Put a Cape On It: A Book Review

Parenthood changes us. Big time. If we’ve grown sloppy in our own self-care, pregnancy is for many the much needed deep breath, conveniently long enough for transforming our bad habits into good ones. This is when resolutions to eat better might actually stick, because we know that soon, someone important will be watching. For a few anticipatory months, we have optimistic dreams of DIY everything: nursery room decorations, baby food, green body care, cloth diapers, and herbal non-toxic household cleaning solutions that might make us, well, Super Moms.

Inspired by the birth of my own (“one and done”) son, and my background working with farmers and farmers markets, I started good phyte foods with a keen awareness of the myth of the Super Mom. Sleep deprivation and occasional desperation are a math equation for compromise, and store bought processed foods start looking really good when what free time you have is used mootly sweeping behind your tireless tornado of a toddler. Who has energy to make everything from scratch, let alone ensure a diet with exactly the right macro and micronutrient ratios?

Those who judge books by their titles and covers (as I admittedly do) might be tempted to dismiss Ruth Yaron’s Super Baby Food as just about purée and gloopy oatmeal. In fact, it’s a reliable reference for just about everything related to rearing healthy kids – from nutrition to safety to encouraging resourceful, non-toxic play activities. In that sense, it makes a better go-to baby shower or 1st birthday gift than just about anything I can think of, other than a gift certificate for a 90 minute massage.

The book is a starting point for parents to “Choose Their Own Adventure” in building a green family. Making muffins, fruit leather, yogurt and nut butters is not your thing? How about making your own bibs, toys, or even just becoming an instant hero to other parents by memorizing the formula for calorie requirements based on age and body weight? Spoiler Alert: If your kiddo is between 1-3, your baby will need about 45 calories per pound of body weight, and between 50 and 79 grams of fat (p. 431-432).

Daily Servings and Portion Sizes Chart, p. 390
Daily Servings and Portion Sizes Chart, p. 390

This is why I love Super Baby Food. It’s startlingly comprehensive while being down-to-earth and unpretentious. There are no photos in the entire 600 pages (although you can find some on the Super Baby Food blog, if you are that addicted to food images). The recipes use humble phrases like “dump ingredients into…” and she stresses the importance of supporting local sustainable farming, food co-ops, and reusing or sharing programs. Yaron is a genuine home economist, not a glossy Martha Stewart. As I noticed after writing this paragraph, however, Martha herself did write an endorsement for the back cover.

The book includes more than 100 pages of toddler recipes, from hors d’oeuvres (basically cooked anything rolled into balls) to lasagna to muffins to sugar-free birthday cake frostings. I have tried a variety of these recipes, and love their simplicity, offering a reliable template to then experiment with different spices and herbs on your own. Check out my Mediterranean modification of her Millet Crackers (p. 509) to see what I mean about inspiring experimentation.

Fatty Acid Chart, p. 429
Fatty Acid Chart, p. 429

In most cases, Yaron follows a principle of nutrient density, which trumps any dogma of of gluten-free, paleo, nut-free, AIP-friendly, sugar-free, or any other myriad “X is bad” diets. Among today’s proliferation of all-or-nothing nutritional regimes, I find this refreshingly empowering. For me, as for Yaron, the bottom line is good ratios and diversity, with vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats as the cornerstones. She issues cautions about hidden sugars (see table) and preservatives, but doesn’t put a label or a halo on her point of view. Instead, she includes well-researched tables about portion sizes, targets for daily macronutrient quantities, nutritional profiles of nearly every vegetable, and all kinds of handy tips for anyone who agrees that homemade ANYTHING is best.

Finding Hidden Sugar Table, p. 418
Finding Hidden Sugar Table, p. 418

New in Super Baby Food’s third edition (I also have the 2nd edition) are a removal of any past recommendations to use plastic wrap or aluminum foil, and, thankfully, a removal of any suggestions to microwave, as it can destroy phytonutrients. Additionally, the book now discusses the issue of pesticide residue in foods, and updated its stance on allergens to no longer delay the introduction of common food allergens for infants that were not otherwise at high risk for allergies (since many food allergies are hereditary). This reflects a new stance that the American Academy of Pediatrics adopted in 2008, and reinforced by the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology in 2013, as mounting evidence indicated that late introduction of highly allergenic foods may actually boost allergic reaction in kids. See the U.S. News & World Report article How (and Why) to Introduce Allergens to Your Infant for more information on this point.

By now, you are probably no longer reading this review and are heading out to your local bookstore to buy your own copy of Super Baby Food, but I will close with a quote that has been helpful to me when I panicked about those times my son simply wouldn’t eat.

“I’ve heard on more than one occasion a mother say, ‘My baby won’t eat for me.’ That statement indicates that a power struggle has developed between mom and baby. For example, Baby does Mom a favor by eating, and punished her by not eating. How to prevent this? Do not over-react when your baby refuses to eat. And always keep mealtimes relaxed and pleasant.”

And, as I’ve learned by accident, not paying too much attention to the little one, and a little instrumental music in the background, both seem to result in a cleaner plate at the end of a meal. No fuss, no muss.

Yaron continues, “You can put baby in a high chair, but you can’t make him eat. Never force your baby to eat. When that little head turns or those lips close tight, it is time to put the food away. Never, never, never force a baby to eat; never make him finish the last spoonful in the bowl…Finishing that last bite will start your baby in the bad habit of eating when he is not hungry and throws off his self-regulating mechanism, which may lead to being overweight later in life.

“Some parents are so concerned about their baby’s lack of appetite that they may resort to shoving a spoonful of food into a baby’s open mouth when he is not paying attention, or forcing or manipulating food into their baby by some other means…If you find that you are resorting to such methods, give yourself an A for effort and for the fact that you care so much about your baby. But please stop…”

And, instead, use the leftovers to make some natural food coloring (p. 562) or fruit leather (p. 230), whip up some homemade play dough, and just go have some fun with your Super Baby.

Get recipes, updates, and inspirations from Ruth Yaron at www.superbabyfood.com, and stay tuned for modifications of her recipes at www.goodphytefoods.com.