Close encounters with my children and grandchildren have gotten me thinking about how we humans feed our young. From the helpless newborn (except for their amazing lung power) to the gobbling toddler to the picky nursery schooler, children need feeding.
Just how and what we feed our children is a hot topic. Here’s how I see it:
Cook fresh food for yourself. Extend this effort to your babies and children.
Recently, an acquaintance spoke of her sister who made her own baby food. This, she felt, was a dreadful act of drudgery and a waste of time. Hmm. That seemed odd. I called my dear friend, Katy Bayless, the next day. We were new mothers together some 35 years ago.
“Was making baby food all that hard?”
“No”, she said firmly. “They just ate what we ate and we used the Happy Baby food mill.”
The Happy Baby food mill is still made and is a great little gadget small enough to fit in a purse or diaper bag. The food is pureed and comes out the top so that you can feed the baby right from the mill at the table. Of course, Katy was not suggesting that babies eat exactly what adults do but rather that when you cook, small portions, plainly cooked, are set aside for the baby.
The introduction of solid food to my babies was an exciting milestone, filled with new communication and a lot of comedy. I followed the La Leche League advice on holding off on solids until 5 or 6 months to avoid allergies and then slowly added fruits and vegetables.
This advice has completely changed. Feed babies anything, the experts urge. As it turns out, the long drawn out introduction of foods exacerbates allergies rather than the reverse.
This makes things a lot easier.
How about a 21st century opinion? At the eye doctor’s office a few weeks ago, I recalled that Dr. Jennifer Ballantine has a 6-month-old baby (as well as two school age children).
“Say, Dr. Ballantine”, I asked, “Do you make your own baby food?”
“Absolutely”, she replied. “And I do not have one extra minute in my day so if I can do it, anyone can.”
She went on to explain that growing up in the South, she had three choices at her school cafeteria: hot dog, hamburger, or chili Frito pie. “I had one of these choices every day with a soda from the vending machine. My kids aren’t going to eat that way.”
So how does she do it? Much the way Katy and I did. She makes a little extra of what the family is eating and then grinds it up.
“I use a food processor and small Tupperware cups which I can freeze. If the baby doesn’t eat it all, it’s literally a few pennies I’ve wasted. I introduce each new food slowly – one over three days.”
Making Simple Baby Food
Finally, I asked Melissa Voorhees, mother of four, a recent grandmother and in my book, a champion in feeding children. (My son, at age 6, used to go to her house to eat Brussels sprouts!)
Her warm words are better than recipes:
I always preferred kitchen duties to other household chores. So cooking for my children was easy and I learned by doing as I went. One thing is that they begin eating food so gradually that there is plenty of time to figure it out! A food mill, a blender and fork to mash and the dailyness of it.
My mother raised us all in Brazil which in those days was decades behind the US in convenience foods so by necessity ,all of our food was made at home. Her idea was to make a “little soup” of some bit of meat, potato, carrot and a green vegetable in broth and then whir it up in the blender. There there was mashed banana, mashed avocado with lime, stewed fruit mashed with a fork or blended. Then there was a morning oatmeal, milk mash, and that was pretty much it. Not a lot of variety.
I, on the other hand, was on a mission to introduce lots of different foods so I went week by week adding something new. I remember answering Dr. McDowell when he asked what foods I had given the baby up to that point. He was dumbfounded by my long list and I felt like a star! I used to make porridge out of different grains: oatmeal, or brown rice or millet and run it through the food mill. also, all kinds of vegetables, fish tofu, lentils, beans. Chicken or meat had to be a part of the little soup because by themselves, they were too grainy. Legumes had to be run through the food mill with brown rice or they were too rough.
Babies love sweet potato, applesauce and banana. It is so natural to just give them a chunk of this or that to gum while you are preparing, although you have to be near because they can choke! I always tasted what I gave them. Homemade soupy brown rice run through a food mill is pleasant and sweet.
I think the whole feeding thing is a great place to interact with a baby, playing with them, experimenting…. You get the picture!
As Babies Grow Up
There are two goals for feeding babies:
- They eat enough good food to thrive
- They join the family at meals
The second goal may not seem obvious but I think it’s extremely important. From a parent’s arms to the high chair to a place at the table is an important early journey.
To prepare the path, involve the baby in the feeding right from the start. When you’re spoon-feeding, give the baby a spoon of his or her own to practice with. (Incidentally, wear a raincoat). Introduce finger foods early on that the baby can chase around the high chair tray. It’s all pretty messy but worth it.
By age 3 or 4, children can use forks and spoons correctly, by 6 or so, they can cut their food (it’s easier if you provide them with a small steak knife) and by 12, they can be taught to carve the Thanksgiving turkey.
The skills learned early on extend to helping with meals and then to learning to cook. Two year olds can help set a table and tear up lettuce for a salad; three year old can beat up an egg, sift flour and much more. My friend, Molly Layton’s children could make wonderful quesadillas at age 7.
“It took patience and holding my breath as they learned to use the stove but it was really worth it.” said Molly. “It’s easier and faster just to do it yourself but whenever I took the time to teach my kids a skill, I never regretted it.”
Past the toddler stage, children can get set in their ways when it comes to eating. I learned recently that children need to taste a new food between 15 and 20 times before they will accept it willingly. No wonder mac ‘n cheese is the route most tired parents take!
Expanding their repertoire is the role of parents but how to achieve it?
Bring the kids to the dinner table and have them eat what you eat. Not 5-alarm chili and raw onions but what my sister Claudia calls the ‘brown-green-white thing’ or protein/vegetable/carbohydrate. Don’t give them too much and do ask them to have at least one bite. Twenty times later, they may actually ask for more spinach. Prepare to hear howls of “Oh, no! Not squash!” but don’t put up with a lot of complaints. Dinner should have some semblance of civility.
School and beyond
The now celebrated Chef Ann Cooper, the ‘Rengade Lunch Lady’ is a former chef who took on the school lunch program. Her aim, in fact, what she calls her ‘life’s work’ is to feed kids well in an institutional setting. Lack of money, public policy that ignores school food and children’s health, and the commodity based food service providers are some of the issues she has tackled. As a startling counterpoint, the French school system is often cited in terms of their budget (much larger) and the food itself (healthier and fresher).
I decided to see for myself.
A part-timer in Paris, I am just across the street from an elementary school. As it turned out, my visit coincided with ‘La Semaine du Gout’ (The Week of Taste). Every year in France, a week is devoted to teaching children about food and how it’s produced. Some years, chefs go to the schools and give cooking and tasting lessons. Last year, the kids visited a chocolate factory. This time, a cow named Marguerite was brought in from Normandy and installed right in the school grounds.
“This is to teach our city youngsters how the milk gets into bottles!” one of the teachers explained. La Semaine du Gout is about more than that, however. The program promotes good eating habits, the development of taste and appreciation of food and of course, the preservation of a very important aspect of French culture.
My American friend, Lee Hubert, who has lived over 30 years in France, added this:
“The French have seen the rise of obesity in the States and now in England. They don’t want to wait 30 years before addressing the problem. Fast food and processed food is popular in France so it’s a real concern.”
The diverting sight of Marguerite peacefully chewing her cud temporarily stalled my plan to see what French kids eat for lunch. But it was easy enough to find out: the weekly menu is posted online and at the school door. No surprise: dairy products were in the spotlight. The children sampled French cheese, yogurt, milk and custard. For each day’s menu, the specific food group (dairy, meats, raw and cooked vegetables, cereals, beans, and sugared products) is printed in a particular color, making it easy to see how the meal is balanced. Each lunch has a starter, main dish and dessert.
My favorite was Friday’s meal:
- Hearts of Palm
- Cod in Lemon Sauce with Steamed Parsley Potatoes
- Yogurt with a ‘fruit of the season’
Sounds healthy to me! But back at home…
“The reason we don’t cook is because we don’t need to.” was the honest and realistic assessment I got from a young adult friend a few years back. And it’s hard to argue that we need to cook in a country where prepared food whether it’s for babies, children, adults, dieters, or the elderly is cheap and available. An intelligent, attentive young mother told me recently that organic processed baby foods were ‘better’ for babies than home prepared food. Really?
The flip side of not cooking for ourselves is that we’re bombarded with alarming news about processed and prepared foods. We have marvelous resources: bountiful food supplies and tremendous choice for modest cost. Feeding ourselves and feeding our young is basic, healthy, sensible…
And fun! Well, not always fun but worth the effort? Definitely!