It’s late summer in the kitchen, and dinner is almost ready. A delicious tomato-and-basil salad tossed with a little balsamic vinegar for extra flavor, organic chicken fresh off the grill, and on the side, some roasted corn and new potatoes drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and fresh oregano. A fruit tart bakes in the oven. When the family sits down to eat, passing plates and bowls that smell like summer, a jar of carrots is popped open for the baby. The ingredients: carrots, water, tuna oil, choline bitartrate, gelatin, and alpha tocopheryl acetate.
What’s wrong with this picture? Good nutrition is vital for babies, so why aren’t they fed the same fresh food as the rest of the family? Why hasn’t baby food evolved along with the rest of the American diet? Read a baby-food label, and you may just leave that overpriced aisle and never return.
The good news is that there’s a movement afoot to bring healthy, nutritious, and organic food to the younger set. Parents are shunning jars and packages and replacing them with fresh food made with the help of food processors and blenders. Leading them is noted chef, Food Network celebrity, and cookbook author Tyler Florence. In his new book, Start Fresh, he says, “As parents of this new generation, we have a leg up on what our parents knew about health, nutrition, and obesity. It’s time to stop making excuses about what we put on our tables and in our children’s bodies and recognize that companies that produce cheap foods are not doing you any favors.”
The family described above? They could throw some of the corn, potatoes, and tomato into a food processor, and the baby would eat straight from the garden, with very little extra work. It’s baby food that even parents will want to try—because it’s fresh, healthy, and delicious. Florence encourages parents to make their own food because “the moment children move away from breast milk...is the time you can make a gigantic difference in what they consider delicious, the way they eat, and the nutrients they put in their bodies. And all you have to do is cook for them.”
Charlene D. Elliott, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication and the CIHR Canada Research Chair in Food Marketing, Policy and Children’s Health at the University of Calgary, studies how food is marketed and its impact on children’s food habits, perceptions, and health. “Taste preferences form very early on and persist over time,” Elliott says. “Given this, you want to ensure that very young children are given the best quality food.”
One of Elliott’s studies, published in the Journal of Public Health, evaluated the sugar and sodium content of popular baby-food brands sold in Canada (many of which are also available in the United States). It found that “63 percent of products have either high levels of sodium or an excessive proportion of calories coming from sugar,” and that “over half (53 percent) of the products examined derive more than 20 percent of their calories from sugar.” In fact, certain packaged goods contain up to 80 percent of calories from sugar. “There is a presumed halo effect around baby and toddler foods because people expect these foods to be held to a higher standard. Yet this is not necessarily the case,” says Elliott.
The risks inside the jars don’t stop at salt and sugar. The lids of many baby-food jars contain the industrial chemical bisphenol-A (BPA). The FDA has expressed some concern that BPA can affect the brains, behavior, and prostate glands of fetuses, infants, and small children. And then there are all the chemicals, pesticides, and antibiotics that go into raising the ingredients in nonorganic baby food. Not to mention the environmental toll taken by the hundreds of plastic containers and jars a baby and toddler will go through in the first few years. Is the risk really worth the perceived ease?
The irony is that many of the reasons new parents have for not making their own baby food are actually reasons to do it. Time is often the first complaint, followed quickly by money. However, just a half-hour of steaming and blending can result in 20 baby-sized servings that can be frozen and reheated later. And when food that the baby can eat is incorporated into the family meal, as Florence recommends, it adds minimal time to cooking that is already in progress.
Gardeners know that the cost of growing produce is tiny compared to purchasing the same items in a grocery store. The same goes for baby food. One of Florence’s first recipes is a simple Sweet Potato Puree. The pound of sweet potatoes that Florence uses to make four 4-ounce servings costs less than a dollar. To buy four 4-ounce jars of name-brand sweet potato puree, at $.59 each, costs $2.36. With babies consuming about five to seven jars of food per day, the numbers quickly add up. And the good news for parents who garden? They’ll save even more.
Florence sums it up best when he says, “As a chef and father of three, cooking for my children means more than just going through the motions of getting dinner on the table. It’s about forging the foundation for a healthy relationship with food that will last for the rest of their lives.”
Check out these exclusive recipes from Start Fresh: