We want our babies to have the best start in life and do everything we can to ensure their health and safety. We read piles of baby books, eat carefully during pregnancy, and buy non-toxic baby gear. Unfortunately, many threats to our children’s health lurk in places we least suspect, even in baby food.

A recent study by the Environmental Defense Fund found detectable levels of lead in 20% of more than 2000 baby food samples. An especially large percentage of fruit juices, particularly grape, tested positive for lead, as did baby foods made from root vegetables.

Lead is particularly harmful to children because of the neurocognitive effects that can occur in their developing brains. Lead exposure is associated with lower IQ, as well as attention and behaviour problems. Lead can also affect a child’s cardiovascular and immune system. According to scientists, these effects occur even at low levels of lead exposure. (At present there is no safe level of lead exposure for children).

Where is the lead in baby food
coming from?

There are several ways that lead makes its way to our tables. Lead occurs naturally at low levels in many soils, and some soils are contaminated with lead from decades of pesticide use, leaded gasoline deposits, or from industries that use lead. Soil particles left on fruits and vegetables, even organically-grown ones, can allow lead into prepared food.

Some plants also take up lead, mainly into the leaves, but experts advise that it’s soil on the food, not incorporated into the food, that’s the main way we get food-based lead exposure. Even food from your own garden should get rinsed well before eating.

Lead can also be introduced during cooking and processing, leaching from the equipment used or from unfiltered water used in cooking.

Cut up cucumber on a wooden board.

Benefits of making your own

Making your own baby food is a simple way to minimize your baby’s exposure to lead and the many other contaminants in processed foods. It also comes with other benefits:

Controlling the ingredients. When you make your own baby food, you avoid added preservatives or sugar. Further, jarred food is cooked at high temperatures to destroy bacteria, but this also diminishes its nutritional content. Cooking your own means serving up nutritious and fresh food packed with vitamins.

Reducing packaging exposure. Much baby food today is sold in plastic pouches that could leach unsafe chemicals like BPS into the food we serve our little ones. Instead, store your baby’s homemade food in glass or ceramic containers to avoid this exposure.

Slashing packaging waste. While convenient, those single-use pouches are a growing environmental menace, with millions heading to our landfills each year. If you want food on the go, there are some excellent refillable pouches made from silicone that you can use over and over again. My second grader still takes her homemade yogurt to school in one of them!

Saving money. All that packaging and shipping of tiny servings of food is expensive, as well as harmful to the environment.

There are some minor trade-offs to making your own baby food. Of course, you’ll need to spend a little time preparing the food rather than just popping open a pouch. In many cases, though, that time is minimal, especially when you’re making the same food for the rest of the family. Also, fresh-made food doesn’t keep long as shelf-stable baby food, though you can freeze it in small portions and thaw as needed.

Getting started

Making your own fresh baby food is far easier than you might think! Here are some basic things you need to know.

Single ingredient foods

The newest eaters are ready for single-ingredient foods, many of which come naturally in their own perfect, biodegradable packages. It takes no time at all to prepare a mashed avocado or banana. Other perfect first foods just need a little steaming or roasting and a spin through the food processor. Carrots, squash and sweet potatoes are great choices. Applesauce or other pureed, cooked fruit like pear, peach, apricot, plum are tried-and-true baby favorites.

Always wait four days between new food introductions to make sure they are well tolerated by your baby. Purees for youngest babies should be thinned with water or breast milk. Stick with low-acid fruits and veggies till your baby has more experience digesting food.

Mixed baby foods

Once your little one is a bit more practiced at chewing and swallowing, you can move up to slightly more challenging foods, like mashed peas or oatmeal. You can also begin mixing together foods, like squash with a little well-cooked broccoli, or green beans with carrots and quinoa.

Whatever’s coming in from your garden — spinach, zucchini, kale, or beets — can be whirred in with other veggies and even fruit, like a baby smoothie. Blueberries mixed with just about anything will usually be a hit. If your baby tolerates dairy, whole milk yogurt can be incorporated into any mixture to add a little fat and protein. Egg yolks, and eventually whole eggs, also make versatile additions to baby fare.

Once you’re ready to give more than one food at a time, you can puree or mash whatever the rest of the family is eating. Just take out baby servings before adding salt so you don’t train their developing palates to prefer salty food. Our kids ate a lot of pureed ratatouille with quinoa when they were very little, because we were cooking it for ourselves. Soups and stews also blend well and can be eaten easily by older babies. Bean and lentil soups were popular with ours. Well-cooked meats like chicken, turkey, beef, and wild-caught fish can also be pureed for younger babies and cut into tiny pieces for older ones.

What about seasoning?

Unseasoned food is okay at first, but don’t be afraid to introduce some exciting flavors and set your little one up for a lifetime of adventurous eating. See the recipes below for a fabulous range of flavors.

Favorite recipes

The following recipes are excerpted from What a Good Eater! Nutritious Recipes for Babies and Toddlers by Alessandra Macaluso and Amy Godiwalla, courtesy of the authors. Find out more about their book.

Baby Green Machine

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes

If you’ve always wanted to incorporate fresh greens into your baby’s diet but didn’t know where to start, this recipe blends kale with the natural sweetness of apple and a hint of lemon. According to pediatrician, Dr. Elissa Levine, this combination of iron-rich kale and vitamin C makes the iron more bioavailable to baby. As your baby transitions into toddlerhood, try adding extra water to make this recipe a delicious juice.

For ages 8 months plus. Yields approximately 3-4 cups.

  • Approximately 1 cup of water, divided
  • Approximately 4 cups of organic kale, rinsed with stems removed
  • 2 medium-size apples, cored and seeded, cut into chunks (about 2 cups)
  • 1/3 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  1. Place a medium saucepan on the stove and fill with about 1/2 cup of water. Bring water to a boil, then add the kale leaves. Allow the kale to soften and deflate for about 2 minutes. Gently stir with tongs, then place the lid on the pot and allow the kale to steam and soften for 3–5 minutes.
  2. Allow the kale to cool slightly, then transfer to a blender or food processor. Add apple, lemon juice, approximately 1/2 cup of water or more if needed, and puree to achieve the desired consistency. Serve!

The Iron Chicken Dance

Prep time: 8 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes

Chicken thighs are packed with iron, and salsa makes this recipe ‘dance.’ Don’t be intimidated by the term “salsa”—it’s super easy to prepare this entire recipe in under ten minutes.

For ages 8 months plus. Yields approximately 4-6 chicken thighs.

  • 1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, preferably organic
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt (optional: we only recommend adding salt for babies 12 months plus)
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • ½ teaspoon dried herb mixture, such as Herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 (15-ounce) can organic black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2 cups fresh mango, diced into ½-inch-by-½-inch chunks (for time savings, check if your market sells this precut)
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro, minced
  • Juice from 1 lime, seeds removed
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Season both sides of the chicken with salt (if using), pepper, and dried herbs. Set aside.
  2. In a large oven-safe pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the butter and allow it to melt, then add the chicken. Sear the chicken on both sides until golden brown (about 2–4 minutes per side). Transfer the pot to the oven and bake uncovered for approximately 25–28 minutes or until the thickest part of the chicken reaches 175 degrees. (If you do not have an oven-safe pot, transfer chicken to a baking dish and place in oven.)
  3. Remove the pot from the oven and add the black beans. Cover the pot with a lid and let the mixture rest for 5 minutes. Add the mango, cilantro, and lime juice to the pot. Serve, cutting into smaller pieces appropriate for your baby, or puree the baby’s portion to desired consistency, adding small amounts of water as needed.

Baby Gazpacho

Prep time: 6 minutes

This refreshing recipe features a traditional raw dish eaten in Spain and Portugal. Packed with fresh vegetables, gazpacho is known as a ‘cold soup’ meant for hot days. Your baby may prefer this at room temperature any time of year!

For ages 10 months plus. Yields approximately 2½ cups.

  • 2 tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 medium-size cucumber, roughly chopped
  • ¼ cup yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • ¼ cup green bell pepper, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup low-sodium vegetable juice, such as V8
  • 1½ tablespoons distilled white vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt (optional: we recommend adding salt only for babies 12 months plus)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic salt

Place all ingredients in the blender and puree just until smooth. Take care not to overmix. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Visit What a Good Eater for more healthy recipes and seasonal snacks.

Tips for making the healthiest baby food

Lead is not the only food contaminant you want to avoid feeding your baby. If organic isn’t possible, at least avoid produce known for high levels of pesticide contamination and opt for other choices when you can. Also ask your local farmers if they use organic growing practices, which many do even if they haven’t gone through the certification process. And try growing some of your own. Gardening with toddlers is an adventure you don’t want to miss, even if it’s just growing a few veggies in containers.

Soak grains, seeds, and legumes overnight before cooking

Soaking is thought to break down some of the harder-to-digest parts of these foods and make the nutrients more available. It’s a good practice for the whole family, not just baby. Soaking ahead requires a little more forethought, but it will also save cooking time and energy.

Cook, store, and serve in stable materials

To avoid leaching plastic chemicals into food, store baby foods in glass or ceramic dishes. Prepare food using healthy cookware such as stainless steel, ceramic, or cast iron.

Filter water

Nearly all homes built before 1980s have lead solder connecting their pipes. Additionally, some US cities have lead pipes bringing water to homes. Lead and other chemicals in public water supplies are best kept out of our babies’ developing bodies.

Don’t sweeten

Our culture seems to believe our kids will only eat food with added sugar, and typically offers them sweetened yogurt rather than plain, sugar-coated cereal, and overly-sweet snacks. All this sugar has been linked to an array of health problems that you certainly don’t want for your child. When you’re making your own baby food, choose low-sugar options to help develop preferences for foods in their unsweetened state.

Batch cook

To save time, you can make many servings at once and freeze, then thaw as needed. Use fresh-made and thawed foods quickly to avoid bacterial growth.

Making your own baby food is easy, economical, and fun. As your baby watches you cook, she learns how food is prepared. Soon little ones can join in and help — pushing the lever on a food processor is a thrilling task for toddlers! Give homemade baby food a try and you may never go back to store-bought.

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