Years ago, if you wanted minimally-processed baby food, you had no choice but to make it yourself. For my first child there was no question that I wanted to be in charge; that meant cooking and puréeing foods and then pouring them into ice cube trays and freezing them for future use. And although that gave me total control over the ingredients in my son's food, the practice became too time consuming by the time he required toddler-sized portions, and it certainly was more than I could handle by the time babies number two and three arrived.
Today many new parents still prefer to DIY their baby food, but happily a wealth of new products on the market have brought harried parents peace of mind, variety, and convenience. So if you're skipping the steaming and pureeing and instead shopping the baby food aisle, here are a few things to think about before you buy:
1. Pick a Package
Jars? Pouches? Frozen packages? There is no clear winner here. The container your baby's food comes in might depend on how much room you have for storage, your portability needs, and cost. Glass jars are great if you are spoon-feeding your baby or heating up the food, but if you're giving the food to your child to handle, glass can be dangerous. Frozen packages are convenient and may retain nutrients without the addition of preservatives, but lack of real estate in your freezer and the defrosting process need to be taken into consideration. Pouches are child-friendly if you are handing the feeding over to your older baby, but be wary of any contaminants in the plastic packaging.
2. Consider Organic
Keep in mind that even conventional (non-organic) foods have pesticide amounts well within the federal government's safety limits. But, if you're still concerned about pesticides, going organic might be the right choice for you. Eating organic food results in a lower risk of exposure to pesticides and herbicides, which can feel especially important considering that chemicals can accumulate in higher levels in babies' small bodies. Remember, though, that "organic" only speaks to the way the food is grown. The term does not mean the ingredients are not laden with sugar, salt, or harmful types of fats. This is especially true in more snack-type items for older babies. It's important to read the label to see what you're really getting.
3. Don't Fear Fat
Many of today's parents were raised to be fat phobic, but the right fats in the right quantities are actually important for us, especially for babies. A growing child needs fat for eye and cognitive development and to support a healthy immune system. When looking at the nutrition label of your baby's food, don't avoid the fat; choose wisely and embrace its benefits. Smart picks include unsweetened full-fat yogurt, avocado, and olive oil.
4. Decode Preservatives/Additives
They may seem scary but preservatives and additives are not always as bad as they sound. Names like ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12), are just chemical names for nutrients that do not pose any direct health risks. However, you may want to avoid other preservatives found in many highly processed foods, like nitrates and MSG. Remember, forgoing the preservatives means that your food could spoil more quickly. So unless you're making your own baby food, be sure to check food labels, and look up any words that you don't recognize.
5. Go Savory
It's easy to rely on sweeter foods like fruits or winter squash to introduce babies to more savory or bitter foods; think a sweet potato-broccoli blend. But, try to introduce savory foods on their own first by choosing single-ingredient jars or pouches to start. Your baby may need a few exposures to accept them, but between the ages of 6-12 months babies are more tolerant of new flavors than they likely ever will be again. And the more flavors they try at this age, the less likely you'll be faced with picky eaters later on.
6. Shake Off the Salt and Skip the Sugar
Keeping an eye out for salt and sugar is especially important as your older baby and young toddler graduates away from simple purees and into blends, meals, and packaged finger foods. In general, babies should avoid salt since an excess of sodium can be a challenge for their bodies to process. Also avoid foods that contain added sugars (sugars that are added by the manufacturer). While added sugars aren't yet called out separately on the Nutrition Facts Panel, you can search for the sweet stuff on the ingredient list. Keep in mind that sugar is a master of disguise, often appearing on the label as organic cane juice, fructose, maple, and corn syrup, just to name a few.