Buying baby food can get expensive. Not only does it create a financial snowball that can sometimes bowl you over, it's just not as healthy as you might think. Don't get me wrong, it's not unhealthy...it's just not as healthy as it could be. Any of the vegetable- or fruit-type baby foods on the store shelf can be made at home for a fraction of the cost. What's better, it can give you peace of mind knowing exactly what is going into your baby's body.
- Pick Your Base Ingredients: Chances are you have a general idea of what your little consumer will and will not eat. To quote Flavor Flav, "Go with what ya know!" If the kid likes sweet potatoes, which is a safe bet, then you're 99% of the way to great homemade baby food. Butternut, spaghetti, acorn and just about any other squash will make an excellent base for baby food. Also, carrots are an inexpensive and nutritious base.
- Fire Up Your Oven: Never boil, steam, microwave, sauté, or fry your ingredients. Boiling and steaming draw the nutrients out of the food and leave it in the liquid. Microwaving messes with the texture, while sautéing and frying add fats you don't want in your baby's body.
- Prepare the Ingredients: Vegetables with skins and peels, like sweet potatoes, yams and squashes, should be left more or less whole and unpeeled. The skins actually contain a good portion of vitamins and minerals, so leave them on! Also, the skin creates a natural barrier that keeps the good stuff inside the vegetable where it belongs. When roasting tubers (yams, sweet potatoes, etc.) leave them whole. Roughly chop carrots and slice rinded squash (butternut, spaghetti, acorn) in half. If you choose to use yellow squash or zucchini, peel it first. Getting the peel out afterwards is near impossible. If you're not interested in hollowing out the rinded squash post-roast, feel free to peel and chop them as well...but never peel those tubers.
- Get Roasting: Put whatever food you've chosen on an ungreased, heavy roasting pan and into a 325 to 375 degree oven. Roasting times and temperatures vary depending on the food and its size. Whole tubers and halved rinded squash will take longer, while chopped carrots and zucchini cook faster. Regardless of the vegetable, you can test for doneness by inserting a sharp boning knife into its center. If there is little to no resistance, it's ready to be processed.
- Process the Vegetables: If you don't have a food processor, invest in a ricer. While the processor is efficient, easy to use and yields adequate results, the ricer does a more thorough job. Both work, it's just a question of how much elbow grease you want to put into the endeavor. For God's sake, let the big vegetables cool before you try and handle them. If the base ingredient was peeled and chopped to begin with, purée away. Once the red-hot magma veggies cool down, peel or scrape the unwanted bits away and chop into manageable pieces. Load the veggies into your ricer or processor and work it until it's the consistency of, you guessed it, BABY FOOD! If your mixture is too thick, use a little water or some watered down fruit juice of your choice to thin it out. I find a 50/50 apple juice/water mixture works well.
- What About Fruit? I know what you're thinking, what about fruit? That's easy. Apples and pears should be cored, peeled, and quartered. Apricots, peaches, and plums should be blanched, peeled and pitted. After that, put them in a saucepan over medium to medium-low heat and just let them break down. Add a little water or watered down juice if they start to stick. Once they seem good and soft, process as usual. If you think you can peel the apricots, peaches, or plums without blanching, go for it. It's tough work, but if you're up to it...
- Jazz It Up with Add-Ins: Now that you have a good base, taste it. If it doesn't taste good to you, do you really think the kid is going to eat it? You're not looking for Michelin Star quality, just palatability. Think of different taste combinations that might appeal to you. Mix two different bases together. Add some mashed-up fruits. The sky is the limit!
- Get it Stored: The best part of making your own baby food is the storage. No more bins full of glass jars, no more cabinets cluttered with creamed carrots. Get some ice cube trays and a roll of plastic wrap and you're good to go. Pour, spoon, or extrude your product into the ice cube trays, cover, and freeze for at least 6 hours. Once they are solid, pop them out and put them into a large high-sided container with a lid. Put them back in the freezer and they'll stay fresh for about 2 weeks. After a month, they'll still be edible, but not quite as palatable.
- A Few Do's and Don'ts: Although it is a pretty simple process, there are a few hard and fast rules about what you can and can't do.
- Do combine different fruits and vegetables to create new taste sensations!
- Don't add dairy of any sort.
- Do steam spinach and carrot and celery tops as add-ins. Just use them sparingly and process them using the liquids they were cooked with.
- Don't use sweeteners like sugar or Splenda. That would defeat the purpose, no? Never use honey! Infants under 12 months can contract infant botulism from eating honey.
- Do simmer dried fruits like raisins, cherries, cranberries, or prunes in a small amount of water as a pre-processing add in.
- Don't add formula or breast milk to the mixture. It may seem like a good plan, but it's just plain wrong.
- Do load your finished product into a pastry bag or zip top bag with the corner cut off to extrude the mixture into ice cube trays.
- Don't use avocado, banana, or citrus fruit in the mixtures. These foods need to be served fresh and should not be heated, frozen or processed. They come out of their skins more or less baby ready, so why mess with perfection?
Making baby food is forthright, fun, and frugally fulfilling. All it takes is a little time, some general cooking knowledge and the drive to make better, cheaper food for your little one. Don't be concerned with sterilizing the ice cube trays first or making sure the plastic wrap didn't touch the counter before you use it. Kids need to be exposed to the outside world if they're ever going to live in it. So, turn off the computer and start cooking!