19 January 2007

Introducing babies to food and cooking: the "rules" vary by culture

Piove shared an amazing story about including his baby-now-toddler in food prep. It's a long post, but worth the read if you'd like to see an incredible example of how culture shapes our parenting, in this case, with respect to infant feeding.

I know that it is recommended to include toddlers in cooking, but we have involved our 6 month-old since he became interested in food. Raiden was 10 weeks old when he first reached for the food on my plate, and grabbed himself a handful of guacamole.  He has been eating a couple of solid meals a day since, as well as breastfeeding.

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Neither my wife nor I like bland food, so we decided not to stick to the conventional idea of feeding only  bland "baby" foods to Raiden. He loves to watch us cook, and we let him smell all of the herbs and spices before they go into the meal. I have just cooked him a satay with mince [ground beef? -- Ed.], mushrooms and zucchini.  He loves it. Often he prefers fruit, so will get apple and cinnamon or apple and honey [before you comment about the honey, keep reading. -- Ed.] or even apple and nutmeg.

He has tried a wide variety of foods, and will eat almost anything. Of course, we have made a few mistakes...  He has an allergy to kiwi and breaks out in a rash.  Apricot and pears give him the farts really badly.  (Sorry I mean wind!) So far, he has tried: apple, apricot, mango, guava, lychee, banana, feijoa, plum, avocado, rice, potato, tofu, mushrooms, corn, tomato, capsicum [bell pepper -- Ed.], carrot, olives, gherkins, eggs, fish, chicken, mince, cheese, yoghurt, toast with all sorts of condiments... plus a heap more. His diet is almost as varied as ours, although we have just introduced small amounts of dairy products.

We find that he is much more likely to eat what he is served if he has seen it prepared.

Needless to say I was floored by that list of foods, some of which I've never tried. I think Raiden happens to be one of those kids who's unusually attracted to food, but I also I admired Piove's willingness to buck conventional wisdom. However, I was worried about the honey. My response:

Thanks so much for this -- amazing! Where do you live? (I noticed the European names for a few of the foods you describe.) I ask, because while it sounds like your little guy is as healthy and adventurous as they come, some of what you're feeding him goes against the medical advice I've heard in the US. Specifically, parents here are warned against serving honey to children under a year old due to the risk of infant botulism. Because of this, I'm hesitant to post this as a hack. Which is not to say what you're doing is wrong...on the contrary, we should all have such hearty eaters! I just want to err on the safe side in this case.

Piove replied:

We live in New Zealand, my wife is Swiss, and I am a local, but we spent a lot of time in Australia. We have never heard that you shouldn't feed a young one honey!  On the contrary, honey is touted as a super-food with anti-bacteriological properties.  There is even a type of honey that is used as a dressing in some hospitals as it kills things antibiotics won't.

My wife and I looked at the list of "allowed" foods and researched what other societies did.  We found that what we are told is mostly convention.  Even our GP admitted as much.  So, we decided not to avoid too much of anything, variety being the spice of life and all that...

After reading your email I did a bit of research.  All of the sites that related to infant botulism were US-based, and I found this one quite interesting. It seems that the source of most cases of infant botulism are never identified, and about 10% of the honey on the market contains the spores, as well as most unwashed fruit and vegetables.

Feel free to edit any foods that I have mentioned that may be unsuitable for the US (or any other) market.

So let me be clear. Parent Hacks suggests you do NOT feed your infant honey. But I thought this discussion was fascinating because it illustrates how culturally-based certain "iron-clad" parenting rules turn out to be. I remember watching my cousin in India strain the juice of a tangerine and feed it to her three month-old. "Cereal" was a ground mix of grains and legumes, to which her mother added warm buffalo milk. When I asked my cousin if she ever bought baby food (in jars), she looked at me with a quizzical expression, like, why?

I would love to hear your take on what and how to feed a baby...especially if you live outside the US.


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Very interesting article! I started out feeding my now 3.5 year old daughter by "the rules" (I live in the US) but a lot of what I read went against my own instincts and I ended up bucking the system a lot. I also included her in food prep. She rode in the baby bjorn while I baked and she loved watching my stand mixer whirling foods up. I know there are dangers in holding babies or toddlers while using kitchen appliances or cooking on the stove and I would hold her hands in one of mine if she was close to something dangerous. I would never recommend that another parent do something that feels dangerous for their own child, but I definitely second the idea that even babies can enjoy cooking.

All the kids are incouraged to explore and expand on what they like to eat. My parents where very open with what I got to eat and I never had many of the food hangups many of my friends had/have. I also remember being part of the kitchen when cooking went on and I have always felt at home int he kitchen cooking up a storm.

There are a few foods we hold back on the youngest two. When we go for sushi our 4 year old can get some salmon and tuna, but only a few. Since he is often seated near the conveyor belt (yes we go to those types of sushi places as well) he has gotten great at pacing himself and making good choices. The 1 year old gets none of the raw fish yet. The 12 year old has been able to get whatever she wants since age 6, double edge sword that as it gets expensive.

We do a fair amount of Indian food, for the two youngest we tend to steer clear of the vindaloo booth in cooking and ordering. Lots of spinch dishes! As with Asian food RICE is a great kid friendly food.

My big hobgoblins are mostly fast food related. Our 4 year old has been conditioned to think of McDs as the place one goes to eat and get sick, hopefully that will hold even after he gets barraged by the HappyFunClown adblitz (side note...PBS needs to get its backside spanked for running McD's and Chuckey Cheese ads during the kids shows)Soda chips and candy are SomeTimes Food (even the Cookie Monster has my back on this)..I do not want to be one of those fascist dads who FORBIDS things so harshly the kid gluts out on the taboo items till they vomit at the first non parental supervised chance they get, but I do want to counter the very real and very effective conditioning they will be exposed to.

In the kitchen I do not discourage the kids from helping unless there is hot oil splattering or I am in a knife frenzy doing prep; niether are safe places to be even for adults.

Our 18 month old can have just about anything he wants. Some stuff he likes and some he doesn't. We've somewhat stuck with the 'conventional wisdom'. We didn't know you weren't supposed to feed citrus to children under 2. Ours loves satsuma mandarin oranges (have a great picture of him sitting on the kitchen counter eating one). He's also been eating avocado since ... since the first time we took him to a Japanese restaurant (8 months old?) He loves soy sauce on things. Unfortunately his daycare provider does the bland food thing, so he also loves boxed mac & cheese.

My one year old has been eating "normal" food since he was six months old when i took the chicken tikka masala leftoevers and chopped it up really really finely.

I am South Asian but grew up in Japan, so I find some of the US-based rules a little odd (except for nuts, which makes sense to me). My son has been eating Japanese food and Indian food since 6 months and hasn't had any trouble, as long as things are cut up small enough. And he loves the fancier fruits like papaya and guava better than apples. The only thing he doesn't like so far is ginger, which I guess makes sense. While he liked baby food (he started solids at 4 months) he always seemed more interested in what's on our plate than his.

Along with honey, we introduced yoghurt and cheeses (his first cheese was feta) and lentils (dal).

My kids are well past the introduction of solids, but if I had to do it over again I would probably follow the ideas here:

I've loved introducing my daughter, now 16mo., to almost anything either myself or her dad are eating. And I'm constantly surprised by the things that she ends up liking. The only real "taboo" food she gets is seafood. I've been told that to avoid a risk o fmercury poisoning she should only get it about once a week, but if she got shrimp or salmon for every meal she'd die of happiness. In fact it's made eating in food courts etc. a lot easier if only because it means we can eat at the healthier Japanese restaurants. My best hack is that I've got her convinced that certain healthier foods are, in fact, "candy". So when folks offer her a "treat" she gets annoyed when they offer just chocolate when Mommy would at least have given her an apple!!! Geez, the nerve. A question, though... I just moved to the boondocks where there is literally only one grocery store and the produce is almost inedible. Any ideas on companies that might deliver or other ideas???

I've loved introducing my daughter, now 16mo., to almost anything either myself or her dad are eating. And I'm constantly surprised by the things that she ends up liking. The only real "taboo" food she gets is seafood. I've been told that to avoid a risk o fmercury poisoning she should only get it about once a week, but if she got shrimp or salmon for every meal she'd die of happiness. In fact it's made eating in food courts etc. a lot easier if only because it means we can eat at the healthier Japanese restaurants. My best hack is that I've got her convinced that certain healthier foods are, in fact, "candy". So when folks offer her a "treat" she gets annoyed when they offer just chocolate when Mommy would at least have given her an apple!!! Geez, the nerve. A question, though... I just moved to the boondocks where there is literally only one grocery store and the produce is almost inedible. Any ideas on companies that might deliver or other ideas???

I emailed Dr. Steven Parker of WebMD about this thread, because he seems so open to the natural differences in kids and parents. I wanted to get his take on the honey thing. Here's what he said, included here with his permission:

I agree about cultural relativity re: child rearing practices (like when we start solids), but this isn't an example of that. Rather, it's an informed response to a rare but probably real risk and since there is no downside to postponing honey for a year, why not avoid any potential hazard altogether?

I wouldn't call it 'ironclad' but I'd need to hear a good reason not to postpone honey before I would recommend it before a year of age.

I first got in contact with Dr. Parker after writing this post:


...He then wrote to me, and I responded with THIS post:


You can read his blog at:


My son will eat pretty much anything we do (20 months) - he loves mexican food, indian food (especially with lentils or chickpeas). We sometimes laugh about how different his exposure has been compared to ours as children.
If you don't have good fresh produce, check out the frozen section - frozen blueberries, strawberries, mangoes and peaches are big hits around here (and also if you prefer organic, much cheaper that way compared to fresh) - we also love the freeze dried fruits from "Just tomatoes" or the Trader Joe's brand - the just tomatoes can be found online at amazon - http://tinyurl.com/yrh7az

It was awesome to see such a positive response to my post!
We only seem to know "normal" people with kids in NZ.
Really interesting to read the responses from other cultures.
Great to see that we are not the only people who think that kids are capable of making their own decisions about food.
I would just like to point out that freezing kills botulism, so freezing honey (for a suitable period of time) and then thawing it would negate the risk.

We live in Ireland, but I was raised in the US (and we all have dual citizenship, spending time there every summer).

Our son, who has mulitple food allergies, eats almost everything put in front of him. I wouldn't say it's cultural (tho he does like a cup of tea!), but more of a result of the allergies and having to find some good substitutions for "normal" kid food. We held off giving him any food til he was one (he was breastfed til 3 years, as he's allergic to dairy) and that really sparked his interest in food. As well, he's quite good helping us in the kitchen, chopping up mushrooms and cucumbers with a pie slicer and working with teh bread machine and other non-sharp appliances.

Thinking about it, he eats more "exotic" food than a lot of his counterparts. Most parents here look at me crazy when I say how into sushi he is (and thank heavens, since it's one of the few cuisines he can eat a lot of with no worries about allergic reactions).

Ironically, his best friend (half Spanish, half Jordanian) has a mom who is the world best cook (and you can fight me on that, but wait til you taste her food!) and will barely eat a thing. And the foods she makes...heaven. All types of middle eastern delicacies, Moroccan stuff, Spanish things...and this child doesn't eat much of it at all (to his mother's consternation). So who knows?

The honey thing...I think it's followed here as well, no honey til they're one. But I did just meet a woman in the ped's office who's friend was told to put rice cereal in the baby's bottle for nighttime sleeping (and the baby is only 3 mos!). Breastfeeding rates are through the floor here, sadly.

Unfortunately, I think freezing does NOT kill botulism spores. It does slow the growth of it, but doesn't kill it. I wasn't sure, so I did a little research before posting this and I found several sources that agree (CDC is one). Freezing food, as you know, will not stop it from spoiling in general, just slows it down a lot.

That makes me wonder, if freezing possibly kills off other, beneficial elements (bacteria, etc.), would freezing then set up a clean slate for the botulism to go to town, especially once it's thawed? Would a post-freezer sample have a higher rate of botulism growth than a non-frozen sample becaue of a lower amount of competing bacteria/fungi/etc.? Anyone know?

About the food stuff, though--I think it's wonderful to introduce such wide varieties of food to babies. How else will their palates develop? It's setting them up, not only for great nutritional variety, but also for a lifetime of wonderful food experiences and memories.

My daughter ate whatever we were eating, as soon as she could. Funnily enough, we found that when she was 6 months old, mashed banana would severely constipate her. Go figure. :)

Huh. I thought it wasn't the spores but the toxin *already produced* by the spores in the honey that were the main issue with honey. Which would mean freezing still isn't useful. Now, can't find where I read that, though.

As for food introduction, I've read a few interesting comments in medical journals and articles about our ORDER of introduction of foods, and how the whole 'bland cereals first' and 'veggies before fruits' thing is based on a 1940's understanding of digestion and development.

I kind of like Soranus' approach, which was to match the food texture to the muscle tone of the baby. Liquid only when they're floppy babies, soft solids when they sit but still topple easily, harder solids when they've really got their gross motor skills under control, complex solids when they have their fine motor skills under control (I'm paraphrasing from memory - Soranus is a 2nd century Greek OB, by the way). Other than that, it was milder foods first, more complex foods later... but mild is defined differently by culture, too!

I did the typical 'slow introduction' start with Gabe, followed by abandoning that when my mom said 'you know, it won't kill him to try two foods at once'. Only, he turned out to be allergic to one of the two I went for, and it took a few days to figure out which! ARGH! Back to the slow-and-steady 'US medical typical' approach for us! He also ended up with a feeding disorder, due to many issues overlapping, including the food allergies. Sigh.

Second child, detested solid food. UGH, awful, would tolerate a taste or two, but NOT INTERESTED. Until he grabbed some of my summer squash with garlic, onions, and black pepper. Oh, the love! He ate ground versions of what we ate from then on, sometimes 'simplified' versions (only introducing one thing at a time, previous allergy history lesson learned!). But he loved Thai by 11 months, and still tries foods easily, and eats heartily, and enjoys things like broccoli.

Twins, sort of the same approach. They eat what we eat. They still eat what we eat, though each of them (and older brother) have distinct likes and dislikes. Meriel dislikes tomato sauce and loves meat, Rowan prefers pasta to meat, but both will devour a good rare steak (I still go for medium for them for food conam issues, but if they get a chance, my steak will be GONE). They also have allergy issues, so some things are delayed even further than typical (no peanut or tree nuts until 3, no shellfish until 3 or later, etc.). But we can still get in a fair variety within those boundaries.

I also find that most of my kids (barring the eldest) like HERBS in their food. Give them some flavor, a bit of garlic, etc. Spices, too, though not too much on the hot. Boring is a big turn-off for them. Unless it is that plain rare steak, LOL!

I guess that's the lesson I'd take from the cultural differences - that things don't have to be BORING to be appropriate for kids to eat. Simple, maybe (plain avocado or a slice of guava jelly on a cheese sandwich isn't a 20-ingredient recipe!). But they don't have to be limited, or dull just because we expect nothing better.

I didn't go by the book when I started feeding my son solids. I waited until he was six months old, and his first food was banana. He liked that the first few times, but won't eat it anymore--too much other good stuff out there! One of his first foods was avocado. I didn't give him any baby cereal until he was about 9 months old.

These days some of his favorite foods are tofu--we sprinkle cinnamon, ginger, or sage on it, polenta, applesauce, pumpkin, and peas. He's always loved green vegetables, thank goodness. I often mix wheat germ into his pumpkin (which is super easy baby food, by the way... just get a can of pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix, but pumpkin) and dish up!

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