March 22nd, 2012
I remember like it was yesterday. Astounded that it was legal to leave the hospital without a professional, I brought my little boy home. My house, under construction at the time, was clumsily prepared, but my fridge was expertly stocked. I’d spent days before my first son’s arrival prepping, cooking and packing. I had stocks made, chili portioned and lasagnas frozen. We were going to be well fed for about a month and then, well, after that, things would be easy. We’d be cruising.
Cruising for disaster, as it turns out.
One month of prepped food was not nearly enough to get us through the many hectic months that marked my introduction to parenthood. Then, once it seemed we were in the clear, about 6 months in, the baby needed to eat, too! Though it helped for a short while, I didn’t need a stocked fridge, I needed a whole new way of cooking. If you have a little one and are feeling the same way, I have just what you need: Parents Need to Eat Too, the new book by Debbie Koenig.
Go ahead. I’ll wait here while you place an order for your copy. (I know how important this is.) Then, come back to read my interview with Debbie to get some of her best tips, you know, to hold you over until the book arrives.
For those of you who don’t already know Debbie, she has been helping struggling parents cook affordable and easy meals for years now. And not kids meals or semi-homemade meals. I’m talking thoughtful, from-scratch food. Her secret? Techniques developed specifically for new parents. Techniques that she shares, along with more than 150 recipes, in Parents Need to Eat Too.
I wanted to do a Q&A with Debbie to show off her expertise. She graciously agreed to answer some of your questions about healthy family eating. Consider this proof that you need her book. In addition to tips on making the most of your slow cooker, recipes that can be made with one hand, foods that support breast feeding and grown-up meals that also make great baby food, you’ll also get more sage advice like this.
Why is homemade food so important?
DK: Homemade food matters for so many reasons: It costs less, gives you more nutrition for your buck and is usually much lower in things like sodium, sugar and saturated fat. Plus when you have a new baby, a simple, everyday action like cooking dinner really helps you to feel like life is getting back to normal—the new normal. There’s something so restorative in sitting down to a home-cooked meal.
Once you’re cooking for yourself, making food for your baby is a breeze. People seem to think making baby food has to be a nearly scientific process, a project that takes hours. But in reality, you can adapt the same foods you’re already cooking for yourself for your little one. When you look at it that way, making baby food ain’t no big thang. (One Hungry Mama says, “AMEN!”) If you’re still worried it’s too much trouble, here are my top three reasons for turning what you’ve already cooked into baby food: First, it’ll save you a ton of money over buying jarred food. Second, you’ll know precisely what your baby’s eating—recalls are rare, but even organic baby food companies have had problems over the years. And third, I can’t think of a better way to introduce your baby to a lifetime of adventurous eating than by feeding him the same things you’ll be serving throughout his childhood.
What are some power foods great for baby’s health and mom’s health, too (and, ahem, maybe even for weight loss)?
DK: My favorite food for moms, especially nursing moms, is almonds. They’re packed with healthy fat and Vitamin E, and they’ve got more fiber than most nuts so you’ll feel satisfied longer. Trader Joe’s sells them in single-serving packets—I don’t love the excess packaging, but boy are they easy to toss in my bag (or Harry’s lunchbox). AND Almonds are considered lactogenic—they help your body to produce breastmilk. My book has an entire chapter of recipes that help to boost your supply with almonds, oatmeal, beer, and a bunch of other things.
Try combining all three, along with a frozen banana and whatever other fruit you like, for a green smoothie.
You use spicy ingredients like schiracha and chile peppers in your cooking—how is that okay for little ones?
DK: So many of the “rules” we hear when it comes to feeding babies aren’t based in science—it’s what the experts think is correct, and that changes every few years. When my son was born in 2006, a lactation consultant warned me not to eat peanuts while nursing because new research was coming out that showed it encourages allergies. Now, of course, the pendulum is swinging the other way—the latest theories about why allergies are on the increase revolve around the fact that we’re not introducing our babies to enough allergenic foods in the early stages. Can you imagine, I abstained from one of the easiest new-parent foods, peanut butter, for nearly a year! And it was all hooey. As long as your family members aren’t allergic to foods, none of those highly allergenic foods are off-limits anymore.
It’s not a question of safety, really, when it comes to spices and babies. In other parts of the world, babies eat what the family eats from the beginning—perhaps a slightly milder version, but not necessarily. This is about what your baby’s used to and what he likes. If you eat a lot of spicy foods yourself while pregnant or nursing, those flavors are already familiar to your baby—they pass into amniotic fluid and breastmilk. Obviously, you’ll know your baby better than anyone, so if you’re a spice-hound and you think she might be too, let her taste a small amount of something that’s got a bit of heat. If she responds well, you’re on your way. If she hates it, you’ll know immediately! And if it upsets her stomach, well, you’ll know that soon enough too, and then you’ll back off.
One thing I’d advise against is giving babies food prepared with red pepper flakes, unless it’s perfectly pureed. Just think about how unpleasant it is when a flake lands on your own tongue, then imagine your baby with that sensation.
One reader has heard that yogurt is bad for baby (whereas I think of it as being a perfect early food!). What’s your take on yogurt? Any other misconceptions about first foods?
DK: These days, there’s no food that’s considered “bad” for baby, as long as your family is free of food allergies. Honey should be avoided until your baby is 1-year-old due to risk of botulism, and caffeine and added sugar are to be avoided, as well. Juice is nothing more than sugary empty calories, but as long as you’re feeding your baby food that’s minimally-processed, made from real ingredients you recognize, you’re good to go. Plain yogurt, as I mentioned above, is a terrific first food—it’s already the right texture and you can stir in whatever other purees you have on hand for flavoring. And once you’re through the first few weeks of solids, there’s no reason to hold back on anything—even sharing your own dinner (in puree form).
As far as the very first foods go, my research for the cookbook found that it’s fine (and even wise) to start with real, whole foods—things like avocados, bananas, and sweet potatoes. Baby rice cereal offers very little actual nutrition, and it tastes terrible! I followed the “rules” with Harry and made that his first food—dude swatted that spoon away so fast I thought I’d birthed a ninja. I went straight to real food and never looked back—and when I mentioned this to Harry’s pediatrician, he smiled and confided that he was from Argentina, where baby’s first food is often meat. I know there are still grandmothers, and maybe even doctors, recommending that you add rice cereal to a baby’s bottle to help him sleep better, but there’s no scientific proof that actually works. Seriously, skip that stuff. Don’t even buy it.
What’s the most important tip that you’d like to share with new parents who want to keep eating home cooked meals.
DK: Revise your notion of “good enough”: Don’t beat yourself up over how pretty your food is, or how authentic. If you made it from scratch or near-scratch and it tastes good to you, enjoy it and be proud! Parenting is hard and in the early days especially, getting dinner on the table in any form is a major accomplishment.