How to Make Healthy Baby Food
 A Conversation with Children’s Food Expert Annabel Karmel

By Deirdre Wilson

British food and nutrition expert Annabel Karmel believes that the one thing parents can control when it comes to the future health of their children is their diet. A mother of three, Karmel was inspired to write about cooking for kids after her first child, Natasha, died of a rare viral disease at just 3 months.

The illness wasn’t food related, but Karmel says she was determined to give her second child the best start in life.

For two years, she researched child nutrition and development, talking with leading pediatricians and nutritionists. And then she started writing.

Karmel is the author of 14 cookbooks for baby, child and family meals, including Annabel Karmel’s Superfoods for Babies and Children, Top 100 Baby Purees, and her latest, The Toddler Cookbook.

She’s a popular voice in Britain, where her first book, The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, written in 1991 and revised in 2004, continues to be a bestseller and is considered the definitive guide to feeding babies and children.

We talked with Annabel about babies’ nutritional needs and why she believes that homemade food is best for infants.

What nutrients do babies need more than the rest of us?

Fat, iron and essential fatty acids are all crucial to a baby’s health and development beginning at about 6 months of age, Karmel says.

Fat – “The guidelines for feeding adults are different than for babies,” she says. “Adults need low fat and high fiber. Babies need more fat in their diet – not bad fat, but good fat like avocado, cheese, yogurt and eggs.”

Babies are growing very rapidly, but they can only eat a small amount of food at a sitting. To help support this rapid growth, increase the calorie count of each meal by adding good fats to the baby’s food, Karmel says. “If you’re making a vegetable puree, you can eventually start to mix in some cheese. Or mix some yogurt – full fat, not low fat – into a fruit puree.”

Iron – Iron is important for physical and mental development, as well as the flow of oxygen throughout the body. “It’s hard to detect iron deficiency in children,” Karmel says. “Often it’s just indicated by the child feeling tired or getting ill more often or just not growing properly.”

A baby’s iron needs are significant between ages 6 months and 2 years, and the best source is red meat, she says. “I do purees with red meat and vegetables together (like squash).”

Essential fatty acids – Growing babies need essential fatty acids to support the development of the brain. “But it’s very hard to find a jar of baby food with something like salmon in it,” Karmel says. “Fish is actually easy to cook and can be given to babies from ages 6 or 7 months. All kinds of fish – white fish, flounder, grouper – and you can even serve it with a cheese sauce.”

Babies tend to like fish, and parents who offer it early on are training their child to like a wider variety of foods. “You have this window of opportunity in the early months and years where kids will eat quite well.”

What about concerns regarding toxic mercury content in fish? Karmel argues that if parents limit servings of fish to two a week, their babies will benefit from omega-3 fatty acids without risking over-consumption of mercury.

What about the rule of thumb that says you should introduce one new food and wait about three days before introducing another?

“I think if you come from a history of allergy in the family, or hay fever, asthma or eczema, then you’ll want to introduce new foods one at a time,” Karmel says. “But if you have a completely normal family history, after a while that can become kind of tedious.

“Less than 6 percent of babies have food allergies,” she notes. “Food allergies are not as common as some people think.

“For some people, food allergies are life-threatening and I don’t want to belittle it,” Karmel adds. “If you think it’s really important to have your child tested for allergies, have him or her tested. But it’s really important not to have something, like wheat or cow’s milk, taken out of your child’s diet without making sure the child actually has allergies to those.”

Beyond iron and essential fatty acids, what are some of the main “super foods” that babies need?

“I think variety and balance of the diet is the most important thing. You want a good selection of vegetables,” Karmel says. Different color vegetables provide different nutrients. Tomatoes provide lycopene. Blueberries have higher amounts of antioxidants. “Generally, the deeper the color, the more nutrients the fruit or vegetable contains. That’s why you’re better off with a sweet potato than an ordinary potato and you’re better off with watermelon than, say, honeydew melon.”

Why do you believe that self-prepared foods are healthier than the baby foods on the market today?

A jar of baby food could have an expiration date as long as two years past the date of purchase, Karmel says. “For that food to stay on the shelf for so long means it has to be sterilized, which means it has to be heated to a very high degree. When you do that, you’re losing a lot of nutrients.”

Jarred baby food isn’t really that appealing anyway, she says. “Just taste the jars of puree and see if you would like them. They are not nice; they don’t taste nice. If you are going to buy, get a simple puree or apple puree.”

If you’re cooking your own food for a baby, “you’re sure that you’re using good, fresh ingredients,” Karmel says, adding that self-prepared food can also acclimate the baby faster to a family’s regular food.

“You can be cooking for the whole family and puree what you’re cooking for your baby too,” she says.

“You can even use frozen vegetables. Peas, for example, are frozen within hours of being picked so they can be even better for you than regular peas [bought from a grocery store produce section].”

How can busy, time-starved parents best accomplish some of the recipes and food preparation ideas that you suggest for their babies?

“My aim is not to put anybody off, but to help people, to give them common-sense information,” Karmel says. “Most mothers want to do the right thing, but worry about allergies and then don’t give needed foods to their babies. I try to say that most foods are absolutely fine.

“To make it really easy, consider that mashed banana, avocado or pears are really good foods for your baby and don’t need cooking. The more complicated foods – such as a carrot, chicken and sweet potato puree – might take you 15 to 20 minutes to make. So make six to eight portions and freeze it. You can also make cubes (slightly larger than a normal ice cube) of pureed apple or a mix of a cube of pear or strawberries and freeze those. And then at mealtime, you can mix those with whatever you want – you could mix them together or mix them into yogurt.”

Looking for more baby food purees that you can whip up yourself?

Click here for Annabel Karmel’s recipes for Tasty Salmon Puree,  Chicken Puree with Carrots and Apple and Vegetable Puree with Tomato and Cheese

Plus 3 More Quick Recipes from Annabel Karmel

Deirdre Wilson is the national senior editor of Dominion Parenting Media.