March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
If your little one is big enough for the high chair and solid foods, you have numerous nutritious options at the supermarket to feed your baby. And, if you prepare homemade baby food, you have even more variety: Not only can you pick from all the fruits and vegetables in the produce section, but also frozen veggies and fruit canned in its own juice. Making your own food can expose babies to more flavors, which can help them become more adventurous eaters, says Bridget Swinney, MS, RDN, LD. Furthermore, by avoiding added sugars and salt, you're in greater control of your baby's nutrition.
If you are interested in preparing your own baby food, but find the idea daunting, start with just a few homemade items to supplement store-bought baby food. Mashing a very ripe avocado or banana is a good place to begin and exceptionally simple, says Swinney. After that, she recommends preparing nutrient-rich foods that aren't common in the baby food aisle, such as beets, broccoli, turnips, asparagus, spinach, blueberries, kale, mango and papaya.
"Use whatever is in season and tastes amazing," adds Sarah Krieger, MPH, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who says preparing baby food for each of her three children was a win-win decision. Everyone in the family ate the same nutritious foods, which saved her time and effort, she explains. Good choices for protein-rich foods include cooked eggs, salmon, lentils, chicken and lean beef. However, a word of caution, wait until your baby is at least 6 months old before serving home-prepared spinach, beets, turnips, carrots or collard greens due to the nitrate content that may make younger babies sick.
Be vigilant about sanitation. Use only well-scrubbed and washed produce, and clean hands, utensils and countertops, says Swinney.
- Cook food until it's very tender. Steaming and microwaving in just a little water are good methods to retain vitamins and minerals in fruits and vegetables. When cooking meats and fish, remove all fat, gristle, skin and bones before cooking. Be certain that all meats and fish are cooked to proper temperatures.
- If you're cooking the same food for the rest of the family, remove the baby's portion before adding salt and seasonings. As the baby grows and becomes more used to table food, feel free to add seasonings other than salt.
- Puree or mash the food with a little water, if necessary. It's easiest to puree cooked meats in small pieces and while still warm. A food processor, immersion blender or stand blender all do the trick.
Keeping Baby Safe
After you've prepared the food, either serve it or refrigerate it right away. To avoid illness, throw out leftovers that are more than two days old. If you prepare a large batch of food, freeze it in a clean ice cube tray so you have infant-sized portions when you need them. Homemade baby food keeps for three to four months in the freezer. Small portions are ideal because any food that was served, but not eaten, must be thrown out. Bacteria thrive in the mouth, explains Krieger, so if a spoon goes into the baby's mouth and then touches the food, that food cannot be saved.