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Baby, That's Good
Homemade Food Has Practical Appeal

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A bustling crowd of 50 or so has filled the seats in Art and Soul's private dining room on a chilly Saturday morning. Soon the wait staff streams in with trays of marinated shrimp and fried balls of mac and cheese. Tempting, yet no immediate takers.

Instead, attention is fixed on Ryan Morgan, the friendly executive chef of this Capitol Hill hotel restaurant. The dish he is demonstrating smells earthy and rich. He has used butter and garlic, thyme and cremini mushrooms, pearl barley and a house-made vegetable broth.

It is baby's first "risotto," he says, and that makes the grown-ups giggle.

Moms and dads of the mostly stay-put set (8 months and younger; about a dozen total in tow) plus a few parents-to-be have come to find out whether making baby food is something they can handle. Their specific reasons represent the voices of a food nation in a recession, with issues:

"My daughter won't eat pre-made baby food."

"It's bland and boring."

"Mine has a lot of food allergies."

"We want our kid to eat organic, too."

"We want to save money."

Making baby food, or even buying it, can be daunting to new parents. It's a whole other realm of concern and responsibility that is building small organic brands and has driven the big names in baby food, such as Gerber, to launch organic lines of their own. Then again, to some parents it is as simple as giving children just about whatever is on the grown-ups' plates.

The care and feeding of Morgan's own 3-month-old daughter prompted him to organize the class and develop baby-food recipes, some of which will be offered on the room-service menus at the Liaison, an Affinia hotel, beginning in May. (The chef has contracted with Eco Farms in Lanham to grow seven acres of organic fruit, vegetables and herbs that will be used for the infant and toddler offerings.)

"We do bowls and treats for pets as a lifestyle-brand hotel; I thought, 'Why not baby food?' " says Morgan, 31. The next class, scheduled for early summer, already has a waiting list.

Chefs these days tend to be acutely aware of which solid foods their offspring eat first, and they get props for it. In 2005, Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert published recipes in USA Weekend that he had devised for his young son: Free Range Chicken With Squash Puree or Organic Poached Pear With Maple and Vanilla Sauce, mon petit?

Ripert's pal Anthony Bourdain, who is working on the fifth season of his "No Reservations" food series on the Travel Channel, says his 2-year-old daughter ate pureed meats beginning at 5 months. "An early proud moment for me was seeing her go crazy for wild nettle risotto and pecorino cheese," he says.

By the time Ariane was 8 months old, Bourdain and his wife would give their daughter some of their food as long as it didn't pose a choking hazard. Now she's a little adventurer who loves sushi. "And french fries, but we try to keep those out of view."

For a book tentatively titled "Baby Love Purees," Washington's Geoff Tracy has been creating recipes that "incorporate more interesting things," such as poached halibut with peas, and Bartlett pears with dried plums. Both were taste-tested by the Chef Geoff restaurateur's 22-month-old twins and wife Norah O'Donnell, an MSNBC correspondent. He says, "My wife has eaten a lot of this baby food -- willingly!"

Although feeding "real food" to babies might seem trendy, it is simply the way of much of the world beyond American shores. In fact, some of the practices that come with stern warnings here are contradicted in other cultures. No honey before age 1, pediatricians say, because it may contain spores of botulism that could endanger infants.

Yet babies born in some parts of India are given an introduction to sweets with a blessing and a bit of honey on their tongues. Strong spices such as turmeric and cumin are not held back from food mashed for Indian babies, which can be lentil crepes, spinach with chicken, and yogurt with fresh fruit purees.

In the United States, caveats and conservatism are found in many of the guidelines and checklists for parents who want to make their own baby food. Certain groups of foods have been deemed appropriate for specific age groups: rice cereals at 4 to 6 months, beans and meats at 8 months and up, and so on.

Introducing single foods over a period of three to four days is almost always encouraged, the better to monitor possible allergic reactions. Pureed is the sole initial texture of choice, and not just because little teeth have yet to appear. A baby's tongue-thrust reflex tends to shove out any new or different foods. Studies show that can happen from eight to 20 times before a baby accepts a new food; that's why parents are told to hang in there and keep trying, although making it an obvious goal is a surefire way to create conflict at the table.

The rules seem unnecessarily rigid when placed against the research of Clara Davis, a Midwestern pediatrician who conducted studies of babies' eating habits in the 1920s and '30s. According to Nina Planck's new book, "Real Food for Mother and Baby" (Bloomsbury), Davis's team assembled a group of test babies and laid out a decidedly unbabylike spread: broiled ground beef and lamb; steel-cut oats; bone marrow; rye crackers; minced haddock, chicken and sweetbreads; raw and poached eggs; and a variety of steamed and baked fruits and vegetables. Oh, and a little dish of sea salt at each baby place setting. But no processed foods.

Davis was quite the renegade; the prevailing prescribed baby diet at the time was sieved vegetable soup at 1 year, potato at 18 months and never a banana, which was considered "indigestible," Planck writes.

The doctor's findings were fascinating. When left to eat what they wanted, the babies preferred meat but had a relatively varied diet and tended to eat in streaks (a lot of one kind of food for a while, then they moved on). They dipped in and out of the salt, to no ill effect. Close records were kept, and the babies thrived.

So why the move away from real food? The need for safety and convenience, in part, and the allure of baby food marketed as healthful and nutritious.

Georgetown resident Katy Kunkel, a writer from New Zealand, says she was "quite stressed about the 'right' foods" when her first child was born here in 2004. "What really knocked some sense into me was a trip home when my son was 6 months old," she says. "I had all these rules when I arrived, and my old girlfriends just laughed at me. I was exclusively breast-feeding him, and their kids were eating chicken."

Kunkel, 36, says she came back much more relaxed and "able to go with her gut." She and her husband, Peter, have three children younger than 5, with a baby due in July. "I am a big believer in the kids eating what we eat," she says, with potent spices or seasonings added for the adults' portions. "In this house, there are no special meals for picky eaters!" Kunkel makes couscous with tomato, onion and pine nuts; refried beans and rice; mild curries; scrambled eggs with smoked salmon; and stir-fried rice with vegetables and meat. As many moms do, she posts recipes and tips in a blog; hers is http://www.saucyapron.com.

That willingness to share is how Maggie Meade started WholesomeBabyFood.com in September 2003. The site gets about 1.2 million page views per month and features 300 of her own recipes. "I was taking care of newborn twins," says Meade, 42, who lives in Derry, N.H., "and found pediatricians who were at opposite ends of the spectrum about feeding issues."

She had cooked for her first-born, now 20, while she was in college. "I found that a whole lot easier to do. I'd mash for him whatever I was eating, or maybe a banana. It was as economical then as it is now."

Meade has included a homemade baby food cost comparison chart on her site, along with a link to a nutrition-cost analysis study done by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Meade's figures put the cost of non-organic, jarred basic fruits and vegetables at about 23 cents per ounce vs. 3 or 4 cents per ounce when those foods are cooked at home.

Of course, for those who are willing to spend more, there are refrigerated or flash-frozen organic baby foods. Gigi Lee Chang, 41, launched her Plum Organics line in 2006. It is sold in Whole Foods Markets and Super Target stores nationwide and features distinctive flavors such as Mango Muesli and Black Bean Tomato Ragu. Another brand, Homemade Baby of Culver City, Calif., gives consumers the means to track ingredients' sources.

Nielsen reports that sales of frozen organic baby food are modest compared with those of non-organic strained, shelf-stable baby food ($58,094 vs. $303.1 million for March 2008 to March 2009), but Chang says it's a category that will continue to grow; parents appreciate the emphasis on purity. For her, Plum Organic's appeal is about flavor and texture: "We're bringing a culinary experience to baby food." Her line gets a boost from ingredients such as celeriac, onion and carrot concentrates, and from spices and herbs such as cinnamon and rosemary.

In February, Food Network star Tyler Florence launched an "eco-friendly" organic line of baby food in Austin, touting fruits and vegetables that are roasted and caramelized for greater flavor.

It's quite possible that the tots of today could help their moms and dads eat better, says Planck, who has an almost 2 1/2 -year-old son and is expecting twins in June -- especially if those parents have not been cooking for themselves.

"What we're seeing now is a well-informed group of people who seek out whole foods for their children," she says. "They're not yuppies from red states and blue states. There are lots of working mothers who choose to do this because it's healthful and because it's economical."

Planck, 38, has lived her second book, much as she described first-person discoveries in her acclaimed 2006 "Real Food: What to Eat and Why." This time, the former journalist researched the history of baby food and chronicles the ups and downs of how she has fed her son Julian, now almost 2 1/2 .

It's no surprise to learn that she never gave him baby food, per se. "I pureed once or twice. It was a waste of time," she says. Before Julian was a year old, Planck was serving him everything that she and her partner, Rob Kaufelt (proprietor of Murray's Cheese in New York), were eating: fish and shellfish, citrus, cow's milk, nuts, organic peas and corn. One school of thought would say she was just plain lucky that he was not allergic to any of those foods.

Planck sees it this way: Exposure trumps food sensitivities, especially when the baby has been breast-fed for at least six months. And there is a growing wisdom that says babies enjoy a wide array of tastes and textures.

Julian's dietary regimen was not all smooth sailing, as Planck recounts unflinchingly. But the overriding message of her book underscores the state of baby food today: not necessarily from a jar, not so daunting, and definitely real.

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