Next time you walk around your favorite supermarket, take a moment to study the food on the shelves. For the most part, it will reflect the tastes and preferences of the people who buy there.
Dominating will be the most popular brands and the most popular types of food, the best sellers for that particular chain and that particular location.
But if you shift your gaze to the people walking the aisles, you will notice a much broader demographic; people from many countries and cultures, all with their own food traditions. Few, if any, supermarkets have the shelf space to meet all of their expectations, but if you were able to look through their kitchen windows, the extent of the differences would become apparent. At home, many of us eat a wide variety of foods from a wide variety of countries and cultures beyond the scope of those grocery-store shelves.
This should be just as true for the first foods we feed our babies.
In the U.S., some of the most popular first foods are instant baby rice cereal and pre-packaged, shelf-stable jars and pouches of puree. If we are honest, we are all so busy we generally go for the most convenient option. Supermarkets pander to that, and food standards are high enough in this country that parents have confidence these foods won’t harm our babies.
But this quick fix isn’t ideal. Shelf-stable products often take two years from production to the time they reach the supermarket shelf, so they have to contain additives or use high heat in the production phase so they don’t spoil. Also, the first foods our babies eat can inform their food choices as they mature. If we want them to prefer the healthiest options later, we should try and avoid starting their lives on a diet based solely on pre-prepared foods. Finally, many supermarket-available foods are culturally bland. What a shame not to introduce the wealth of culturally rich foods we enjoy in Southern California at the earliest possible time in your baby’s life.
You can easily experiment with foods from a variety of cultures when choosing your baby’s first foods. Here are easy, low-cost options from six different countries – some of which are suggested by Australian nutrition scientist and dietician Joanna McMillan.
I am not saying ditch the supermarket and pre-packaged foods completely. But if you vary your baby’s diet, she or he can learn a love of travel – at least in a food sense – right from the beginning.
Japan: A favorite among the Japanese is a dish called okayu. This is rice porridge infused with dried fish and vegetables or mashed pumpkin. Fish is rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids that babies need, and vegetables and pumpkin add lots of nutrients as well. Limit the amount of salt you add during cooking, because dried fish could be preserved using salt.
Kenya: A common first food is ngwaci (sweet potato). Kenyan children are prone to vitamin A deficiency, and this is a very good solution. Sweet potato is rich in carotenoids including beta-carotene, which can be converted into Vitamin A in the body. Sweet potato can be cooked to different consistencies, from purees to lumpier mash and even chips, which are a great finger food.
Dominican Republic: Babies in the Dominican Republic eat crema de habichuelas, a puree of black beans and kidney beans. Beans are a good source of plant protein because of the amino acids. They are also very low GI, so they release slow, steady amounts of carbohydrates into the body. Beans also have prebiotics, a type of fiber that feeds the good bacteria in the bowel. Babies who have good levels of these bacteria have a lower incidence of gut infections and upper-respiratory infections.
France: Many French pediatricians suggest feeding, babies as young as 5 months bouillon, or a thin vegetable soup, in a bottle mixed with milk. In order to develop their palates as they grow, young babies in France are also exposed to vegetables with many tastes and textures, including leeks, spinach and baby endive. French children have among the lowest incidence of childhood obesity in the world.
India: Babies in India regularly eat khichdi, a dish of rice, lentils and fragrant Indian spices, from about 6 months of age. This really knocks the idea of bland being best for babies on its head. Indian mothers eat hot curries and spices throughout their pregnancies, so babies are used to these tastes from the womb. There are many benefits of having spices in a baby’s diet. They are rich in antioxidants and plant-based phytochemicals. This is important for families that are vegetarian, as is much of Indian society. Mixing rice and lentils adds amino acids so babies get protein ,which is so necessary in their diet.
Jamaica: Mashed tropical fruit is a staple for Jamaican babies from as young as 4 months. Fruits such as mango, papaya, custard apple, sapodilla and banana are wonderful because they have a lot of naturally present carbohydrates, vitamin C and fiber.
We have a world of food possibility at our doorstep, and the opportunity to share that world with our babies is well within our grasp. My take-home message is to venture out, beginning with your local supermarket, where most if not all of these products are available.
Talia Moore is an L.A.-based childbirth educator, doula and founder of www.tummy-thyme.com, a manufacturer and distributor of healthy and organic food for babies and toddlers.