Congratulations! Your baby is ready to start eating solid foods. Now what?
First of all, keep in mind that we're talking about minute amounts of food. Beginning at four to six months of age, most infants get introduced to solid food with a spoonful or two of iron-fortified rice cereal mixed with breast milk or water. This slow, gentle approach doesn't affect your child's established feeding routine much at all in the beginning. In a few weeks, after your baby learns to swallow and begins to express interest in foods, you'll gradually add a few ounces of pureed vegetables, fruits and meats to his or her diet.
You could buy jars of baby food off the grocery store shelf to meet this need. But making homemade baby food is almost as easy as boiling water. With just a little effort, you can make fresh food for your baby alongside meals you prepare for the rest of your family. Among other benefits, making baby food yourself saves money, ensures freshness and allows you to control the ingredients. You'll also be able to alter the texture of food as your growing child gains eating experience, learns to chew and grows teeth.
In this article, we'll explore the nutritional needs of infants, tell you what foods they should and shouldn't eat and guide you through the process of preparing homemade baby food for your little one.
Reasons to Make Your Own Baby Food
Money is one driving force behind deciding to make homemade baby food. Just as it costs less to make a pizza at home than it does to order delivery, homemade baby food costs less than factory-prepared baby food.
Since bananas are often the second food babies try (after rice cereal) and one of the easiest baby foods to prepare, we'll use them as an example. A 2.5-ounce (71-gram) jar of commercial baby food bananas costs about fifty cents. A pound (0.45 kilograms) of bananas that the whole family can enjoy is about the same cost. You'd need to buy six and a half jars of baby food to equal one pound (0.45 kilograms) of bananas.
At first blush, fifty cents for a jar of baby food doesn't seem like much, but a 2.5-ounce (71-gram) jar of chicken, beef or ham costs twice as much as fruits or vegetables. As your baby grows, he or she will eat more solid food at each feeding. The baby food jars get bigger and up to three times more expensive. By the time U.S. infants reach 12 months of age, they've consumed about 600 jars of baby food [source: Stallone]. That's a minimum cost of $300. By comparison, you can prepare a wide variety of fresh baby food at home for your child's second six months of life for around $55 total [source: Tallman].
Benefits of Homemade Baby Food
Speaking of freshness, just how long has that baby food jar been sitting on the grocery store shelf? How long was it in transit? And how long was it stored in a warehouse before it was shipped? Was it exposed to extreme heat or freezing temperatures that might affect the quality of the food in the jar?
You won't be troubled by questions like these if you make baby food at home from fresh ingredients -- especially if you grow your own fruits and vegetables. Home-cooked baby foods contain vitamins and minerals naturally. Commercial foods are processed at high heat. This kills bacteria to help ensure long shelf life, but it destroys nutrients, some of which are added back to the food artificially. With home-prepared food, you'll also know exactly what your child is eating. There won't be any surprise ingredients like added starches, sugars or preservatives that are sometimes found in commercial baby food. And you'll be able to control the lean-to-fat ratio in meats that you prepare yourself.
Finally, mass-produced foods carry the rare but real risk of contamination. In recent years, manufacturers have recalled baby food products because of reports that some jars were contaminated with pieces of glass, harmful bacteria and the bacteria that cause botulism and arsenic [sources: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Canadian Food Inspection Agency and USDA].
From birth to at least four months of age, your baby gets all the nutrition he or she needs from breast milk or infant formula. But as your baby grows, he or she will need nutrients from other sources. Learn what foods are good for your developing infant on the next page.
Baby Foods to Use and Not Use
In the first 12 months of life, infants triple their birth weight, gain fine motor control and progress from completely dependent beings to more independent, ambulatory personalities. It takes consistently excellent nutrition to support all this growth.
To ensure that the baby food you make contains the nutrients your child needs, shop the fresh produce and meat sections of the store and skip the canned foods. Most commercial canned foods contain added salt, sugar, preservatives, coloring and other stuff your baby doesn't need to encounter as he or she learns to appreciate and digest solid foods.
Introduce fresh fruits, vegetables and meats one by one until your baby has a varied diet that includes many of the foods the rest of the family enjoys. Bananas, which are actually a giant herb and not a fruit, provide protein, calcium, iron, potassium and several vitamins that babies need. Pears are a good source of calcium, and plums are packed with vitamin A. Beef, pork and chicken are excellent sources of protein, calcium, essential fatty acids and important vitamins. Vegetables bring beneficial fiber, minerals and vitamins into your child's diet without adding any cholesterol [source: Gebhardt].
That said, there are some foods from each category that children shouldn't eat before their first birthday, and others that shouldn't be prepared at home. These include foods that are known to cause allergic reactions in infants, foods that can cause choking and certain vegetables that naturally concentrate nitrates.
Foods that commonly induce an allergic reaction in children include:
- Egg whites
- Cow's milk
- Citrus fruits
- Ice cream
[source: Caplan, Tamborlane]
Because of their hardness, texture or shape, some foods can cause infants to choke. Avoid giving these foods to children under 12 months of age:
- Hot dogs
- Peanut butter
- Raw carrots
- Raw peas
- Raw apples
- Corn kernels
[source: Caplan, Tamborlane].
Honey is another food that children shouldn't eat in its raw form during their first year. Raw honey contains bacteria that a young child's digestive system can't cope with. It can cause severe illness.
Dangerous Foods for Babies
Because babies are so small, an excess of any single nutrient in their diet can quickly build up. Some nutrients can even cause toxicity if they're present in the system in excess. Nitrates can cause a type of poisoning in infants called Methemoglobinemia. This condition prevents the blood from absorbing oxygen. It's more commonly seen in infants whose families rely on well water, but there are occasionally cases that result from naturally occurring nitrates in certain vegetables. These include:
- Green beans
- Collard greens
In the United States, there's been only one reported case of infant nitrate poisoning that resulted from eating vegetables. Nevertheless, some commercial baby food producers monitor the nitrate content of these vegetables to ensure that it's not too high, but because you can't test the nitrate levels of foods at home, some doctors recommend against using these vegetables in homemade baby food [source: Shelov].
Salt, sugar and other seasonings are also unnecessary in your baby's diet. Diets that are high in salt and sugar are associated with childhood obesity and adult diseases such as hypertension and diabetes [source: Fuhrman].
Now that you know what foods your baby needs, keep reading to learn how easy it is to prepare them at home.
Making Baby Food
You probably already possess all the equipment and skills required to make homemade baby food. Your tools can be as simple as a pot with a steamer insert and a fork. Or you can purchase a food mill, food processor or blender to grind the food you cook. Bananas can be served raw, but all other foods you give to your baby need to be cooked until mushy before being mashed or ground.
The basic process is this:
- Wash fruits and vegetables under running water.
- Remove peel, pits and seeds from fresh produce; remove bones, fat and skin from fresh meats.
- On a clean cutting board, cut the food into small pieces to speed cooking.
- Put a small amount of water in the pot. It should reach just to the bottom of the steamer insert, but shouldn't immerse the food.
- Place the food on the steamer insert and put a lid on the pot.
- Bring the water to a boil, then cut back the heat until the water simmers.
- Simmer the food until it's mushy (about 15 to 20 minutes), adding water to the pot as necessary to prevent it from boiling all away.
- Remove the food to a bowl or food grinder; save the water in the pot.
- Mash cooked food with a fork, press through a strainer, or grind in a food processor, adding some of the cooking water to create the desired consistency.
- Allow the food to cool before feeding it to your child.
Remember, you're not adding salt or other seasonings. Extra food can be stored in the refrigerator for two days. If you like to cook ahead, you can spoon your home-cooked baby food into ice cube trays and freeze it in individual portions. Vegetables and fruits can be frozen for one month, while cooked pureed meats can last for two months in the freezer [source: Caplan].
As your baby grows older and more experienced with food, you can vary the texture by mashing or grinding it a little bit less. Children can gum soft foods even before they have teeth. This helps them learn to chew, an important step that aids digestion and prepares infants to move on to more solid foods.
From nine to 12 months of age, your baby will probably start showing interest in the food everyone else at the table eats. The good news is, as long as you're eating the same type of foods the baby has been eating, he or she should be able to handle it digestively. You can start giving him or her a taste here and there of mashed or finely chopped bits of the regular family fare. Move gradually to including junior in the meal with small portions precut to meet his or her chewing abilities. In a few weeks, you won't need to cook separately for baby.
There are many benefits to making baby food at home from fresh ingredients. In addition to saving money, making your own baby food fosters good health and eating habits and includes your baby as part of the family, allowing him or her to get used to the types of food the rest of the family eats before he or she progresses to table food. Commercially packaged baby food, however, can be convenient when you're traveling. You should also include several jars in your family's emergency preparedness kit. For more helpful hints, look over the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks articles
More Great Links
- American Academy of Pediatrics. "Safety for Your Child." Age-Related Safety Sheets: Birth to 6 Months. The Injury Prevention Program. (Accessed 01/12/2009) http://www.aap.org/family/birthto6.htm
- American Academy of Pediatrics. "When can my baby start eating solid foods?" Parenting Corner Q&A: Starting Solid Foods. September 2008. (Accessed 01/12/2009) http://www.aap.org/publiced/BR_Solids.htm
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency. "Health Hazard Alert: Certain Pear Juices for Toddlers May Contain Arsenic." March 11, 2008. (Accessed 01/12/2009) http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/corpaffr/recarapp/2008/20080311e.shtml
- Caplan, Theresa. The First Twelve Months of Life: Your Baby's Growth Month by Month. New York: A Pedigree Book published by The Putnam Publishing Group, 1993.
- Corley, Heather. "Baby Food and Baby Formula Recalls." About.com (Accessed 01/09/2009) http://babyproducts.about.com/od/recallsandsafety/a/formula_recalls.htm
- Fuhrman, Joel, M.D. Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005.
- Gebhardt, Susan E. and Robin G. Thomas. "Nutritive Value of Foods." Home and Garden Bulletin Number 72. Revised October 2002. USDA Agricultural Research Service. (Accessed 01/10/2009) http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/Data/HG72/hg72_2002.pdf
- Greer, Frank R., M.D. and Michael Shannon, M.D. "Infant Methemoglobinemia: The role of Dietary Nitrate in Food and Water." Pediatrics September 3, 2005: 784-786. (Accessed 01/12/2009) http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics;116/3/784
- Hanula, Gail M. "Making Your Own Baby Food." Food & Nutrients Education. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. November 2002. (Accessed 01/13/2009) http://www.fcs.uga.edu/ext/pubs/fdns/efnep/FDNS-NE-1501a.pdf
- Shelov, Steven P., M.D. and Robert E. Hannemann, M.D., eds. Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5. New York: Bantam Books, updated 2005
- Tallman, Cheryl and Joan Ahlers. "Homemade Baby Food: A Fresh Start to Healthy Eating." Organic.org. (Accessed 01/13/2009) http://www.organic.org/articles/showarticle/article-107
- Stallone, Daryth D., Ph.D. 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. (Accessed 01/13/2009) http://www.cspinet.org/reports/cheat1.html
- Tamborlane, William V., M.D., ed. The Yale Guide to Children's Nutrition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
- United States Department of Agriculture. "Food Labeling." Food Safety and Inspection Service. Fact Sheets. February 8, 2007. (Accessed 01/11/2009) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Factsheets/Food_Product_Dating/index.asp
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (1). "FDA Warns Consumers Not to Use Certain Jars of Earth's Best: 'Organic 2 Apple Peach Barley Wholesome Breakfast Baby Food'." FDA News. February 16, 2007. (Accessed 01/12/2009) http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2007/NEW01566.html
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2). "H-E-B Issues Baby Food Recall." Recall -- Firm Press Release. March 15, 2006. (Accessed 01/12/2009) http://www.fda.gov/oc/po/firmrecalls/heb03_06.html
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (3). "Health Hazard Alert -- Certain President's Choice Baby Food Jars May be Contaminated with Harmful Bacteria." Recall -- Canadian Government Press Release. April 9, 2005. (Accessed 01/12/2009) http://www.fda.gov/oc/po/firmrecalls/cfia04_05.html