Global Cuisine for Tiny Tastebuds
Dried fish oatmeal for breakfast? It’s not everyone’s idea of a mild starter food, but it’s what babies in Japan commonly eat, sometimes topped with delicately flaked salmon, umeboshi (pickled plums) or freshly grated ginger with a drizzle of honey.
Babies around the world, of course, eat very differently than we do in the United States, and are exposed to all sorts of ingredients and spices at an early age – from curried lentils in India, to kimchi rice porridge in Korea, to salmon provençal in France – often as early as 6 months. In a short time, these little ones simply eat whatever their parents are eating only chopped or mashed into baby-sized portions.
This is a very different attitude from parents in the United States, who are taught to avoid spice and strong flavors in favor of rice cereal and bland but “safe” puréed fruits and vegetables. When my little one, Kirina, was ready to start solids at four months, I followed my pediatrician’s instructions and gave her rice cereal. A little voice in the back of my head told me real food should never come out of a box, but nevertheless, I was so excited that I bought Kirina a special spoon, a cute pink bowl, and set up the camera for the cheeky smile I expected after the first bite. I opened the box and was shocked. The contents looked like instant potatoes and the package directions said to “reconstitute” the flakes with milk or water.
“Reconstitute.” Now there is an appetizing word.
I prepared the cereal as directed and gave her a spoonful.
She spat it out. With gusto.
Of course, I thought perhaps this was normal for her first solid meal. Except that on day two she spat it out again. Day three, four and five went the same way. I felt so defeated! Here my little foodie-to-be was not taking to solids and certainly not enjoying the eating experience as I had hoped.
Then I tasted the pasty mush we were feeding her and nearly spat it out myself. To use one of Kirina’s new words, “yuck.” If I would not eat this bland mush, why would she?
Sadly, this is a common first food experience here in the United States, and it’s only the beginning. After (hopefully) mastering the ability to digest cardboard mush, babies then graduate to jarred, watery, strained foods such as peas or carrots also devoid of any zest, creativity or flavor (often oxidized into a dull, muddy color by the time they reach the jar). While it’s true that one must be careful and patient when introducing food to babies, one thing is certain: depriving them of full-flavored food will only set them up to shun variety and flavor as they get older. The evidence is all around us. Have you ever browsed the children’s menu at a nice restaurant? You will find macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets and French fries. Here in the United States we presume that children will have no interest in the offerings on the adult menu, and that they’ll naturally be picky eaters, shunning too-strong flavors or healthy ingredients.
The opposite is true in other countries, say in Japan, where a young child is often seen eating sushi with wasabi alongside their parents. In fact, during a recent family trip to France, I saw children snacking on brie, water crackers and onion quiche alongside their picnicking parents, or eating salad with colorful vegetables. In most countries, dining out of a jar or eating off a “kiddie” menu is simply not an option.
How can we in the West tantalize our babies’ taste buds like these parents around the world? One simple way is to spice it up! You almost can’t start too early. There are, of course, spices that are more “baby-friendly” than others and these are the ones to focus on when introducing new tastes to your little one. “Baby-friendly” herbs and spices are mild and palatable, such as cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, basil, oregano and thyme, to name a few.
Introducing the seasoning is simple:
When your baby becomes comfortable with a certain food, say mashed banana or applesauce, kick it up a notch by adding a pinch of this or that from your baby’s spice cabinet. Try these yummy pairings for very young babies:
• ground cinnamon or cardamom with mashed bananas
• a few threads of saffron stirred into apple or mango sauce
• dried basil with roasted carrot purée
Over time you can add multiple seasonings and different ingredients to broaden baby’s palate, working up to full-seasoned meals – even adding a tiny drop of hot sauce or vinegar as fits the occasion. Try fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice with vegetable purées (vary the vegetable also — instead of carrots, try parsnips with dill; instead of spinach, try kale with garlic) or a dash of fish sauce in soups and on meats (think salmon with lemon or chicken with coconut milk). Think of flavors you enjoy and incorporate them into your baby’s meals.
Just remember to go slowly and never give up when introducing baby to a new ingredient or spice. One of the most common mistakes parents make is assuming their baby doesn’t like something because they spit it out. Taste buds are like anything else in the body, growing and developing at their own pace. They simply need practice in recognizing and appreciating new flavors.
Parents around the world are raising adventurous eaters, one bite at a time. Anyone can raise non-picky eaters, simply by nurturing our children’s taste buds as we do our own. Think outside the jar when you are preparing or serving your baby’s first meals. As they say, variety is the spice of life. No matter what your age!
First published June 2015