Any parent marking milestones in their child’s life knows what happens when their baby graduates to eating solid food—they probably won’t like it right away. So to help parents diversify their baby food options, New Jersey mom-of-two Leena Saini wrote a cookbook with more inventive recipes that add some flavor to what can sometimes appear to just be “mush.”
A former lawyer and current food blogger (check her out at masalababyfood.com) and self-professed “baby food obsessed” mama, Saini has first baby food cookbook, Around the World in 80 Purees: Easy Recipes for Global Baby Food, coming out in August 2016! We caught up with her about the forthcoming book which includes mouth-watering recipes with names like Cardamom Banana Oatmeal, Blue Islands Coconut Rice, and Poached Fish with Saffron.
What made you want to write a baby food cookbook?
It came time to start feeding my oldest daughter, who’s almost 5 now, solid foods, and she just didn’t take to any of the bland offerings most pediatricians recommend. Most of it is kind of rice cereal out of a box. It was such a frustrating thing, and I discovered my child wanted flavored food. The first thing she ate was an avocado and I added cumin and cinnamon to it, just trying different flavors and spices. Then a little lightbulb went off. It got me really thinking that, because she wasn’t into the jarred stuff, I could make my own. I could customize all of the flavors and I could do different things with it.
How did you decide what recipes would go into the book? What was your research process like?
The first thing I did was think about my own childhood. My mom was such a diverse cook—I’m of an Indian background, but she was into all kinds of cultures and recipes and experiments so I drew from that. I knew that I had a pretty well stocked spice cabinet, so I just visited my pantry and try different things. That started the adventure. And then it really got me going to recipe books, history books, and digging for what “kid food” is around the world. I started talking to parents—Turkish friends, Filipino friends, and different mom groups and blogging networks where you can really get a global viewpoint of what someone in Mexico is feeding their baby compared to what someone in Japan is feeding their baby. There are also a lot of pediatricians and research scientists that have studied what children eat around the world, and I had a whole host of resources. Those international articles were great, and a lot of the medical journals were pretty handy too, in terms of what spices are safe to use and [in terms of] baby safety.
Does putting spices and seasoning in a baby food diet make them more likely to want to try similar foods when they’re older?
Yes, definitely. You can mold a child’s taste buds from a very young age. Children actually start tasting food when they’re in utero, so they can taste what the mother is eating through amniotic fluid, so even as a pregnant person you’re supposed to keep it diverse. Especially when children start eating solids, you’re really in control of what they taste so it’s a great opportunity. My 5-year-old has been eating Pad Thai forever. She loves it, and I think it’s only because she’s used to eating that kind of stuff. It becomes a habit, just like anything else. A lot of children in this country are used to very bland food—it’s from a jar and doesn’t taste like anything. They develop a bland good habit as opposed to [a taste for] a diverse range of things. It can take a while, but you’re trying to get your child used to a wide array of taste and seasoning.
Do you think incorporating spices into baby food is something that some parents are afraid to do?
Oh, absolutely. I had joined a bunch of mom groups with my kids and I was telling them about this idea of spices in baby food and every single one of them said: “I’d never put that in a kid’s food.” And I was wondering: “Why? Why wouldn’t you put cinnamon in mashed bananas?” And a lot of them ask if it’s dangerous or if they’ll be allergic to it. There’s so much misinformation out there, and with seasoned food it’s only in this country that we’re scared of it. I think a lot of that is tied to allergies and not having the knowledge, because you live in this small section of the world. I went by the book too, and talked to my pediatrician. But there’s this huge thing going on in the world where babies are enjoying themselves with different foods.
Did you find that some countries or regions had more varieties in seasoning than others?
It’s definitely very spread out. A lot of it is whatever native ingredients they’re working with. Places like the Caribbean are very rich with different things like papayas. Papaya and fish is a common combination and not one that I would think to put together until I started researching it. Then there are places like India where there are a lot mangos, which is a big thing for babies. They’re sweet, they’re juicy, and they’re high in vitamin A. Indians put everything on them—saffron cardamom, anything.
What do you hope parents will take away from the book?
I’d like to change the way babies and toddlers and young ones are eating. Exposing your child to spices and ingredients from around the world can really blossom your child’s palette. You want to do that so you’re raising an open-minded eater. Scientific studies show that starting your baby on these diverse flavors young will encourage them to be a less picky eater because they will have created good broad minded food habits… If you’re eating a Thai curry meal with coconut milk, puree some up and give it to your baby, because there are different tastes involved. As long as you’re doing it from when they’re 6 months old and getting clearance from your pediatrician, there’s no reason why you can’t create that kind of diversity.
To learn more about Around the World in 80 Purees, visit quirkbooks.com!