Baby food basics

G Magazine (issue #22, September/October 2009)

Feeding your baby nutritious, eco-friendly food doesn't have to be difficult or expensive. In fact, simple is better.

baby eating

Credit: iStockphoto

- Advertisement -

All parents want to make sure their little ones eat well, but is home-made baby food really healthier, or better for the environment?

Lynne Daniels, professor of nutrition and dietetics at the Queensland University of Technology, believes that baby food should be prepared at home wherever possible.

"Commercial baby food should be considered as a convenience food - it should not form the major component of a child's diet," she says.

The benefits are not necessarily nutritional, though. Optimal nutrition depends on the freshness of the ingredients, how long they are cooked for, as well as what's added to the food before it's served. Sure, if you're preparing your own meals from scratch at home you have direct control over these factors, but that's not to say there are no ready-made baby foods with high nutritional content available. For Daniels, the benefits of home-cooked food have more to do with giving your baby a varied diet.

"A baby needs to learn different tastes and textures. Commercially prepared baby food called things like 'chicken and vegetables' mixes those tastes and makes the food too smooth," she says.

Keeping a lid on waste

While the nutritional value and quality of pre-packaged food can be just as good as a home-cooked meal (depending on freshness and cooking), the associated packaging is one area of definite concern for eco-conscious parents. A jar of apple purée leaves a container that has to be recycled. An apple cooked at home leaves nothing but a core and peel, which you can pop into the compost.

It's surprising how quickly you can learn to peel, core and stew fruit when your baby is small. The only equipment needed is a knife for peeling and a fork for mash-ing, although a hand blender, which can reduce many foods to rough purée in seconds, is incredibly useful, too.

Where possible, if you do buy packaged food, opt for bulk packs over little single serves, as this will reduce the amount of waste, whether it goes to landfill or gets popped in the recycling.

What about organic ready-made baby food?

While homemade food undoubtedly has advantages in providing varied tastes and textures, as well as being cheaper and creating less waste than commercial baby food, let's face it, there are times when a jar is the most convenient option.

But when making a pre-packaged, ready-made choice, is it worth spending the extra money on certified organic products for your bub?

Many scientific studies comparing the nutritional content of conventionally grown and organic produce have found higher levels of beneficial micronutrients and antioxidants in some organic foods but not others. It seems the jury is still out as to the significance of these findings when making generalisations - a difficult prospect when some studies are looking at potatoes and others at pigs!

What we do know is that certified organic food is free from artificial pesticides and fertilisers, preservatives, antibiotics, GM ingredients and other additives commonly found in conventionally grown processed foods. There are food safety guidelines governing the inclusion of these substances in baby food, but some parents prefer to avoid potential health risks on the precautionary principle.

A less contentious benefit of choosing organic is the positive effect of organic farming methods on the environment by working with nature to protect wildlife, reduce pollution and improve soil health. Organic farming has a considerably smaller carbon footprint than conventional agriculture.

If you want to try organic baby food that's close in taste to homemade food, there are plenty of options. Fresh, vacuum-sealed, ready-to-go meals are sold in the refrigerated section of most supermarkets, and you can also try shopping online at places like www.organicbubs.com.

Food mile alert

There are plenty of organic cereals and other baby foods available which have excellent environmental credentials but are unfortunately imported from Europe, adding to the overall carbon footprint of the product. Look instead for local products made from locally sourced ingredients where possible. Or better still, save some money and go to an organic farmers' market to get the freshest ingredients.

Nature's own convenience foods

If you're all out of home-cooked meals, popping open a jar can seem like the simplest option. But there are lots of natural fast foods that need next to no preparation. Many a day has been saved by a simple mashed banana, which comes in its own natural wrapper and can be turned into mash extremely quickly (just ask any one-year-old!) Avocados, mangoes and peaches can all be mashed with a fork or, when your baby is able to hold finger food (when they're around nine months old) given in slices. Another great food that comes in its own packaging is the simple egg. From about nine months of age babies can eat egg whites, which can be boiled, scrambled or turned into omelettes in just a couple of minutes.

Quinoa porridge

Getting babies used to a variety of tastes is important. Quinoa (pronounced keen-waa) is an amazingly nutritious grain that originated in South America. It has the consistency of rice and a mild, nutty flavour. Here's a recipe for baby quinoa porridge that can be jazzed up with dried fruit, seeds and nuts for older children and adults.
- ½ cup quinoa (available from health food stores)
- 1 cup water
- 3 tablespoons of stewed apple, pear, peach or mashed banana
- 3 tablespoons of milk or formula
Rinse the quinoa. Place it and the water in a pan, bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until soft and fluffy. At this point you can whiz the mixture with a hand blender to make a smooth porridge, or serve as is, with the consistency of very soft rice. Top with milk and sweeten with fruit. Easy!