In the beginning, preparing food for your brand spanking new eater is about as simple as cooking gets. Start with foods that are easily digestible – most of us go with rice cereal – then start introducing other simple foods one at a time: sweet potatoes, squash, apple, pear. With most veggies, all you have to do is steam, then purée. You can skip the steaming with the mushy likes of avocado and banana.
If it's so easy, why would anyone bother with a cookbook?
For one thing, it's helpful to have a handy list of the early foods that can trigger gassiness (beans, broccoli, onion and the like) or allergies (cow's milk, egg whites, fish, nuts, etc.) Tips for freezing, thawing and reheating foods are also a huge help. And once you've introduced the first dozen or so foods, you'll be eager to branch out – and coming up with good combinations is not always super-intuitive.
One great, cookbook that offers an impressive mix of refreshing simplicity and just the right amount of explanatory detail is Cooking for Baby: Wholesome, Homemade, Delicious Foods for 6 to 18 Months by Lisa Barnes, founder of Petit Appetit, a culinary service in the San Francisco Bay area that offers in-home cooking classes that teach parents how to provide healthy, fresh foods to their kids.
The "first tastes" chapter includes a few simple pureés as well as a recipe for rice cereal. It never dawned on me to try a homemade version of this baby staple, but all it takes is pulverizing rice in a high-speed blender for three to five minutes, then whisking it into some boiling water and adding breast milk or formula. Throughout the gorgeously illustrated book, there are short notes about nutrition, like the one below this recipe, explaining that most commercially prepared rice cereal is fortified with added iron and that other good sources of iron include breast milk, formula, meat, poultry, prunes and dried apricots.
You wouldn't think there'd be anything to say about sweet pea purée, but Barnes breaks out a helpful tip that homemade pea puree should be bright green – not grayish Army green like it is when you buy it in a jar. The best peas, she says, are either fresh spring peas, which are available year-round, or frozen peas.
The "new flavors" chapter for 7- to 8-month-olds begins with a list of new foods to try: from quinoa and ground sunflower seeds to asparagus and cucumber. One of the first recipes that caught my eye was green beans with mint ¬– I never would've thought of that combination, but a friend of mine, Kirkland mom Maria Beller, tested it out on her youngest, and he loved it. Little Kai, who turned 1 in March, couldn't get enough of "baby's dal," made of red lentils, baby carrots, potatoes, green onions, a simple vegetable stock and the spices that give this savory Indian dish its signature flavor: curry powder, coriander, turmeric and cumin.
Other recipes I'm looking forward to trying out on my baby boy: millet and zucchini medley (with a touch of apple purée and basil) roasted red pepper and goat cheese purée, and minced pork and pear.
My 2-year-old daughter, who can be one heck of a picky eater, surprised me and gobbled up most of her bowl of turkey minestrone. It was an even bigger hit with me, her dad and the families of two colleagues, who insisted that I copy the recipe for them when I showed off my leftovers at work.
I had high hopes for the pumpkin soup with alphabet pasta – Campbell's alphabet soup is one of the few foods with veggies that she'll eat on a regular basis – but she wasn't thrilled with it. A few days later, I mixed in some vegetable beef soup, and she ate it all up. (As diligent as I've been about cutting her commercially canned soups with veggie purées to dilute the sodium content, perhaps Sylvia's becoming like most American grown-ups for whom soup and frozen-food makers salt up their foods.)
There are several other tasty-sounding toddler recipes that are on my cooking to-do list: orzo with rainbow vegetables, meatballs with polenta, salmon cakes, chicken and mango quesadillas, pumpkin pancakes.
I'm definitely going to keep Cooking for Baby among my stash of go-to cookbooks. Between the rich but not-at-all overwhelming variety of recipes and the comprehensive yet succinct summaries of information about foods and key nutrients sprinkled throughout the book, I'd recommend Cooking for Baby to any parent out there who's eager to forego the baby food aisle at the grocery store.
Cooking for Baby: Wholesome, Homemade, Delicious Foods for 6 to 18 Months
by Lisa Barnes (Fireside Books, February 2009, $19.99)
Elizabeth M. Gillespie lives in Columbia City and is the mother of two fairly good eaters.