'American' Baby Food Isn't for Me—Here's Why I Feed My Son Bengali Food
Growing up I was told my culture's cuisine was "exotic" and unhealthy—but then I became a mom and started seeing things differently.
As a Muslim, I've always been taught to appreciate and honor all food as it comes from the Earth. But whether it was fritters cooked in oil called pithas; aromatic rice dishes called pulao; or the aromas of ginger, garlic, and onion that came from my Bengali meals, growing up, I was often told by friends how unhealthy my culture's cuisine was.
Our food was too oily; we eat too much rice and too many spices, I would hear.
I felt that, largely, people were racist toward Brown foods such as khichuri, yellow rice, and the smells that come with them. I found these foods were often viewed as "exotic." I felt that, outside of my home, my culture's cuisine—one that I grew up eating and loving—was "beneath" traditional "American" food. I internalized that as I grew up and I moved away from my Bengali roots. I stayed away from making Bengali food in college and throughout graduate school.
Fast forward and I had a 6-month-old son of my own who was at an age when pediatricians tend to suggest introducing solid food. My insecurities lingered. I was hesitant to make him something Bengali. But in the midst of a pandemic with a sudden need to cook more, I also wasn't fully content with the blander "American" options such as jar foods.
More time at home allowed for more family time, and, after my mom suggested we try some Bengali food such as rice and daal (Bengali lentils) for my son, I embraced the idea and revisited my heritage. Much to my surprise? My son loved the food.
Today, my son prefers Bengali food over pasta or pizza and I enjoy making it for him. But I quickly found out that those aren't the only benefits of returning to your roots in the kitchen.
For one, food is a wonderful way to help children become global citizens from the beginning. "Children increasingly live, play, and learn in multi-ethnic, multicultural environments. Their child and daycare centers, playgroups, schools, teams, and organized extracurricular activities are global gatherings," says Johnye Ballenger, M.D., a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital. "Their environments are rich with opportunities to develop an understanding of others. I think this is good for them, humanity, and the planet," she says. "New experiences feed curiosity and discovery, which in turn promote growth, knowledge, and thinking."
Fida Abuisneineh, M.D., a pediatrician in Oak Lawn, Illinois says she loves hearing that an infant is eating regular table foods with the entire family. "I have an Egyptian friend who feeds her infant a Middle Eastern dish called mulukhiyah. It is a very healthy dish and the baby loves it."
My family and I do mealtimes together. I think it's encouraged my son to try and enjoy more kinds of food.
Outside of cultural reasons, diversifying the foods children eat—and early on—can help prevent food allergies, iron deficiency, anemia, and picky eating, pediatricians say.
Ultimately, I'm delighted I didn't cut these special cultural foods out of my child's life and I feel confident in choosing Bengali food for my son. As a parent, my recent return to Bengali food has made me appreciate the comfort of culture and has provided a nice alternative to what may be considered mainstream.
After all, as Dr. Ballenger says, abandoning a culture's food altogether can be like giving up a heritage and part of one's identity. "It is like pruning a branch of a child's family tree and pretending nothing came before."
Throughout this experience, I've bonded with my son and strengthened an intergenerational connection that I hope he can someday pass along to his family.
An Expert Weighs In
Don't be afraid of feeding your baby spices and seasonings, says Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. "Many commercial baby foods sold in the U.S. are plain and unseasoned, but that's not how babies have to eat, and it's not how a lot of babies around the world eat," she says. "Using spices and seasonings introduces your baby to a variety of flavors from an early age, and hopefully creates an easier transition to eating the same table food as the rest of the family."
That's not all: seasonings like turmeric, garlic, and oregano contain natural compounds that may even offer health benefits. If your baby is used to plain food? "Start by adding a shake of cinnamon to oatmeal or paprika to cooked, mashed carrots," adds Kuzemchak. "Just remember that your baby does not need added sodium or sugar."