Why I Make Homemade Baby Food

by | Feb 1, 2010
Riley and Root Veggies

Riley and Root Veggies

Today I am honored and humbled to have longtime friend and colleague Jennifer Freese share her healthstyle transition from not-so-healthy scientist to thriving new mother.

Jennifer was blessed (cursed?) with the gift of proximity. She sat in the desk and worked at the lab bench directly adjacent to mine for four years at UCSF. As a result she saw firsthand how I gleefully integrate healthy living into my freakishly busy schedule.

Jennifer’s story is the perfect example of how small, gradual and customized changes can transform your life. She started shopping at the farmers market so she could bring fresh produce to make beautiful salads at work (I’m famous for this in the lab). She started jogging regularly, although she swore she could never be a runner. She even switched a few meals a week from red meat to fish, despite her Midwestern roots!

Last year Jennifer had her first child, and is now imparting her healthy lifestyle to her new daughter. I’m thrilled to have her share her story with you.

Homemade Healthstyle: Lessons In Making Baby Food

by Jennifer Freese

I was lucky enough to work with Darya in the Pleasure Lab for four years. It’s hard not to be influenced by her passion for food and a healthy lifestyle. Not just the book recommendations and exercise tips, but watching her effortlessly practice habits which to me seemed impossible. Seeing her live and eat changed how I think about food.

Darya taught me about healthy eating and how to really integrate it into my life. I now love shopping at my local farmers’ market almost every Saturday. I fill my plate with vegetables and eat whole grains I had never even heard of before. Since I do the grocery shopping and a majority of the cooking for the house, my husband has necessarily upgraded his healthstyle as well. And now I’m passing this lifestyle on to the newest member of our family, my daughter Riley.

When my daughter was a few months old we went over to a friend’s house for dinner. I was stunned to see my friend whip open the cabinet and presented her toddler with mac n’ cheese (pop off the top and serve), a handful of yogurt melts (freeze dried yogurt), a banana, and toddler formula.

It was the most highly processed, colorless meal I’d ever seen.

That evening, I thought about how easy it is to go from the jarred pureed baby foods to the now popular grab-and-go toddler foods to adult TV dinners and fast foods. I vowed that when my daughter started solid foods I would do things very differently. I’d already toyed with the idea of making my own baby foods, but it seemed like a lot of work. However, I decided that shaping her tastes early with fresh foods was worth the effort.

Learning to cook for a baby required some research and planning. There are many opinions on how to introduce solid foods to babies and as a scientist I was compelled to read up on all the theories. I am happy to say that Riley enjoys most of the foods I’ve presented to her. In hindsight I think all the time I spent deciding what should come first–pears or peas–wasn’t worth the worry.

Most of the recipes for first foods for babies are the same: steam the fruit or vegetable until very tender, blend and serve. My husband gave me a fantastic gift for my 1st Mother’s Day: the Beaba Babycook and the Cooking for Baby cookbook. The Babycook is a steamer/blender/defroster all in one that I use almost daily. The cookbook has given me recipe ideas beyond simple pureed foods, suggestions for tasty combinations and flavoring with spices and herbs.

Obviously making baby food takes more time than cracking open a jar. I have to plan ahead and make sure I’ve started steaming long before mealtime. Hungry babies do not wait patiently for dinner! I always make large quantities and put some in the fridge for the next few days and freeze the rest. I was surprised at how long it takes to measure out all those 2 oz portions. But once I make that time investment, my freezer is stocked and I have food ready to serve in the future.

Making my own baby food allows me to serve Riley a greater variety of foods and flavors. Roasted red peppers, cilantro and amaranth are not typical on the ingredients list of jarred baby foods. My hope is that this early exposure to a greater variety of foods will help her keep an open mind about food in the future (although I’m sure she’ll go through picky phases like all kids). For now she is growing and thriving and that tells me my time is well spent.

The affirmation that I was doing the right thing came on a camping trip when Riley was 8 months old. I brought some homemade food, but I also took along a few commercial jars. Yes, sometime convenience is really nice, especially in the woods without my Babycook!

It seemed like a good idea until I opened the jar of peas. Unlike my vibrantly colored homemade peas, these were gray and didn’t smell right. Not wanting to influence Riley I disguised my doubts and put a spoonful in her mouth. She completely rejected them.

Not only would she not eat the jarred peas, she wouldn’t eat fresh peas for two weeks. I guess they had lost her trust.

I have since tried some other jarred foods (now I sample everything before I give it to her) and truth is, they just don’t taste like their fresh counterparts. How can we expect a toddler to enjoy fresh green beans when all they’ve had is processed pureed green beans that taste nothing like the real thing?

My experience with Riley is that she enjoys what is served but is reluctant to accept change. I’d much rather she enjoy freshly prepared fruits and veggies and reject the processed food.

Don’t get me wrong though, we’re not only about healthy eating. For Riley’s first birthday I plan to stick an entire mini cake in front of her and let her go at it. But since I will make the cake myself, I feel better knowing every ingredient that is going in her mouth, on her face, in her hair, and on the floor!

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11 Responses to “Why I Make Homemade Baby Food”

  1. I think that you can find decent baby food (as in fruit and vegetable purees) in a jar — I fed my daughter Earth’s Best, which was organic and had no additives. On the other hand, it wasn’t particularly interesting, and she moved onto table food fairly quickly. It can be a bigger challenge to feed a toddler — because they tend to be picky eaters, it’s tempting to just give in to their pickiness and serve them the same (often processed) food over and over again.

  2. Lizzie says:

    Jen!!! Riley is beautiful and you are my hero! I’m so impressed with your new lifestyle and I hope everything is going well for you. (Does this mean no more deep-fried turkey on Thanksgiving??)

  3. Dan H says:

    While it’s admirable that you find time to make your own baby food, I’ve never seen any evidence that the source/taste of mush you feed your baby has much effect on their toddler eating habits.

    I know parents who fed their babies the usual store bought mush and had their toddlers devour mushrooms and olives. My daughter had a huge variety of fruit and vegetable mush jars (never sweetened & never with more than a few clearly recognizable ingredients) and now she’ll barely touch a vegetable whether it’s from a farmer’s market or supermarket. She does devour fresh fruit and has extremely little mass produced products as part of her daily diet. (She also eats raw cinnamon so I won’t vouch for her sense of taste)

    My point is that you’re presenting an anecdote. It’s really half an anecdote because you don’t yet know what your toddler will eat. It’s great for the environment that you use fresh, local ingredients. Whether fresh or store bought, your baby will get every nutrient she needs to grow up healthy. I think there’s evidence that a baby’s diet that is too heavily weighted towards sugary mush (i.e. fruit mush only) isn’t great. There’s clearly evidence that parents should push a balanced diet on toddlers and limit the intake of sweets. I don’t know of any evidence that steaming your own vegetables will affect your child’s long-term food interests any more than buying a high quality jar. If you have evidence beyond anecdote, I’d love to read it.

  4. citypixie says:

    There are real benefits to DIY baby food. Putting aside the economical savings (especially if you prefer organics), fresh baby food is BPA-free (which cannot be said of any food that comes out of cans) and likely is more nutritious because foods are prepared at peak ripeness when foods have highest nutritional value. Given the mass scale of baby food production is seems unlikely that all ingredients are individually evaluated to ensure that each one is perfectly ripe (as opposed to under-ripe or over-ripe).
    I’m an advocate for DIY — it is very easy to incorporate baby food prep into any meal prep routine and you can introduce a lot of interesting healthy foods to your baby (like quinoa and bok choy) that you don’t usually see on the baby food shelf.
    I blog about easy, nutritious DIY baby food weekly at citybaby.posterous.com. Anyone can do it, and there are real advantages.

  5. Dan H says:

    The economical argument is weak if you’re buying a $140 steamer and blender (plus your own jars) as the author of the main post did. Considering the period of babies eating primarily mush is around 6 months, we probably spent under $200 on food total. I doubt the equivalent amount of fresh vegetables cost significantly less than that + the equipment costs. For better or worse, mass produced food is cheaper.

    The “highest nutritional value” point is also weak. A person either receives a good variety of nutrients or does not. Even if the home-made mush has slightly more nutrients per ounce, a child can easily get more than sufficient nutrition with premade or homemade mush.
    As for vital nutrients that might be entirely lost in mass production, I’d like to know about any that wouldn’t also be lost in home steaming and blending. Do you know of any published scientific studies showing babies raised on a well-balanced mix of mass produce mush have nutrient deficiencies or even significantly lower levels of nutrients than babies on homemade foods?

    There is a point regarding BPA, but the dangers of the trace amounts of BPA that might be in the lids of glass jars are still unclear. Also, quite a few baby food containers are now BPA free. See: http://thesoftlandingbaby.com/2009/02/02/which-prepared-baby-food-containers-are-bpa-free/ Note, I just found that website on a quick search and don’t know anything about it’s reliability or accuracy.

    I’m not trying to criticize anyone who spends the time making their own mush. Some children really might like it more and eating local and not throwing out containers is better for the environment. What I’m pushing back against is the idea that there’s scientific evidence that it’s nutritionally better or leads to children eating better as toddlers. If you know of peer reviewed papers, I’d be glad to educate myself.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Hi Dan,

      I appreciate your comments, though I would contend this was always intended as an anecdote and working example rather than proof of concept. Since babies confuse me, my favorite part of the post is Jen’s personal transformation (I’m so proud!).

      I think there are a lot of ways to a healthy, happy baby and each family has to figure out what works best for their situation.


  6. Hey Dan,

    You raise some excellent points. I don’t know of any studies off-hand, but you might try checking the Organic Consumer’s Assocation or Mother Earth News. Both are usually very reputable.

    I do have some more anecdotal evidence to present. We fed my oldest son (who is now nearly 5 years old) regular jar baby food. He is by far one of the pickiest children I know. He will eat very little. Mostly we fed him jar food because we didn’t know any better (it wasn’t the high quality jar food, by the way). With our second son, I had just started getting into caring for our planet and planted a large organic garden. My wife bought a very small blender/puree thing and we steamed the food on the stove. It cost us $15 for the blender and we bought some containers so we could freeze some. He will eat just about anything, and is way more open-minded about trying new foods than his older brother.

    Of course, this really doesn’t prove anything, because there are dozens of variables that are still involved, but I wanted to share that, at least for my children, it worked very well. And we saved a TON of money over buying jar food.

  7. Hannah says:

    As the mum of an 18-month old who eats predominantly homemade food, I loved this post.

    You experience great economies of scale if you can use existing kitchen equipment (eg. blender, Bamix, Thermomix), or if you have more than one child – and experimenting with mashed food combinations can yield tasty alternatives for soups, sauces and mashes that are suitable for parental palates.

    H 🙂

  8. citypixie says:

    I don’t advocate the use of “specialized” equipment. For example, I happen to have and use a food processor. A lot of people use food mills, which can be bought new for under $10. A blender will do, as will an immersion blender. If making baby food is what you want to do, no special equipment is required — use what you have.
    I’m not aware of white papers that outline the specific benefits and outcomes of serving your child fresh vs. shelf-stable food. Shelf-stable food is just fine. You’re certainly not harming your child by feeding them something manufactured by Gerber or Earth’s Best.

    I can’t cite any evidence (nor do i feel compelled to — this is a blog not a peer-reviewed academic journal) but I think most people would agree that fresh food of any kind tastes better than shelf-stable food. I think everyone can agree that fresh foods (even those that are later frozen) cooked at peak ripeness are more flavorful than those that are processed. Some evidence suggests that foods lightly cooked (and even frozen) are actually more nutritious than the stuff that comes in jars or cans (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/02/dining/02baby.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2).

    But DIY isn’t for everyone. I can and do completely appreciate that. But for those who want to do it, there are benefits and to negate those benefits with sweeping, assumptive statements isn’t fair. There are as many anecdotal reasons why one should as well as one should not make fresh baby food. In the end, it is a choice that a parent makes. There is no “bad” option.

    • Dan H says:

      Home cooked and premade can both vary a lot in price. You’ve taken a low cost method while Jennifer spent more. I agree that fresh stuff tastes better, but I question whether giving babies slightly better tasting mush might affect their palettes significantly later. We’re talking about 6 months of a kid’s life and years before a child can control what is placed on her plate.

      Yes, homemade food might be more nutritious, but whether a preparation of carrots has 10% or 20% of the USRDA recommended amount for a nutrient is irrelevant. A kid eating a balanced diet fills nutritional needs. Looking at the percentages of nutrients in each substance is the exact type of thing people like Michael Pollen argue against. There are reasons to eat local and fresh, but nutrient percentages aren’t the reason.

      As for requesting references, I know and respect Darya. On this blog she tries to blend her love of food with scientific information. When scientific conclusions are presented without supporting data, I’ll push back. (i.e. kids who eat home-made mush eat better as toddlers) Sometimes there are no good data, and the real solution is to write something as a hypothesis rather than conclusion. Still, this is how I’d talk to a scientist in person and how I’ll address scientists here. (And Darya, for some reason I’ve gotten a bit pointed on this post. Do tell me if I should tone it down.)

  9. Renee says:

    I started making homemade baby food for my grand daughter about 6 months ago. Let me tell you she LOVES it. They do keep some jar food on hand for traveling & when they will be out on a long day. So far pumpkin & squash(all varieties) are her favorite. I picked up a steamer and I have used that almost everyday. Not only is she getting fresh foods we have been eating healthier also. My sons that are 20 & 23 grew up on jar foods, my younger son is the pickiest eater I have ever seen. I thinkif I hadmade him his food instead ofgiving him jar food he would not be so picky. Have you really tasted some of that jar food? it is nasty especially the meats. My grandbaby loves Chicken & pasta that gramma makes her. I also only feed my pets Natural food & make my own Healthy dog treats. We all get to enjoyit 🙂 Keep up the good work. Merry CHRISTmas to all!!!!

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