Baby Food: Stage Zero?

I noticed a couple of people have reached this blog by searching for things like “salt free chicken soup for babies”, “baby soup” (which I hope is not an ingredients search), and “perfect baby chicken broth”. And while I think that soup is definitely a food a baby can enjoy along with the rest of the family, this compells me to address the whole baby food genre. Ah, baby food. I could write for days. (I promise not to.)

I should disclose that I am neither nurse nor nutritionist; this is from my own experience with my own babies, and from reading everything I could get my hands on as far as feeding them is concerned.

So, then. Buckle up, please!

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At a play date not long ago, chasing my busy little beauties around while attempting to converse with someone who could speak in complete sentences, I half-overheard a conversation between a few other mothers from our Moms’ Group. They were talking, as mothers are wont to do, about what their children were doing developmentally. Comparing notes, so to speak. The conversation went something like this:

“Gianna [not her real name] just started Stage Two foods last week.”

“Oh, that’s great. Aiden [also not his real name- at least, I don’t think- there are so many kids named Aiden these days] has been on those for a few weeks now. He really seems to like them.”

“Well, Gianna doesn’t seem really crazy about them, but her doctor said she has to be on Stage Twos by now. She’s already eight months old.”

At this point, my fourteen month-old wandered over. It occurred to me I had no idea what Stage she was eating at. Probably the Messy stage, I decided. It also occurred to me that our family doctor has never, ever suggested that our children had to be eating anything other than as much mama milk as they wanted [for the first six months exclusively, etc.]. As if she read my mind, DD2 signed that she wanted to nurse. I sat down on the floor with her, turning at an angle so as to see both the moms and my older DD (who was still galloping around the room). At least now I could hear the conversation a little better. I feel more involved with the group when I can sit near one of the moms and eavesdrop, since I don’t seem to actually have anything in common with them, other than my X chromosomes, to precipitate us actually talking about anything together. This was still better than another round of Curious George Goes To The Hospital on our tape player, though. Mom B continued:

“Aiden didn’t really like solids at first, either. But we just kept giving them to him until he stopped spitting them out. He moved from Stage Ones to Stage Twos without any trouble at all.”

It took a lot for me not to suggest that perhaps, maybe, if her son was spitting out all of the food, that perhaps, maybe, just maybe, **gasp!** he wasn’t ready for solid foods yet. But I could be wrong, since I must confess that I still had absolutely no idea what the heck a Stage Two food was. I had to look it up. Apparently, it is a Gerber invention that has to do with the viscosity of the food product, the number of ingredients in it, and the size of the baby on the front of the package. Unfortunately, I could not find anything to help parents determine just which Stage their darling child should be given, other than an age parameter. And I didn’t understand why Gianna’s pediatrician would be pushing any particular type of baby food, as long as she was healthy. Smells like marketing to me.

My children are stage zero eaters, apparently. They have never, to my knowledge, had a Stage Anything food. I’m not saying that to brag, nor am I embarassed by this revelation. It’s just a simple fact. It’s also a fact that my older daughter did not begin munching anything other than mama milk until nearly eleven months of age, beginning with bread dipped in water. (Her idea….she wanted to try the spoon.) And DD2 began her sojourn into the solid world at nine months with a classic baby favorite: watermelon sticks. Seedless, of course. And also her idea. (She wanted to try what Big Sister was eating.)

Oh, I tried to get them to eat the way good old American babies are supposed to. As DD1 approached six months, I dutifully purchased a box of El Riceo Cerealo, per our former pediatrician’s instruction. He said I should put a little in her bottle. I told him she was a nursing baby, and I wasn’t really sure how to get the cereal in there (maybe I should eat it myself?) He said to mix it in a bowl, then, and serve it on a spoon. At home, I looked at the strange box with the garish grinning Gerber baby on the front. His blue eyes and blonde, curly hair seemed so unlike my daughter’s dark, intelligent features. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I did not want her to be anything like that snotty little Aryan-boy caricature. I put the box up on the shelf and started reading about just why, exactly, I needed to give her that cardboardy, sawdusty stuff. And why there was a rush to start babies on solid foods. And that’s when I discovered that there is no compelling reason to start solids, and actually a number of reasons to delay starting them- particularly when your baby is breastfed. But that is a giant tangent worthy of its own post. As is the laundry list of reasons why we no longer go to that pediatrician (or any AAP doctor, but again, and as usual, I digress….)

But whether your baby is nursed or is on artificial infant milks, there is no magic date by which they MUST start solid foods. Every baby is different. Some are ready right out of the gate, so to speak; others might be well into their second year of life before they are keen to chew. So let’s just get this out on the table (pun intended) right now: AGE IS NOT THE ONLY FACTOR WHEN IT COMES TO DETERMINING WHEN AND WHAT YOUR BABY SHOULD BE EATING. YOUR BABY SHOULD ALSO BE ABLE TO SIT UP UNASSISTED, SHOW AN ACTUAL INTEREST IN SOLID FOOD, AND HAVE GENERALLY LOST THAT FUNNY TONGUE-THRUST REFLEX THAT MAKES HIM LOOK LIKE HE’S PERPETUALLY RASPBERRYING YOU BEFORE YOU TRY TO SHOVE FOOD IN HIM.

Ahem. Stepping down from soap box now.

So, aside from my confusion as to just why it is that we rush about to get our babies going on “real” food, when nursing is just oh-so-much easier, and beyond the irrational rationale that babies “should” be eating X-Y-Z food just because they have reached a certain calendar age, I next have to wonder just why it is that we forsake “real” food for the jarred-and-packaged variety when the magic time comes. What makes Baby Food a la Gerber more appropriate for our little munchkins than, say, fork-squished carrots off dad’s plate, or regular old mashed potatoes (maybe sans dairy)? Those higher Stages are full of fillers, starches, and non-food substances. Many of them have incredible levels of toxins and pesticides. And the smell! It’s nothing much like any “real” food I would ever consider eating. At a baby shower, I once participated in a game of “guess the baby food”. We had about a dozen different jars with their labels removed, and guests had to smell and/or taste each one and write down what they thought the foods were. The results were dismal- no one even came close to getting half right, let alone all. Granted, none of us were gourmets, but you would think a food for your infant would be at least somewhat representative of the real thing. Guess again!

And the expense. I’m a Catholic girl, but let me just say Oy vey!! Do these people realize that they are spending twice, sometimes three or four times as much, per ounce on this stuff? Case in point: there is nothing special about baby orange juice. It is regular old juice, cut with water. They sometimes add some Vitamin C to it, but they sometimes do that to the Tropicana stuff, too. But baby juice costs nearly four times as much per ounce. If you insist on giving your child juice, why can’t you just give them a watered down bit of whatever you’re pouring for the rest of the family?

The same is true for foods. And cost aside, what on earth would make a jar of processed, shit-brown goo more appealing than a nice, ripe, yellow banana? It’s certainly not more nutritious when it’s out of a package, even if there is a baby holding a banana on the label. Take that lovely piece of real fruit, peel it in front of your wide-eyed sweetheart as she’s captive in her high chair, and break off a nice long piece for her. If you’re just dabbling in the fine art of Food Exploration, take a small bit and smoosh it in your fingers. See if Baby will nibble it off, or put it on the tray and let her poke at it. If she’s older, separate a long chunk into spears and give her one to gnaw on. You’ll be surprised how well babies handle foods if you wait until they’re truly ready. How do you think the ancients did it, before Magic Bullets and Cuisinarts? There was no pureeing in the cave days, mothers. And yet the human race survived- largely because the cave mamas let babies do what they are supposed to do (which is nursing, and sleeping next to their mothers— but, yet again, I digress).

And then there is the trash. Baby food is hardly ever packaged in jars these days, as many of the bigger brands are going to plastic packaging. At least the little jars were useful for storing fasteners or doing crafts, but they’re a dying breed. So we are left with tons of packaging, much of it not readily recycleable. I once had the pleasure of watching my little nephew, when he was about 9 months old, for a whole day and night. He was here just under 24 hours. Between the drop-in liners for his artificial infant milk bottles, the disposable diapers and wipes, and the baby food containers, he generated more trash in that single day than my breastfed, cloth-diapered, delayed-solids baby did in her first five months. It was actually quite appalling, when you thought about how many millions of American babies are out there, trashing things up. See? Even the littlest of us can make a big difference.

In any case, we are happy being zero-stage eaters. My kids ate when they were ready to, and at their own pace. It seems to have worked fine. Now, at 34 and 14 months, they eat like champs. Both love an enormous variety of foods, many of which rarely pass an American child’s palate: herbal teas, olives, hummus, plain yogurt, multi-grain seed crackers, onions, crunchy peppers, Gouda cheese, popcorn, low-salt salami. They prefer cheese omelets and oatmeal to pancakes and breakfast pastries, too. Are there foods I wish they liked? Of course. There are also foods I wished I liked; broccoli and brussels sprouts, for instance. But I guess I’m past the Learning To Like New Foods Stage. Or maybe I should start at Stage One and see how far I can go.

Nah.

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