Skip the baby food: How we got there to here and back again

Baby rice cereal.  The iconic box that can be found in all baby-food sections of the supermarket, most drugstores, and online baby stores.  It’s picture, or an outline of a box with a spout, still appears on most infant nutrition education pamphlets.  Rice cereal boxes usually have “first feeding” guidelines, which instruct the caregiver to mix some of the white flaky stuff with breast milk or formula to make a wonderfully tasteless and soupy first introduction to solid food.  Some doctors recommend keeping the infant on cereals (rice, oats, barley) for one month before moving on to similarly bland and texture-less jarred fruits and vegetables.  It could be many months before infants ever taste or feel the texture of real food.

How did this happen? Innovative companies capitalized on society’s increasing interest in manufactured items as opposed to homemade, likely due to household time restraints.  For example, in 1927, the wife of the assistant general manager of Gerber suggested that the canning company start producing and marketing strained fruits and vegetables as baby foods to end the tedious chore of cooking, mashing, and preparing baby food.  In 1933, Mead Johnson produced Pablum, the first pre-cooked fortified infant cereal.

The first rice cereals were made with wheat, oatmeal, and corn meal and had dried alfalfa, yeast and powdered beef bones added to it.  But when synthetic iron supplements became available, they were used instead to ensure consistency instead of beef bones.

And in fact, because iron deficiency is so prevalent and cereal is such a good medium for fortifying with iron, it became the standard first food recommendation of pediatricians.  Coupled with the notion that simple foods such as rice should be introduced first to prevent food allergies, rice cereal took off with blazing speed as infant’s first food.  And since the benefits of whole grains were not entirely known to the mainstream medical community, and the idea that infants needed something very easy to digest, the rice of choice was white rice.

Interestingly enough, parents are now trying to get back to making their own food, which is what the whole concept of baby food was trying to get away from.  So parents are back in the kitchen, peeling, cooking, mashing.  All in the hopes that they will provide their baby with real food that is healthier and tastier. This of course, led new companies to capitalize on this new parenting stress and manufacture items that are “like homemade.”  These foods are not that different from the jarred variety but often found with organic ingredients, subtle herbs and spices, and ice-cube like trays.  However, they are still limited to the variety that company provides.  In reality, we have come full-circle; from making, to buying, to making, and now buying more expensive baby food.

How can we break this cycle and do we want to?

As I blogged about previously, I think there are 6 problems with baby food: 1. You are spending money that can be spent on real food 2. Kids get used to having special “kid” food 3. Real food can provide more nutrients in their bioavailable form 4. Your child is used to eating the same foods and may not develop an interest in new flavors. 5. Your child may not enjoy eating food with different textures when real food is introduces 6. Your child is nutritionally-limited to the variety that these companies produce

Many parents upon reading this list will want to stop providing their baby with baby food but making baby food seems daunting.  Well, I have an answer for you: Babies don’t need baby food at all!! Not store-bought baby food, not home-made baby food, not fancy-steamer-puree equipment food.  Babies simply need to eat whatever you are eating, mashed for the first couple of weeks, then simply cut small, or sometime even allowed to chew their own gummy bites from soft foods.  Now is a great time for the entire family to incorporate healthy foods into their diet.

In tomorrow’s post check back to see how I fed my younger son with no baby-food whatsoever and no iron supplements, and his iron levels were great at his one year checkup!

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Debra Waldoks

Debra Waldoks is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Lactation Counselor with a Master's Degree in Public Health. She’s an adjunct professor, nutrition consultant, occasional blogger, and most importantly, a mother of two and a wife.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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