Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

'Baby Love': Norah O'Donnell and Geoff Tracy's homemade baby food

Broccoli and spinach baby food puree. This can also be frozen.
Broccoli and spinach baby food puree. This can also be frozen. (Big Stock Photo)
By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, October 14, 2010

I have tried to be a good mother to my two children. But if anyone had suggested to me, in the long-ago overwhelming days when they were tiny, that I make their baby food, I would have given that person the evil eye. Or burst into tears.

Now, having read "Baby Love," the Valentine to homemade baby food written by D.C. residents Norah O'Donnell, MSNBC's chief Washington correspondent, and her husband, chef and restaurateur Geoff Tracy, I can plainly see that making baby's food at home isn't that taxing. But it is, even the most dedicated parent has to admit, another little thing to futz with.

O'Donnell and Tracy, of the Chef Geoff restaurants, have fed their threesome (3-year-old twins Grace and Henry and 2-year-old sister Riley) homemade food since each youngster graduated from breast milk and rice cereal. They've mastered the process and developed recipes that are easy to throw together, store and persuade a baby or toddler to eat.

Why bother? The book makes the case that homemade baby food is better than commercial because you can control what's in it. Both homemade and store-bought food contain vitamins and minerals your baby needs. But the book notes that those little jars of food on the grocery shelf also can have add-ins such as modified cornstarch, though major brands such as Gerber and Beech-Nut don't add starch (or salt or sugar) to their purees. And, the authors say, because the food in those jars has been cooked at high temperatures to ensure a long shelf life, they may have lost some of their nutrients and flavor.

Making your own can be far cheaper than store-bought baby food and nearly as convenient, the authors insist. Most of all, though, O'Donnell and Tracy say, homemade baby food simply tastes better and can foster a lifelong love of healthful food.

There's no need to feel guilty if going homemade is just not for you, however. Amy Jamieson-Petonic, a registered dietitian, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and director of coaching at Cleveland Clinic, told me via e-mail that "the decision really needs to be made on a case-by-case basis." "It does take a little more time and effort to make your own food," she wrote. "Also . . . you need to be very careful to make sure that equipment is clean and that you follow proper food safety procedures to prevent bacterial contamination."

"Baby Love" features delicacies as straightforward as Get Your Greens, a blend of spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, water and milk, for children 8 months and older; and as exotic as Ginger Beef, a puree of 12 ingredients that requires some cooking, for kids 10 months and older and their parents. For kids 12 months and older, there are baked goods such as Norah's Brain-Booster Zucchini Muffins. Foods for the youngest babies (6 months) are necessarily simple: Perfectly Basic Avocado, for instance, involves mashing half a ripe avocado with the back of a fork for 90 seconds, then mixing in a tablespoon of orange juice. Even I could have done that!

One time-saving strategy suggested in the book is organizing all the ingredients and equipment before you start to cook, known as mise en place. Tracy writes that doing this allowed him to make food for two weeks in just an hour. Most recipes for the youngest kids are purees meant to be frozen in an ice-cube tray, then stored in plastic baggies in the freezer.

Jatinder Bhatia, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Nutrition, notes that feeding babies a version of the family's meal is a time-honored way to influence the child's future tastes in food. "It's common sense," he says. "That's how ethnic babies learn to eat ethnic food."

"At this point, your baby is still a captive," Bhatia says. It's an ideal time to "present what the family's eating" -- assuming, that is, that the family is eating healthfully.

Had I realized how easy making baby food is, and how good it is for kids, I'm sure I would have gone that route for my own babies. Truth is, it never occurred to me, and I don't recall anyone suggesting it. (Perhaps they feared that evil eye of mine.) Maybe "Baby Love" will inspire new parents everywhere to start mashing, pureeing and freezing food for their wee ones. As for me, I hope someday I'll get to mash avocado for a grandkid.

Recipe: Alba's Chicken Soup

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