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Archive for the ‘Feeding Babies’ Category

We receive complements on The Child’s eating habits all the time.  I am still uncomfortable answering the inevitable inquiries.  The vast majority of children we come in contact with are extremely picky eaters.

We are the exception and not the rule.  A few years back, I caught myself responding to positive comments with a compensatory list of The Child’s faults, and it brought me up short.  I started investigating what was really going on with us so I could better express myself.  Writing helps me understand our family’s relationship to food.

I am learning to answer questions and accept compliments without undermining The Child’s well-deserved spotlight.

There are so many different facets to it:  eating together, cooking together, shopping together, and talking frankly about ingredients, farming, science, and the complexities of the natural world.  Some of her success may be just the way she is wired – thus the blog tagline:  parenting or luck?

I began to break it down one thing at a time.  But there are a fair number of ideas which  spawned half-written blog entries.  Entries which start out helpful and end with me shaking my head, hitting the delete key, and wondering how to convey our course of action without a perceived sense of judgement thrown at those who have chosen other parenting paths.

So let’s just call a spade a spade.

*Deep Breath*

The answer to all those folks out there who have asked with genuine sincerity how we did it…  “Part of the reason my kid eats and yours doesn’t is because I am mean and selfish, and you’re not.”

*Big Exhale*

Because I’m Selfish

I am not a short order cook.  I have no problem letting my child go a little hungry if a meal is not to her liking.

I discipline over trying food because I think an unwillingness to try or taste something new is rude.  And since the sense of taste is always changing as we age, and cooking methods and seasonings are never quite the same, for our family this means tasting every part of a meal every time.

We do not take vitamins or supplements.  Unless directed by a doctor for a particular condition or deficit, there is no double-blind controlled proof that supplements do anything but potential harm.  Especially multivitamins.   So my kid’s nutrition comes from the same place every other kid’s does.  Her food.  In this case as much variety as possible.  Accepting that there is no safety-net multivitamin or fortified food puts the onus squarely on me as the parent to ensure The Child eats a wide range of ingredients.

Food will touch other food.  Sometimes it is *gasp* intentionally all mixed together.  When multiple solids were offered as a toddler, they were always crowded together on the plate.

I hate to waste food to a compulsive degree.  So we will figure out a way to choke down something meh rather than throw it away.

We enforce basic table manners.  We all make being home for a family meal a priority, often at great effort and inconvenience, so it is hugely disrespectful to have a meal hijacked by theatrics and chaos.

Positive Consequences

It is not quite a bleak life of controlling discipline around here… *wink* There are ways to build choice into her relationship with what fuels her body.  And we revel in meal times being about communication and time together.

After the initial taste, The Child decides how much she eats.  She is consulted on ingredient or menu preferences, and routinely directly involved in preparation.  She shops with us and has useful input.  And we are big fans of condiments and additions to the plate to help make the best of a not-favorite meal.

Eating is as unavoidable as emotions.

A dear friend once asked if I was concerned about attaching emotions to food for my kid.

I don’t see how anyone can ever separate emotions from food.  Parents worry with good reason about eating disorders, body image, and obesity.  I do not know enough to speak to what causes one kid to have detrimental food issues while another does not.  But is there a culture anywhere which does not connect food to emotion?  When we’re happy and sharing time with friends and family, welcoming newcomers into a community, or consoling each other over loss…  there is, and will always be, food.

Only Time Will Tell

There is no way for me to know if the parenting choices we have made will have ill effects on The Child’s psyche.  Perhaps her genetic make up predisposes her to have a particular body type and disposition well beyond any influence we attempt.

But learning to communicate with each other is something we can control.  By fostering an environment where genuine curiosity is rewarded, questions are encouraged, and science matters – perhaps the inevitable will be better dealt with when it inevitably arrives.

In the meantime, we have chosen a path that works for all of us.  And that is exactly what every family should do.  Together.  Decide what is the best match of choices for your family.  Maybe you don’t mind limiting your family menu options to a very short list.  Or perhaps it makes you happy to prepare individual meals for your loved ones.  Perhaps you find it less stressful and easier to cart around food to play dates and vacations just to be sure your kid is eating what they want.  These are all very legitimate points of view.

But when someone asks me wistfully, “How do you get her to try so many different things?”

“I make her try things, because when all is said and done, it is easier for me.”

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Freezing Babyfood

Nothing like fumbling with ice cube trays at the cabin to remind me of how beautifully the trays at home work.  You know, back home where I have an ice maker…

When we introduced solids to our daughter we froze homemade baby food in ice cube trays.  Often this was no more effort than zipping up our own leftovers in the blender.  Once frozen, the cubes popped out smoothly and were stored in zip top bags in the freezer.  This left the trays available for the next food to freeze, and we found we never needed more than two trays.

This made meal time easier.  Just snag a frozen chunk out of a few different bags and warm up in the microwave a bit.  Easy peasy!  Dish up a little plain whole milk yogurt alongside the veg, or sprinkle a little baby cereal into the fruit of choice and we were good to go.

The ice trays we bought at the time were a different shape than the traditional cube, and as I attempted to procure a few cubes this week for my cocktail I was missing my trays at home.  Those little frozen crescents just slide right out, and never leave the fractured remnants of the cube in the tray instead of in my glass.

The only drawback to the Oxo Good Grip ice cube trays are the lids.  They are utterly useless.  Just throw them out and pretend you didn’t pay for that plastic!  Trying to get the lids on when the trays are full results in massive spillage.  Maybe that doesn’t matter with water, but with baby food that’s a real pain.  So instead of trying to stack them on top of each other, we rearranged the shelves a bit to make space for trays to sit level, uncovered and side by side until completely solid.

Our freezer is still set up this way since the trays have part-time work, freezing stock and wine-reductions now that the baby food days are a distant memory.

This cocktail however is not a distant memory.  Cheers!  Time to put new trays on the cabin shopping list for next year.

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Loving Lemons

A friend recently shared this video of her 11-month old son enjoying a lemon, and it just makes me smile.

I love his giggle when the sourness gets intense.

There was substantial protesting when mom finally took the lemon away.

In our family, when it was time to bring on the babyfood, we introduced  strong flavors early on, despite the tut-tutting of concerned but well-meaning friends.  At the time we were simply being selfish.  We wanted The Child eating flavors we eat as soon as humanly possible.  In hindsight, it helped expand her palate and encourage exploration. Lemons, limes, plain yogurt, goat cheese, blue cheese, smoked fish, pickled everything, and spices… Mmmm.

The diversity of her palate did not make mealtimes less of a struggle when she hit the thunderous threes, but it gave us confidence she was capable of enjoying a wide range of flavors.

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We actually had a *gasp* vegetarian meal.  Even when meat is not the star around here, it is typically incorporated as unctuous stock, or at the very least acts as garnish to soups or salads or sandwiches…  but without really thinking about it, I made a vegetarian meal.

First there was the broth.  Vegetable stock is a misnomer.  Without connective tissue, it is broth and not stock.  But as I figured out recently, there is no need for vegetable broth to be without flavor.  Mine turned out downright spicy!  Fennel tops, bendy celery, an old and cracked carrot, a handful of peppercorns, some salvaged cloves of sprouting garlic right in their paper skins, and some thick slices of unpeeled ginger.  And because there is no need for bones to release their collagen or for connective tissue to break down, it only took about an hour.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Fennel is new to me.  More accurately, home-cooked fennel bulb that tastes good is new to me.  I have watched it prepared a zillion times on the tube, often running right out to get some and try it myself.  I have roasted and sauteed and slawwed.  And every time it overwhelms with anise flavor in a truly unpleasant way.  I would be scared off for another year or so, convinced it was not meant to be.

To add insult to injury, I know I like it.  Anytime I order fennel soup in a nice restaurant it is tempered and smooth and gorgeous.  I grew up loving fennel seed in Italian Sausages and bread.  Decades ago in Southern California I made a hobby of learning to cook Indian food, and discovered an entirely different direction for fennel seed.  The feathery bits of leaves are great tossed into a green salad, or with eggs or fish in the place of dill.  Every part of the fennel plant is edible, even the pollen, but successfully cooking the damn bulb eludes me!

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (1887)

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is interesting botanically because it is considered the sole species in it’s genus, although one cultivar stands out as being sweeter with a slightly larger bulb (Florence Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum).  Plants able to adapt to various habitats without evolving into different subspecies have to be tenacious.  This tough perennial has naturalized throughout the world, propagating easily by seed.  In climates similar to it’s Mediterranean origin it is an invasive species contributing to habitat destruction.

Introduced by humans to California, it has made itself at home across much of the state.  On Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands it has overrun native habitat, much like the introduced and devastating feral pigs which thrive on a diet of naturalized fennel.  Ironically it has also provided cover and shelter to native Island Foxes, a species recently hunted into threatened status by the Golden Eagle.  The Golden Eagle moved to the islands after humans completely displaced the Bald Eagle with DDT.  Ah the web we weave, or unweave as the case may be.  Recently Bald Eagles have been successfully reintroduced.

Fennel’s intricate history with humans far pre-dates California settlement and goes beyond just food.  It reads like a missing chapter from The Botany of Desire, what I find to be Michael Pollan’s most enjoyable work.  It is a book of essays about four plants which have benefited and changed due to the desires of mankind and how they in turn changed us.  Fennel was an important plant medicinally and mythologically in Ancient Greece, and the Romans carried it throughout their realm as well.  Used in Europe as one of the three herbs to make absinthe, the others being anise and grande wormwood, the rituals and lore surrounding absinthe production and consumption further the plant’s mystique.

Mystique to me is just science I don’t yet understand.  And the science which makes fennel special is really cool.  That overwhelming flavor comes from anethole, an unsaturated ether which measures 13 times sweeter than sugar.  And because anethole is less soluble in water than ethanol, it makes anise-flavored liquors milky and opaque when mixed with water.  This Ouzo Effect is a case of science spawning culture and ritual.  In this case resulting in artwork, specialized glasses, spoons, and antiques.  The collector in me swoons!  The legacy of it being hallucinogenic is entirely false, however the hypothesis is that cheaply made absinthe in the 19th century had toxic additives and color enhancements which fueled the lore.  (Humans adding toxic additives and chemicals to increase profits and thereby sell a dangerous product to an unwitting and less affluent demographic?  Imagine that!)

But yet I’ve been hesitant all these years to try absinthe.  I have never cared for licorice before, and have always turned down anise-flavored food and drink.  Really…  all this talk about making sure The Child tries new things, and here I am having never tried it before?  Note to self:  I ought set a good example and rectify this deficiency soon!  If for no other reason than the chemistry is so darn nifty.  But I digress…

"Absinthe Drinker" by Viktor Oliva

Fennel has a glorious history.  It has unique flavors and chemistry which have infiltrated centuries of human history.  It’s done pretty well for itself.  So at the very least I should learn to cook it!  In my previous attempts, I was clearly missing something.

…try, try again.

A friend recently offered a tip.  Steam it a bit.  Instead of just sauteing, hit it with a cooking liquid of some kind, slap the cover on, and let it go all translucent.  So I did just that.  I used the spicy vegetable broth I had made the day before.  And after giving it 15 minutes, took the cover off and tasted.

It was a bit soupy yet, and terribly white and bland looking, but it tasted really, really good!  I left the cover off and simmered most of the soupiness away.  At this point it I intended to let it caramelize a bit while figuring out what the heck to serve it with.  In the 15 minutes it took the quinoa to cook, the mush had reduced to more of a mash.  A colorless and ucky looking, but incredibly tasty, mash.  A little sprinkle of frozen chopped spinach (frozen peas would have also worked) and it had some color.  Sort of.  Who cares…  fennel finally tasted awesome and The Child had seconds!  She in fact chose to mix it in with her quinoa and eat them together.

This is exactly the kind of side dish that works well for an infant or toddler.  It is already nearly baby food as it is, but give it an extra whirl in the blender if necessary.  I remember sitting down with The Child to feed her dinner while we ate, and she was always thrilled when we offered her a taste of something off our plates.  Sometimes she wanted more of what we had, and sometimes she would return to the baby food options we had started with.  It instilled the family habit of The Child trying anything offered really early, but it never could have happened without us all sitting down for dinner together.

So how do you like your fennel?  All this chemistry talk makes me curious if using alcohol as a cooking liquid with fennel changes it’s flavor profile.  Maybe there is a chemical trick to various vinaigrettes which make raw salads more palatable?  I have many more experiments ahead.  Tell me your favorites, and share some recipes in the comments so I can try preparing it again and again!

Spicy Vegetable Broth

Stalks & leaves from 2 fennel bulbs
Leftover celery and carrots past their prime
Garlic cloves, given a quick smash but left whole and in their papers
2-3” piece of ginger, unpeeled and sliced
6-10 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Put everything in a pot with cold water and bring to a boil.  Simmer for about an hour.  After it cools enough to handle, strain and store accordingly.

Fennel & Onion Mash

(This can hardly be called a recipe when I was haphazardly winging it on this one.   But *something* worked… I just don’t know what.  An extra puree at the end would make this the best baby food ever!)

2 fennel bulbs, sliced thin
1 large sweet onion, sliced in half end-to-end, then sliced into half circles
Olive oil
Cooking liquid (broth, stock, water, wine, etc.)
Seasonings of Choice (I used just salt & pepper)
Colored add-in of choice (I used half a handful of chopped, frozen spinach.  Peas, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, or fresh herbs would also work.  Or a drizzle of pan sauce or gravy…  Yum.)

Saute in a saucepan with olive oil and seasonings until just starting to brown on the bottom of the pan.  Add enough cooking liquid to nearly cover veg and then cover pot and turn down temperature so it slowly simmers away.  Let it simmer covered for 10-15 minutes, occasionally giving it a stir.  (For a quick soup, carefully transfer mixture to the food processor with it’s liquid at this stage.)  After the cover is removed let it simmer to your preferred consistency.  For the mash I let it slowly bubble while pulling together the rest of dinner.  It took mine about a half an hour.  Stir occasionally to keep mash from sticking to the sides of the pan.  Turn off the heat and sprinkle in chopped frozen spinach and serve warm.

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When it came to successfully getting food into The Child as an infant and toddler, I benefited from nanny experience in my college years.  At 19 and feeding someone else’s kid, my priorities were very different than the exhausted thirty-something mom with my own kid.  In those years of experimenting on other people’s children, I learned a few things:

It’s best to go fast. Keep it coming and get the calories in them before they get distracted.  I’d shovel it in until the kid turned their head or waved off the incoming spoon.  Keep rags handy for the inevitable urpsies, but for the most part it will stay down.

Two choices are better than one. Once the first option was waved off, switching to another dish helped.  Getting into a rhythm and setting up subtle patterns (one of this, two of that) would catch a kid’s interest as well.

Don’t worry when it doesn’t work. Once the kid has waved off all the options, the meal is over.  Even if I had just sat down, I would get up and put it away.  Remember, at 19, I was less concerned about understanding if the little one had satisfied their hunger, if they were conveying a preference, or if it had been a simple exertion of will.  Curious, sure, but I certainly never lost sleep because someone else’s kid did not want to eat today.  I just got up and put it away, if they were hungry again they would let me know and not throw it on the floor this time.

No toys at the table. Sorry kid, but eating time is about eating.  You don’t get to draw, you don’t get to play, you don’t even get a freaking teething ring.  If you are hungry you will eat and when you are done we’ll clean you up and you can play, or chew on the teether, or have a cuddle.  Toys simply prolonged the process when my primary motive was to get lunch out of the way and be off to the park or the playroom to burn off some energy.

No playing with your food, and no you do not get the spoon. If the kid could not physically handle what I was giving them it just meant washing someone else’s kitchen floor…  again.  I was the kind of nanny the left the place far cleaner than when I arrived, but I wasn’t stupid enough to make more work for myself.  If the kid could not reliably manage utensils yet, I made finger food or I ran the spoon.

Either lower your expectations or don’t make it a big production. There are going to be special days when family is gathered round, there are paparazzi, there are fans cooing from the sidelines.  The kids wouldn’t eat as much those days.  They would melt down sooner than expected.  They would remind you there is a cost for being your performing monkey.

Basic Lifeguard and First Aid Training. ‘Annie Annie, are you okay?  Keep coughing, keep coughing.’  No matter your speed, kids are going to have near-miss choking incidents all the time.  I never walked away from the bathtub, because I knew what could happen.  And the same went for supervising infants and toddlers with their food.   My teenage first aid training always kicked in when something went down the wrong pipe, the calm keep coughing, keep coughing encouragement without hovering always seemed to reduce panic.  The basic concept is that if someone is coughing then they are breathing, so you calmly encourage coughing without commencing treatment until they cannot cough anymore.  In hindsight, reinforcing this habit helped me more than The Child – – because the first time a kid chokes for real, you are going to freak out and panic on the inside, but the reflexive habit of keep coughing, keep coughing will kick in and help the situation all around.

These are not guidelines, but rather a reflection in hindsight of why eating issues may have been less fraught for us than say sleep issues and the non-napping-child abyss we were in for years.  I never had any practice disengaging on the sleep frustrations.  I could have used someone else’s Raising a Napping Child blog back then…  but I digress.

My philosophical point here is that the kids I nannied for turned out just fine.  And in hindsight, many of the instinctive (and perhaps self-serving) judgments of my youth were reflected in the way I approached feeding The Child when she was wee, albeit with a little more context and caution. So when feeding The Child got hard, I’d attempt to channel my inner preoccupied, disengaged teenager and try again later.  At least, when my exhausted, worried brain remembered to disengage.

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The last two weeks have been jetlag, and headcolds, and broken dishwasher, oh my!!  The last thing I felt like doing was cooking and making a mess of the kitchen.  Times like these I tend to throw together what I can with what I’ve got.  Sweet potatoes and carrots are both on my standard weekly order from spud!, and I usually have some homemade stock.

This is more of a technique and less of a recipe.  Sauté veggies and seasonings in a pan, cover with homemade stock, and purée.  That is pretty much it.  But the concoction evolved from the months of baby food mush into a more developed and complex set of flavors, and it has consequently became a new tradition of comfort food at our house.

I love this recipe because it was something that The Child could eat early on.  As an infant, she always gravitated to food more when it was  spooned into all of our bowls.  In those early months of mush, this preparation became a foundation for introducing new foods for allergy screening without isolating that particular food like it’s some big production.  We know she loves sweet potato purée?  Let’s sauté it with onions first, and then purée.  Next week let’s add a little garlic, or ginger, or carrots, or *gasp* cayenne.  That’s right… We used some pretty powerful spices in small increments early on.  But that’s another post.  As the repertoire of new cleared foods grew, we could introduce foods in their own right without the added pressure of hovering over her looking for an allergic reaction at the same time.  This technique separated the “does she like it” from the “is she allergic” question, which may have cut down on mealtime drama or stress from the outset.  Although, that may simply be the benefit of hindsight.

These are the ingredients used recently. The organic sweet potatoes were tiny, so I used them all. Use about half the ginger shown unless you like ginger as a primary flavor.

I attempted recently to document the preparation.  The results are different every time since the ratio of overflow veggies is always different.  Use quality homemade stock, and you cannot go wrong.  When it comes time to purée there are several options, but I prefer the food processor, at least when my dishwasher is functioning.  The broken appliance meant resorting to a potato masher this week.  It certainly was not visually refined, but the flavors were great and my family didn’t mind the stew-like texture.  Garnish with plain yogurt or sour cream, or sprinkle a handful of fresh cut herbs.  Leftovers typically go fast in our house, and back in the day the purée was frozen into ice cube trays for easy baby meals to come.

This sized chop worked well for the potato masher, but when using a food processer 1" - 2" chunks shorten prep time.

Sweet Potato and Carrot Soup

Large onion, rough chopped
2-3 Large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
3-4 Carrots, peeled and cut into similar size lengths
Leftover white wine
Olive oil
Kosher salt
Penzeys Turkish Seasoning (flake salt, cumin, garlic, half-sharp paprika, black pepper, Turkish oregano, sumac, cilantro)
Homemade stock

1)  Heat oil in a saucepan over medium to medium high – enough heat to get a sizzle when sautéing the onions.
2)  Add carrots and sweet potatoes.  Season liberally with Penzeys Turkish Seasoning and stir.  When things start to caramelize, deglaze with a little white wine (or water) to get any brown bits up off the bottom of the pot.
3)  Add enough stock to nearly cover veggies.  Turn heat down to a simmer, cover, and cook until sweet potatoes and carrots are just fork tender.
4)  Taste for salt and add more if necessary – often I leave it out at this point and top individual servings with Parmesan or goat cheese later.  I do not add salt when doing the first sauté because the saltiness of my stock varies by batch, depending on which roast beast it came from.  There is also salt in the spice blend already.
5)  Purée in food processor, garnish individually, and serve while hot.  If you choose to purée in a blender, let it cool first or thermodynamics will not be your friend…  be careful you don’t blow the lid off!  The Spouse prefers the immersion stick blender, but I can never get it totally smooth.  Nor can I manage that thing without making a mess.  This time around with the potato masher it worked well as a stew served with basmati rice.

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Having previously written about pointless forks and perforated spoons, I received an inquiry regarding the effectiveness of suction cup bowls.  I doubt suction cup technology has advanced much since The Child moved beyond that phase.  We did have one.  And it did work for us, albeit with a few provisos.

The Child used the Baby Cie Suction Bowl

The suction cup bowl worked best for us on the seamless granite countertop.  So long as the suction cup and surface were both clean and a bit damp it worked on the wood kitchen table, but it stuck longer and better on the smooth stone countertop.  Our granite has few occlusions, and that contributed to an excellent seal where textured surfaces might have been problematic.

Most importantly, it worked for us because of what I didn’t use it for.  I did not relinquish the spoon to The Child unless she could manage honest and focused attempts to get the mush into her mouth.  Until this happened, she was not in control of the bowl full of mush either.  So our suction cup bowl was predominantly for finger foods.

We did not use the suction cup bowl, or any utensil, as a toy at mealtimes.  The suction cup provided a good defense against accidentally knocking niblettes off the counter, but if a kid wants to get the bowl unstuck to play with it, they will.  Probably quickly.  If The Child attempted to remove it, I would remove it for her.  I would pour the contents into a different bowl and dole out bits directly onto the counter.  So in that respect, it helped to calmly teach table manners very early while reducing mess and drama for all of us.  I never tested the bowl for unattended eating, since choking concerns kept me sitting with her anyway.

Overall, the suction cup bowl was a useful but unnecessary tool, and I see no reason to own more than one.  Being hand-wash only to keep the suction cup from warping in the dishwasher, I did not want more than one piling up on the counter anyway.  Once The Child learned to keep dishes in one place in front of her, she graduated to other bowls.  But she still asked for this particular bowl because of the cute animal print.  Plus, she thought the suction cup was cool.  I can’t argue with that.  Suction cups are cool.  Which is probably why I bought the thing in the first place.

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