In some homes, baby is eating better than the rest of the family. Gone are the days of bland, watery, jarred foods. Baby food is coming full circle as moms and dads serve up homemade puree to their infants.
Parents can ensure the nutritional value of baby food when they make their own, and the homemade usually tastes better, said Tina Ruggiero, nutritionist and author of "The Best Homemade Baby Food on the Planet." Her book, co-authored by nurse Karin Knight, is full of recipes and secrets to making tasty, healthy baby food. All that parents need is a three-speed blender, Ruggiero said.
"I prepare them lots of different ways. The book was done so moms or dads don't need to do anything special or extra," Ruggiero said.
Mirror Moms photo by Gary M. Baranec
Hayden Settle, 2, watches as her mom, Tiffany, makes some homemade baby food from a sweet potato.
When she made baby food for her own children, Ruggiero sometimes used frozen fruits and vegetables, though fresh is best.
With fresh produce available at local farms and markets, spring and summer is a perfect time for making baby food.
Every week in the summer and fall, Tiffany Settle of Altoona would stock up on fresh produce at the farmers' markets in Altoona and Hollidaysburg. Settle was determined that her oldest daughter Hayden (now 2) would eat healthy.
"Since I was staying home, I had the time, and I wanted to feed her organically. I just figured the way I knew it would be the most fresh and preservative free was to make it myself," she said.
Making baby food is more time-consuming than buying food, it's not as daunting a task as some people might think. And steaming is the best option to ensure nutrients are not lost.
Settle steamed produce once a week, then stored it in little containers, which she froze or refrigerated. Once her youngest daughter, Logan, (born in February) is old enough, she'll be noshing on homemade grub, too.
Jessica Sprouse of Altoona had a similar routine for all three of her children: Giavonna, 8, Jenna, 4, and Jett, 1. Sprouse enjoyed trying different recipes and using fruits and vegetables not found in jarred baby foods, like mangos and zucchini.
It wasn't until Sprouse started making baby food for Jett that she discovered it's easiest to store the pureed food in ice cube trays.
"Why did no one ever tell me that?" Sprouse said, laughing.
The key to making baby food, Sprouse said, is planning it out. Pick a time or day that's best and make the baby food. Or, when babies are old enough, some parents put the family meal into a food processor so the baby eats what the family eats.
The end goal is to raise a healthy, adventurous eater, said Dr. David Galbraith, a pediatrician at Blair Medical Associates in Altoona. Galbraith said as soon as babies start eating solids, they can eat "real" food.
A lot of jarred baby foods contain preservatives, white starches and unnecessary salt and sugar. And they don't taste great, Galbraith said. Jarred baby food is heated at high temperatures for preservation, and the foods often don't taste like fresh foods.
"The babies don't get to experience tastes and textures and fibers and whole grains," Galbraith said. "They're boring."
Ruggiero agrees, and in her book she includes recipes with spices and seasonings to expose babies to a variety of flavors.
"You're preparing your child's palate to appreciate the natural sweetness of fruit and the savory flavors of vegetables. You're conditioning them to be receptive to wholesome food and not processed food," she said. "What's in a jar has a flat taste, not a lot of dimension," she said.
The other problem with baby food, Galbraith said, is parents usually end up regulating their kids' food intake.
"It's important to let them regulate their own appetite. If you use jar food, you set arbitrary limits," he said.
Galbraith throws out the old rules about allergies and said infants need only to avoid honey because of the risk of botulism and any foods that are choking hazards, like peanut butter.
"We used to hold off on foods like citrus and eggs, and they're actually good foods. Recent research has found that anything you start after nine months, you're actually more likely to become allergic to," Galbraith said.
He said babies should be fed a wide variety of foods from 4 to 9 months.
The important part is gleaning as much nutritional value from the food as possible. Steaming is the best option for cooking fruits and vegetables, said Dr. Eddy Luke of Health First.
Luke of Altoona focused his post-graduate work in nutrition. His daughter, Lana, now 2, has always eaten homemade food. His wife, Lynette, did most of the pureeing.
"You know for a fact nothing is being added and there's no exposure to pesticides and things like that," he said.
Even when traveling, he and his wife brought along a hand crank to make the baby food.
Although a blender or food processor is needed, making homemade baby food is cheaper overall than buying the jarred food. Most families can buy the same food they would eat for the week and use a portion of that for the baby - which is more cost effective than buying dozens of jars at 50 cents to $1.50 each.
"I think it saves you a lot of money in the long run," Sprouse said. "It just really worked for us."
And, then there's the peace of mind.
"It made me feel proud to be able to do that for her, and I knew exactly what was put in her belly," Settle said.