

The Philosophy

The ideal here in the Expat flat is to give our boy as many different vegetables as possible. In a perfect world, they would all be gently steamed or boiled, organic, and unsalted with no added butter. They would not come in little glass jars as I would make them all myself. We are trying to avoid foods that come from another continent. And we are trying to move gradually to bigger bits and pieces that have to be gummed instead of just swallowing. Oh, and absolutely no vegetable purée in the bottle, which is a weird French idea to get babies used to the taste of vegetables.

Why all of the above? Well, common sense backed up by research indicates that introducing your child to a large variety of vegetables early in his life makes it much more likely he'll love eating them when he's older. Making our own food ensures that it doesn't taste exactly the same every time; again, I think and hope this encourages him to embrace different tastes. With home-made food, I can control the consistency of the food better and work gradually towards "adult" food. Then there is the economic element: the price per pound is phenomenally lower and though we earn a comfortable income, it's money that would be better spent on other things. And lastly there is the environmental impact: even if you recycle those little jars, it's a lot of packaging and a lot of energy is going into the production of them.

The Reality

As our boy has parents who both work full time, we have to make some compromises. We are not holding up well on the organic front as there are no organic stores convenient to home or work. We tried to go to the organic market in the 17th arrondisement on Saturday but got pathetically lost and ended up at a different market altogether. We occasionally buy frozen organic vegetables from Monoprix. We have resorted to glass jars a few times, mostly when travelling. They, however, are organic and have no sugar or salt added.

At nine months he's getting better at eating chunks of food, though it has to be something he really loves, i.e., a fruit. All in all, he's adapted well to the home made food and eats carrots, peas, green beans, aubergines/eggplants, courgettes/zucchini, celeriac, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes. (Confession: I couldn't stand the thought of mashed potatoes with no butter or salt and so he got a little - less than us - in his mashed spuds. You gotta live wild sometimes!)Fruits are a given: plums, peaches, nectarines, pears, apples, strawberries, but NO BANANAS.

The Practicalities

Essential equipment: a very good mini-food processor or a stick blender. A big food processor is fine but it will only work if you want to make loads of purée at a time. This is great if you have a freezer, but even then there will probably be times when you only have a little fruit and want to make a small batch. You'll also want to have a good scale so that you can follow (roughly) the doctor's advice on how much to feed at mealtimes. Another good piece of equipment is the potato masher. This is great for making the transition from smooth purée to chunky bits. Lots and lots of little plastic tupperware containers. Lots and lots of them. A dishwasher is also a very useful thing to have.

What surprised me most when I started (though it probably shouldn't have done) is how LIQUID fruits and vegetables are. I had always assumed that strawberries got very liquid because I usually add sugar to them. Nope: they go pretty much completely liquid even without the sugar when you cook them. Which brings us to Piece of Advice Number One: get some organic baby rice cereal and stir it into your more liquid fruits. Feeding a baby water-thin fruit purée on a tiny spoon with almost no bowl to it will a) take you through to the next meal time and b) result in the biggest messiest baby you've ever seen. I've seen a lot of stuff about rice cereal being empty calories and unnecessary but to me they miss the point: it's the best thickening agent in the world and if it's organic and sugar-free it's not bad for the baby either.

This brings us neatly to Piece of Advice Number Two: rice cereal can also be used to "water down" a flavorful new vegetable and make it more palatable to a suspicious baby. I also frequently put a scoop of formula powder in new foods, so that he has a cream-of-carrots purée, for example.

Piece of Advice Number Three: do not assume that because baby refused a food once he therefore dislikes it and it can be crossed off the list. According to my baby book, a child can refuse a vegetable as many as 10 times before deciding he likes it. I have come home several times to hear the nanny tell me "He really doesn't like X" only to see him devour a huge bowl of it with enthusiasm the next day. Just like us, some days they are in the mood for carrots or zucchini and some days they are not.

The next tip seems so basic to me that I'm almost embarrassed to include it. But Barrett thought it was original, so here goes: use every wile and trick at your disposal to get the food into the baby. Start out with the vegetables as he's less likely to want to continue with it once he's even half full. When he starts refusing it, give him a spoonful or two of fruit and then go back to the vegetable. Keep doing this until he's eaten all the vegetables or catches on. My guy is nine months and he hasn't caught on yet.

Another trick is to give him a toy to play with while eating. I initially thought this was a recipe for a very dirty toy (which it is) but a fellow-mum taught me how useful it is. As soon as the baby opens his mouth to gnaw on the toy (which he will, trust me) if you are quick you can get the spoon in there first. They never cease to be surprised by it!

Saving Time

I make up a couple of fruit and vegetable bowls every couple of days. It doesn't actually take that long, about half an hour from start to finish. A week or so ago as I was looking at all the gorgeous peaches and plums in the store I suddenly realized that in a month's time I'll no longer have the luxury of such choices and so I bought a few pounds and put the resulting purée in freezer bags in 120 gram amounts. If I'm alert in the morning, I just take one out of the freezer and put it in the fridge and by lunch it's defrosted. If I forget, there is always the microwave.

One more tip on this subject: nearly every web site or cookbook that deals with home made baby food advises you to freeze the food in an ice cube tray. I tried this and found it was more hassle than it's worth. Frozen food is remarkably difficult to get out of an ice cube tray. If the food is very thick, I advise putting a sheet of waxed paper on a plate and plopping spoonfuls of food on it. Put the plate in the freezer, and, when the spoonfuls are frozen, remove them to a freezer bag. If the purée is very liquid, just pour it in a freezer bag directly and use a marker to note the date, the fruit and the quantity.

The Recipes

As mentioned above, there aren't really any "recipes". Fruit with pits (peaches, plums, nectarines) are usually boiled until tender because it makes it easier to slip the skins off. Apples and Pears are peeled and cubed and cooked in their own juices. You don't even need to add water; as they heat up they will release loads of juice. Vegetables (with the exception of zucchini) are peeled and either steamed or boiled until tender. Zucchini is thoroughly washed, sliced, covered with Saran wrap/cling film and microwaved until tender. (That's my secret Last-Minute-Forgot-To-Prepare-Dinner weapon.)

The One Recipe

Only one dish I make for him qualifies in my mind as a Recipe. I made it for him the other night when he had been through a particularly tough day. (This standing up lark is very tiring and leads to many buises when the legs give way!) Take 120 grams of peach purée and add to it 1/4 cup oatmeal and one scoop of formula powder. Stir well and add a little water if it's too thick. (It depends on how liquid your peaches are, obviously.) Heat for 20 seconds in the microwave. And voilà: Cream of oatmeal and peaches. It went down so well I had to make a second bowl five minutes later.

The Disclaimer

If you don't make your own food or didn't make it for your children, please do not assume I think you are a bad parent. We all make choices. One of the reasons I've made this one is that I can see that my boy's half sister is a very picky eater and I don't want him to be difficult. Parenting is all about compromises and making choices. You may choose to buy the little pots and spend the half hour of time saved playing with your little one. That's a good thing. I love food and want to instill a love of good food in my son. That's also a good thing. But you can't please everyone.

And as for the Cute Baby Pictures? Well, heck, the Amateur Gourmet did it, so why can't I?

Posted by Meg in Sussex at September 28, 2005 11:54 AM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

I love the veggie bite in the middle of a fruit train trick. I think what I witnessed went by the spoonful - Veg, veg, veg, veg (balks), fruit, fruit, fruit, veg, fruit, fruit, veg, fruit, veg, fruit, veg (balks), fruit, fruit, veg.

It was sheer genius!

Posted by barrett on September 28, 2005 at 9:16 AM

Hi Meg -- what a TERRIFIC post. FYI, I've included it in today's Veggies for Kids post over at A Veggie Venture. THANK YOU!! Alanna

Posted by Alanna on September 28, 2005 at 9:52 AM

Enough about the kiddies...where did you get all those Ziploc bags? I'm green with envy!

Posted by David on September 28, 2005 at 10:31 AM

My son's father used to make homemade baby food for our boy in much the same way you describe and for all the same reasons. It's just too easy. And as a result, my kid has grown up loving a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Never tried the toy trick, but come to think of it, I never had to. The homemade baby food was so tasty that it wasn't necessary. You did a great service to parents everywhere with this post. I just hope that plenty of them stop by to read it and take your advice.

Posted by Celeste on September 28, 2005 at 11:16 AM

Thanks for the kind comments, all! I forgot to add disclaimer Number Two: obviously, I'm not a doctor. You should consult your doctor about when and how to introduce new foods and make sure there are a few days between each new one. Apparently I shouldn't have given the Boy strawberries before one year, but luckily for us he had no problem with them!

David, my Monoprix has ziplock bags. Not every time I go there, but say two out of three. And they are actually the zip-lock brand!

Posted by Meg in Paris on September 28, 2005 at 12:07 PM

Thanks for this post. I try to make food for my 9 month old most of the time but also give him food from the jar out of convenience. My baby gags everytime I feed him homemade green beans but he loves the store-bought stuff. Any suggestions?

Posted by maria on September 28, 2005 at 5:17 PM

Maria, I think that in addition to the sugar, salt and fat that are too often included in jars of baby food what appeals a lot to them is the industrially smooth consistency. Green beans (and peas, for that matter) are especially difficult to get smooth because they have tough skins. Beans also have the seeds and fibers in the center, all very difficult to purée. I know my guy sometimes gags on them too, and it's not because he dislikes the flavor but because he's got a bit of fiber stuck at the back of his throat.

I'm not sure there's a perfect solution to the problem but two ideas come to mind. Firstly, you can try puréeing for longer to see if you can get it smoother. Secondly, you could try adding a bit of rice cereal or formula to make the purée lighter in color. Then the bits that didn't get completely processed will stand out as a darker color and you can avoid them.

Good luck! My husband tells me that when he and his first wife tried to transition their daughter from store-bought food to homemade "it was like trying to get her off crack cocaine"! (Which, incidentally, is another reason I hope to stick to homemade!) It sounds like you are doing a much better job already!

Posted by Meg in Paris on September 29, 2005 at 2:35 AM

Meg: You are in love with your Monoprix (heck I would be too..) White wine vinegar, arborio rice, Ziploc bags...all i ever discover at my Monoprix is inexpensive rosé and fresh milk for coffee.
You have Monop-Mania, as they say.

Posted by David on September 29, 2005 at 5:36 AM

That's me! What they carry seems to vary a lot from shop to shop, though. I think I've been pretty lucky, first in Auteuil and now in the 17th. When I try to order from them online they don't have ANY of the cheap white wine I like. (You can tell how long that online ordering trend lasted...not very!)

Posted by Meg in Paris on September 29, 2005 at 9:17 AM

Great post, Meg--I think you should not have hesitated to make it. Feeding babies is just as important, heck, really, more important than feeding adults. So what if they eat pureed food that isn't pretty? It is still something very, VERY worth writing about.

One trick you might try for the green beans and peas to deal with the skins and fibers.

Get an old fashioned food mill. It is basically a conicle chinoise mousseline with a grinding plate that turns with a hand crank. We used these in culinary school to make smoked fish pate and mousse--you put the filets in whole and turn the crank, and the grinding plate forces the food down through the very fine screen of the chinoise, but leaves the skin and bones behind on the other side.

When my Grandma made applesauce, she used the same device, and it left any bits of core and skin, with perfect cooked apple puree going into the canning jars.

I am sure you can find them at any cookware store in Paris--chefs still prefer them for some applications to any sort of electric blender or processor. They will make perfect skin-free bean and pea puree for your little guy. I promise. Cross my heart and Girl Scout's Honor and all that. ;-)

Posted by Barbara on September 29, 2005 at 10:19 AM

Barbara, thanks for the tip! Actually, I have one of those in a box in my kitchen intended for charity as the few times i've used it the thing has not been very efficient and a real pain to clean. Maybe what I need to do is find a smaller one that has parts that fit correctly? This one was bought cheaply at the now-famous-local-Monoprix. It just seems to turn round and round with very little coming through. I think it's probably too large for the size jobs I would normally do. And just a cheaply made piece of equipment. Just goes to show (for the millionth time) that you get what you pay for!!

Posted by Meg in Paris on September 29, 2005 at 10:23 AM

You can get small ones specifically made to do baby food in the US--and I bet you can get them in France, too.

Most of the ones I have worked with are very large--professional kitchen sized, actually.

Another trick would be to take a chinoise mousseline, and use a wooden pestle that is a cone that fits the conicle shape of the chinoise, with a round knob at the end of it. You use the pestle to push the cooked food through the screen of the chinoise. I forgot about just using the chinoise, because I have done the food mill thing so much more often, though I have had to put a sauce through a chinoise a few times.

Glad to be of help!

Posted by Barbara on September 30, 2005 at 10:18 PM
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