BIOLOGY, TOO, has its fashions

Executive offices are increasingly populated with pregnant women, so it is said. And a B local obstetrician reports that the average age of first-time mothers in his practice is 32. Women are having babies later, and fitting them into more preoccupied lives. So, along with the meal-in-a-minute search by grown-ups who want to eat well of foods prepared in a hurry but made from scratch, surely we are about to hear from a generation of babies who want to do the same.

If TV dinners have had their heyday, so have prepared baby foods.

Before this century, baby foods were hardly a problem. One simply didn't feed babies much besides milk before a year. And thereafter they ate adaptations of what the rest of the family was eating.

But after World War II, an increasingly technological society was making great "advances" in the technological side of child-rearing, too. By 1946 it was fashionable to start babies on solid foods at 1 to 2 months. "What a smart baby," a grandparent could boast. "He's only four weeks old, but already he is eating cereal." It was also an era when "late" toilet training, as defined in one public opinion survey, was considered to be "after one year old." We were raising efficient and well-organized little consumers of specialized baby products.

And babies' health was measured by their plumpness. "What a fat, healthy baby!" was the ultimate compliment. As little as 15 years ago, a mother's greatest worry (after she had finished worrying about keeping her own weight down to the then-vogueish 18-pound-gain during pregnancy) was whether her baby was eating enough. Yet, we were increasingly conscious of nutritive value, and the really concerned were mixing "tiger's milk" in the blender, having read Adelle Davis' admonitions about giving babies enough B-vitamins. Babies were all but bathed in wheat germ and yogurt. But who ever heard of cholesterol, or grew anxious about fats? Nitrates? Sodium? One pediatrician, the head of a major university's hospital pediatrics department, calmed young mothers with, "As long as a toddler is eating one hot dog a day, you don't have to worry."

A hot dog! What typically anxiety-ridden mother would let her child eat that nitrate-fat-sodium package nowadays? Says the cautiously moderate Dr. Spock in the latest edition of his child-care book, "Frankfurters, bologna and other 'luncheon meats' contain too much fat to be recommended as wholesome meats." Other baby-book authors go further, forbidding them altogether.

But the most significant changes have been in doctors encouraging the starting of solid food later. Twelve years ago I faced an infuriated pediatrician when I told him I was feeding my 3-month-old only breast milk. He predicted dire consequences if I didn't immediately begin vegetable proteins. These days the federal government's "Infant Care" pamphlet, which is by no means avant garde, suggests, "Your baby doesn't need any food other than plenty of breast milk or formula for the first 6 months." According to Spock, most doctors recommend starting solids at about 2 to 4 months, and indeed starch is not absorbed much before then.

Once solids are introduced, the government pamphlet suggests, it is better to make homemade baby foods rather than to buy commercial ones. And if commercial alternatives are used, one jar of processed meat a week is sufficient, advises the pamphlet.

Spock warns parents to avoid those commercial baby foods that have added sugar and salt. For children of all ages, he cautions against sweets, refined starches and salt, and discourages those old nursery standbys, gelatin desserts and cornstarch puddings, urging instead that whole-grain cereals and breads be served. He also takes a strong stand against excessive animal fats.

Baby food companies have responded to medical concerns by eliminating salt and sugar from many of their products. But in the meantime, parents have been learning to make their own baby foods at home, using the blender, the food processor and simple plastic food mills that can fit in a purse. And baby-food cookbooks have joined the mountains of new cookbooks published each year.

Sue Castle, in "The Complete New Guide to Preparing Baby Foods," claimed that when she set out to make her own baby foods, all the published information was outdated by at least 30 years. She opted for simplicity, cooking by steaming and pure'eing in a blender or food processor. She insists that "baby foods do not have to have gourmet seasoning, wide variety or sterilization." Her warnings are against sugars, salt, starches, hydrogenated shortening, mineral oil and frying. But her book was published too early to have incorporated newer concerns about honey; the newest addition of "Infant Care" has a sticker on the cover which reads, "Warning: Do not give honey to babies under one year of age," because it may contain spores of botulism bacteria, which may be dangerous to infants.

Jo-Ann Heslin, Annette B. Natow and Barbara C. Raven, whose "No-Nonsense Nutrition for Your Baby's First Year" was published in 1978, incorporated warnings against honey, adding it to the forbidden list of foods with nitrates and excessive animal fats (ham, hot dogs, bacon, luncheon meats), potential allergens (raw eggs, berries, melons, tomatoes and shellfish), foods that might cause choking (nuts, popcorn, raw carrots, whole corn), as well as salt and sugar. They admonish parents to limit fats and to avoid cooking foods with butter or margarine. And they warn that cinnamon is one of the 10 most common food allergens, though their oatmeal cookie recipe contains cinnamon. Pepper, paprika, curry, chili and parsley can irritate the digestive tract, they caution.

Spock suggests waiting for two years to introduce berries, seedless grapes, melons and corn kernels, and to be cautious about lima beans, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, as these vegetables are less digestible than others. Spinach can cause chapping of the skin, he notes. Eggs should be hard-cooked, and whites should not be served until at least one year, as they are potential allergens. Wheat, for the same reason should be avoided for several months. Go easy on macaroni, spaghetti, noodles, rice or crackers, as their refined starches offer little nutrition, and limit cheeses, which are fatty. Avoid butcher-ground beef, which may contain a lot of fat and tough fiber and may have picked up bacteria in the handling, and until a child is 5 or 6 years old, mince or finely grind all meats. Parents are warned in several of the books about peanuts, raisins and popcorn, which can readily cause choking.

Spock also has jumped on the homemade-baby-food bandwagon, suggesting the blender or hand grinder to pure'e simply cooked foods moistened with broth, milk, vegetable juices or yogurt.

So homemade has returned to the baby dish as well as to the family table. The question is, how far will this revival go? The outer limits were found recently in a used-book sale: A warped and time-faded volume of "Baby Epicure" by Elena Gildersleeve, published in 1937 and well-marked by the parent of perhaps some 45-year-old gourmand now dishing up Gerber cereal to offspring.

Gildersleeve wrote her cookbook because, "a helpless young one gazing disconsolately into a dog-plate of hashed up food haunts my mind and disturbs my rest." A problem Sue Castle apparently never encountered. Gildersleeve aimed to start children young in preparing for the good life: "In following my book, a parent will find that her young epicure will develop a cosmopolitan taste -- a huge advantage in visiting, traveling and in everyday life." She aimed to "make every child critical and particular about food and capable of enjoying a sane and varied diet." She wrote, of course, before McDonald's had flipped its first of 40 billion hamburgers.

But Gildersleeve was no thoughtless hedonist. She applauded the fact -- or hope -- that, "Bulk, excessive starches, heavy sweets and vicious overindulgence in cream and butter have practically disappeared from sensible tables."

Food was meant to do more than fuel a young body; it was a vehicle for teaching esthetics. The child's cook was bidden to include "a few flowers, a tastefully garnished dish."

And what meals! The "baby," of course, was a year old or more when ready to consume Gildersleeve's recipes (presumably having been sated on mother's milk until then). But after that first birthday was opened a world of clam broth and leek soup. And fresh juices the likes of which few adults have enjoyed today: "Orange, grapefruit and tomato juices should be made of fresh, ripe fruit, squeezed carefully and used at once." Would that somebody today would prepare for that 45-year-old a little fresh oyster custard or lobster bisque made from the shells boiled for two hours in milk. Gildersleeve's babies feasted on quenelles and souffle's, balls of ground tongue or cold roast beef in aspic. Orange salad was presented in baskets with handles, made of the orange skin, and decorated with "a fresh cherry carefully skinned or a few skinned white grapes."

Even then it must have been known that raisins could cause choking, for Gildersleeve went to the trouble to sieve her raisins. All these delicacies -- her scraped meats, her calf's foot jelly, her braised breast of guinea hen -- were made without aid of blender or food processor. And in those days before the mass addiction to yogurt, Gildersleeve used "rich cream." Nothing was too much for the doting mother of 1937. Breads must be freshly made of whole grains. Wrote Gildersleeve, "It may seem a bore to bake them for one small Epicure, but we must think of the gleaming smiles that will brighten our declining years and strive to supply them with good stuff to chew."

I hope her middle-aged offspring call her often.

She also, however, recognized realities. Only one fried dish was included in the book, and she explained, "We expect the Doctors to blue pencil this, but we insert it in case some weak-minded parent should want to use it as a bribe."

Clearly this was a fatten-'em-up era of child rearing. A child was expected to need encouragement to eat. So Gildersleeve included a chapter on sauces, insisting, "the tedium of steamed, roasted and boiled meats can and must be varied by these devices." There is a bearnaise made with olive oil for chops or steak, broccoli or fish, and a hollandaise for more variety. As for Maitre D'Hotel Sauce, "A dab of this sauce on fish, steak or chops turns the stern routine of getting fed into the pleasure of eating." But this was an era when lamb chops were "too often an everyday affair with junior diners."

Even the previous owner and obvious devotee of "Baby Epicure" quarreled with Gildersleeve's frequent use of onions and pepper in her recipes; they were penciled out. And even in more liberated times, one might question beer limeade (juice of 12 limes, 1 pint of sugar syrup and 2 bottles light beer), though Gildersleeve didn't recommend it for children under 2 years. She adds sherry to orange juice, explaining, "In our remote infancy, from three on, we drank claret and water every day, a small glass of sherry or madeira and a biscuit at eleven o'clock, and beer if we wanted it between meals," which makes one understand why hyperactivity was a state only recently recognized.

Hers is an era we are unlikely to restore. But for times when the sound of the food processor palls and the pop of the jar cap evokes guilt as mother and daddy's blanquette de veau simmers, here are some of Gildersleeve's epicurian inventions for toddlers.

MERINGUE OF FISH (Serves quadruplets) 9 ounces fillet of sole 2 egg whites Salt and nutmeg, to taste Pound fillets very thin and steam them for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Mash fish thoroughly and fold in egg whites. Season with salt and nutmeg and place in a glass custard dish. Bake at 400 degrees until brown, about 10 minutes. Very digestible.

CHICKEN PUDDING (2 servings) 1 breast of chicken Pinch salt Drop onion juice 1 teaspoon parsley, chopped Dash nutmeg 2 egg yolks, beaten Cream to moisten Steam chicken breast until done, finely chop and put through sieve. Season with salt, onion juice, chopped parsley and nutmeg. Add egg yolks and enough cream to make it the thickness of oatmeal. Pour into cups, packing rather tightly and place in a 350-degree oven in a pan of cold water until the puddings are thoroughly set, about 1 hour. Serve, turned out, with any simple sauce.

TOMATOES STUFFED WITH MEAT (2 servings) 2 tomatoes 1 tablespoon butter, plus 1 teaspoon for topping Salt and pepper, to taste 1 teaspoon brown sugar 2 tablespoons cooked chicken, fish or lamb, finely minced Dried toast crumbs and butter, for topping Broth from cooking the meat or fish, as needed Scoop out pulp from tomatoes and saute' pulp in 1 tablespoon butter. When cooked down quite thick, remove from fire and season with salt, pepper, brown sugar and chicken, fish or lamb. Pack the shells with this mixture, cover with dried toast crumbs and additional butter. Bake at 350 degrees about 1 hour. Baste with a little soup if it gets too dry.

POTATO RAGOUT (2 servings) 1 tablespoon butter 1 onion, finely chopped Salt and pepper, to taste 1 potato, cubed 2 ripe tomatoes, cubed Chicken or beef broth, to cover

Heat 1 tablespoon butter in pan. Saute' chopped onion until browned. Toss in potato cubes and season with salt and pepper. Add cubed tomatoes. Cover with broth and stew about 25 minutes.

Note: Baked potatoes scooped out and mixed with butter, pepper, salt and packed back into their shells, then heated in a brisk oven are dainty.

OATMEAL COOKIES (Makes about 18 cookies) 1/2 cup butter 1 cup sugar 4 eggs, separated 2 cups quick oats Pinch salt 1 teaspoon baking powder Grease for pan

Cream butter and sugar; add egg yolks, oats, salt and baking powder. Stiffly beat egg whites and fold in to butter-sugar mixture. Drop mixture by gobs onto a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 12 minutes until lightly browned.

Editor's note: This dough is quite stiff for folding in egg whites; just do it as lightly as possible. Also, the cookies are very difficult to remove from the pan. Paper liners would make the job easier. While the cookies take the patience of a Gildersleeve, they are very good and among the few cookie recipes that use no wheat flour.