What to Feed Your Baby

By: Cynthia Lair

We are given an opportunity as parents to revisit what it means to feed our bodies. Babies and young children wait expectantly for their parents to feed them. The choice of what goes into an infant's mouth is really up to the parent. Most of us want to feed our children the best we can offer, but often the line between nutrition education and advertising is thin, undistinguishable.

Americans fork over $1.25 billion every year buying commercially prepared baby food. Manufacturers of baby food encourage parents to think that their products have special properties that make them appropriate for infants. Millions of advertising dollars are spent perpetuating this myth. It is simply not true.

Many parents take their cues about when to start their babies on solid foods from baby food manufacturers. If the cereal box says it's safe for 4-month-old babies, parents assume this to be true. Gerber even prints a 1-800# on its box promising to answer parents' questions day or night about caring for and feeding their baby. Of course it behooves the baby food companies to have parents start solids as early as possible. But does the baby benefit? Studies show that the early introduction of solids may be linked with an increase in childhood inhalant and food allergies. (2,5) 

There are obvious physical signs of a baby's readiness for solid foods. These usually don't occur before 6 months of age and include the ability to sit up unattended and grabbing or reaching for food. Some cultures use the appearance of teeth as a sign for readiness. Many parents aren't aware that during a baby's first year, they get all the nutrition they need from breast milk. The first few months of eating solids are simply to accustom baby to new tastes and textures.

Have you checked out the taste, texture, look, and smell of commercial baby cereal? Pour some commercial rice cereal in a bowl. What does it look like? It has no smell. The taste is the definitive of bland. The cereal is made from refined rice that has been processed and pre-cooked. Refined grains have nothing to offer but carbohydrates. Whole grains, on the other hand, contain protein, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals and LIFE. The germ is still intact. If you put a whole grain in water, it sprouts! If you put commercial baby cereal in water, it makes paste. Nutritionally inferior, refined foods contribute to many of today's health problems, including obesity. Why train your baby to want it? By pre-toasting organic whole grains, grinding them in a small electric grinder, and cooking the grains with water, you can create a fresh, delicious, nutrient-dense cereal with taste, texture, and aroma that everyone in the family can grow on (see recipe inset).

It is true that commercial baby food is convenient, but the price tag for convenience is costly. Besides paying companies to blenderize food and put it in jars, you also pay them to dilute the food with water and add starchy fillers such as tapioca, rice flour and modified corn starch. Even the companies producing organic baby food use fillers. Some manufacturers add sugar, salt and corn syrup to the food. Additives not only help with production costs, but help mask off-flavors and give taste to otherwise bland, lifeless food. A jar of banana baby food may contain as little as 30% fruit by weight. Compared to a fresh, ripe, organic banana that's been mashed with a fork, the commercial food is nutritionally inferior and more expensive.

Does your baby deserve organic food? What may be tolerated by a mature adult may prove harsh to the immature system of an infant. Congress unanimously passed a Food Quality Protection Act in 1996 that requires all pesticides to be safe for infants and children. Yet in a recent comprehensive study done by the Environmental Working Group, pesticide levels in the U.S. food supply continue to be at unsafe levels for children aged 6 months to 5 years. (4) According to the report, peaches, apples, pears, grapes and commercial baby foods which use these fruits are the most common sources of unsafe levels of organophosphate pesticides. To protect your child, buy organic baby food; or better yet, make fresh food for your baby from organic grains, beans, fruits and vegetables.

And what about freshness? Doesn't your baby deserve fresh food? Fresh food has the maximum in vitamins, minerals and enzymes. These add vitality to our lives. Foods lose nutrients and livelihood when processed. A little jar of army-green peas with a 2-year shelf life does not compare to the smell, taste, color and vitality offered by garden-fresh peas that have been steamed and mashed.

Iron is a common concern. I have always been curious as to why iron deficiency is common in infants. A deficiency that, according to most sources, can only be reversed or prevented by feeding babies iron-fortified food starting at six months of age. Several factors can lead to an iron deficiency in infants. One is a mother who was anemic during pregnancy. Another is the common practice of cutting the cord too early, before pulsing has ceased. Apparently this decreases the iron stores transferred from the mother. Choosing formula over breast milk is a factor. Babies can absorb up to 50% of the iron in breast milk, but only 4% of the iron in fortified formula. If the mother's iron levels are sufficient, a child who is breastfed for 12 months will maintain normal iron status (1). Early introduction of cow's milk will also lead to reduced iron stores. Cow's milk given to a child prior to one year of age can cause occult bleeding in the intestines which will result in an iron deficiency. In a 1996 survey conducted in the U.S., researchers found that despite recommendations to the contrary, 50% of the infants in the study were getting cow's milk before their first birthday (3).

To address the problem, baby food manufacturers fortify food with electrolytic iron - one of the least absorbable forms of artificial iron. Electrolytic iron is used because it sticks to the flakes of cereal instead of settling to the bottom of the box. Ferrous sulfate, a more absorbable form of iron, can affect the flavor and appearance of the cereal. Manufacturers can produce a more consistent and attractive product with a longer shelf life by adding electrolytic iron. Because of the poor absorbability, your baby will need larger quantities of the iron-fortified food in order to meet requirements for the mineral.

Whole grains, especially the more nutrient-dense grains like quinoa and millet, have naturally occurring iron. If you are breastfeeding your baby, eating a well-balanced diet, and using whole grain cereal for your baby, you should not have to worry about iron. If you would feel safer with an iron-fortified cereal, do it naturally. Toast the grains you use for cereal in a cast iron skillet or add a sprinkle of kelp or dulse (two iron-rich sea vegetables) to your baby's cereal.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest did an evaluation of commercial baby food in 1995. Their published findings recommended the following: "To give your baby the most nutritious and economical food, prepare your own baby food whenever possible. Using a blender or food processor, it is easy to puree most foods." (3) To avoid adding an extra cooking chore, why not do what our foremothers and their foremothers did? Just take part of the fresh, homemade, organic food you are eating and puree some for baby. This way baby gets used to eating the foods the rest of the family eats. Your baby is part of a shared common meal. Marooning babies in a high chair with a separate meal from a jar paves the way for the 2-year-old "picky eater."

It's easy to get started. Two pieces of kitchen equipment that are particularly useful are a blender and a small electric coffee grinder that you don't use for coffee. Use the grinder to grind grains and make your own whole-grain baby cereal (see recipe). The blender can be used to whir some of the peas, carrots, sweet potato, baked apple, kidney beans or brown rice that the rest of the family is eating to make food for baby. Food does not have to be pureed to the silky smoothness of commercial food. A little texture is okay. Stick with simple whole grains, fruits and vegetables for babies 6-10 months of age. Remember to introduce new foods one at a time and wait 4-5 days before introducing another new food. Ground nuts, well-cooked beans and whole grain pastas and breads can be added to the older baby's diet. Since the incidence of dairy allergies in children is high, I would recommend holding off on dairy products for the first year, then serve only high-quality organic dairy products in small amounts. Following are recipes for a delicious family meal. Within these four wholesome recipes you can find a dozen different foods that could be served to your baby.

We have moved away from common sense when it comes to raising children. Our natural inclinations have been replaced with a dependence on "experts in the field" who often have commercial interests in their advice. Trust simple whole foods that were grown in the ground, not pabulum produced in a factory. Set the standard for healthy eating in your home by serving your baby fresh, whole food. Teach your children how to grow and maintain a strong, healthy body so they can shine.


  1. American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Nutrition. The Use of Whole Cow's Milk in Infancy. 1992 89(6):1105-1109.
  2. Businco L, Bruno G, Giampietro PG, Ferrara M. Is Prevention of food allergy worthwhile? J Investig Allergol Clin Immunol 1993 3(5):231-236.
  3. Skinner JD, Carruth BR, Houck K, Moran J, Coletta F, Cotter R, Ott D, McLeod M. Transitions in infant feeding during the first year of life. J American College of Nutrition 1997; 16(3):209-215.
  4. Stallone, Daryl D., Ph.D., M.P.H. and Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D. "Cheating Babies: Nutritional Quality and Cost of Commercial Baby Food." Center for Science in the Public Interest, April 1995.
  5. Wiles, Richard, Kert Davies and Christopher Campbell. Overexposed. Organophosphate Insecticides in Children's Food. Environmental Working Group/The Tides Center, January 1998.
  6. Wolfe SP. "Prevention Programs" - a dietetic minefield. European Journal
    of Clinical Nutrition, 1995 Sept 49 Suppl 1:S92-99.essage behind the ads. They are led to believe that eating the food in the ad will make you stronger, smarter or have more fun. Half of Australian 9 and 10 year olds believe that Ronald Mc Donald knows what is good for children to eat.

Cynthia Lair is the author of Feeding the Whole Family: Whole Foods Recipes for Babies, Young Children and Their Parents

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