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First Flavors: How to Safely Introduce "Baby-Friendly" Spices
Can I really put that in my baby's food? Are herbs and spices safe for my baby?
As a new mother, I was always asking myself whether it was safe to give a pinch of this or that to my now 3-year-old, Kirina. Frankly, I was scared and intimidated. I didn’t want to “screw up” or accidently give her something that she couldn’t digest. None of the baby books on our shelves discussed how or when to season food. In fact, there was very little information anywhere on the topic.
Meanwhile, Kirina refused to eat anything bland—she refused her first bites of boxed rice cereal at 4-months of age. She rejected, with enthusiasm (spitting out), grocery store baby food jars on a regular basis. It left me wondering how I could make food tasty for her, even at a young age. My first instinct? Add spices. Just a pinch of this or that to enliven her food. But was it safe?
I am happy to report, after a few years of research and many baby meals later, that adding herbs and spices to your baby’s first bites is safe! And not just safe. Many cultures around the world also believe spices have healing or disease-fighting qualities. For instance, turmeric has known anti-septic and anti-inflammatory properties while fennel is known to soothe an upset tummy. Hence, both are routinely added to the family’s daily meals (which baby eats in puréed form). Even gripe water, the famous colic remedy, is made with dill, ginger, fennel or chamomile.
Generally speaking, babies around the world start tasting spices within the first year of life. It is common for Mexican babies to eat their avocados with chili and lime and Japanese babies to eat their sushi with wasabi.
How comforting to know that parents around the world have been feeding their babies spices for centuries and that it is considered quite normal!
Babies in the United States, by contrast, are often conditioned to eat bland foods, starting with boxed rice cereals and graduating to plain white pasta or chicken nuggets. Spices, even the most common ones, are shunned and become foreign to a little one’s taste buds because they’ve had no exposure to the taste from a young age. When you start introducing full-flavored adult meals, it’s no wonder children balk at their plates and turn into picky eaters.
Raising an Adventurous Eater
Yes, there are many benefits to using spices in your baby’s food. The main benefit, if you ask me, is making food diverse and yummy! Spices add a zest and dimension to baby food, turning simple purées into spoonfuls of flavor. Each purée you serve your baby is an opportunity to introduce him or her to another new spice or seasoning. Over time and with a lot of exposure, these tastes will become second nature to even the tiniest of taste buds.
Don’t worry if introducing spices to your baby sounds intimidating at first. You can safely introduce spices by following these simple steps:
1. Listen to your baby’s doctor. Most pediatricians (including our own) recommend introducing spices after 6 months of age.
2. Treat each spice like a new food. That means waiting a few days between each new spice to see if your baby is sensitive or allergic to it.
3. Use just a pinch to start. A little goes a long way for little mouths.
4. Use “baby-friendly” spices (see below)
What Are “Baby-Friendly” Spices?
“Baby-friendly” spices are those that are mild, easy on new taste buds, and simple to digest. Parents often hear the word “spice” and assume that the flavor will be “spicy.” Such is not necessarily the case.
Here are my top five “baby-friendly” spices. Each is safe, easy to use, and most of all, flavorful, adding depth and simple yumminess to your little one’s first bites.
In my opinion, cinnamon is the most “baby-friendly” of the spices. It is mild in flavor and palatable, making it a great choice for introducing your little one to the world of spices. It is also a flavor that is good for babies to familiarize themselves with—cinnamon is used in so many “grown-up” foods, from baked goods, to oatmeal. Most of us already have this spice in our pantries, making it a fast way to liven up commercially made baby food jars or your homemade purées.
Baby Food Pairings:
Sprinkle ground cinnamon into applesauce, mashed bananas, and just about any multiple fruit purées. Cinnamon also pairs well with vegetables, such as sweet potato, and most meat purées. One of my favorite ways to use cinnamon is in oatmeal or rice cereal (boxed or homemade). It really livens up the blandness of these cereals. Yogurt is also a great way to try out this spice.
Cinnamon has been known to help sensitive stomachs as well as regulate blood sugar.
2. Green Cardamom
Cardamom is an aromatic spice native to India, Pakistan and Bhutan. You might know the taste from a cup of masala chai (tea), where cardamom is one of several spices used to flavor the chai. They are small black seeds (formed inside of a green pod) which are ground up and added to foods and spice mixtures. The aroma and flavor are so warming, gentle and tasty. As a young child my mom would make me warm milk with a pinch of cardamom, sugar and saffron when I couldn’t sleep. I still find the scent of cardamom comforting to this day.
Baby Food Pairings:
Try a pinch of ground cardamom in yogurt, applesauce, pear sauce, mango purée or mashed bananas (a combination I remember fondly as a small child). A bottle or cup of warm milk with a sprinkling of cardamom is also lovely, and a nice easy way to introduce your child to this wonderful spice. An interesting combination is cardamom with finely diced (or puréed) cantaloupe, which I also grew up eating as a child. It is best served icy cold from the refrigerator (a soothing temperature for sore, teething gums).
Cardamom has cleansing properties, particularly for the kidney and bladder. It also aids in digestion.
Cloves are the flower buds of a spice tree that grows in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Zanzibar, among other places. The buds are pink, but as they dry turn a deep brown color, which is what is sold in markets. They have a warm, but strong flavor and can be found in everything from Middle-Eastern curries to European baked goods like ginger bread.
Baby Food Pairings:
Cloves, to me, always remind me of the Fall and Winter. It is a comforting spice in a warm purée. Try a pinch of ground cloves in freshly made, off-the-stove, applesauce, pear sauce, or peach purée. As it is a bolder spice, it also stands up well in puréed lamb or meat dishes. For a Fall treat, add a pinch of ground clove to warm or room-temperature pumpkin or sweet potato purée.
Clove is a known anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, digestive aid and is a popular teething remedy in some parts of the world (in paste form and dabbed on the gums).
Nutmeg is a fascinating spice. Fascinating from the way it is grown and cultivated to the ways one can use it in cooking and medicine. Nutmeg comes from an evergreen tree of the same name and is native to the Spice Islands (the Banda Islands in the Moluccas) near Indonesia. It can take anywhere from 30 to 40 years for the tree to bear fruit once planted! Nutmeg is the seed of the tree, and is wrapped in an orange/red, tendril-like casing which we know as mace. Mace and nutmeg are similar in flavor but are not quite interchangeable when used in a dish.
Baby Food Pairings:
My favorite way to introduce baby to nutmeg is through a puréed or creamed spinach dish. Creamed spinach in particular pairs well with nutmeg. The spice gives the dish that “je ne sai quois” or unique flavor. For a baby or toddler, you can prepare your favorite creamed spinach recipe and grate a slight amount of nutmeg in the final cooking stage (purée to desired smoothness depending on the age of your child). You can also combine a basic cooked spinach purée with baby yogurt or milk and nutmeg if your child is not yet old enough for true “cream” dishes.
Fall dishes are lovely with nutmeg, particularly pumpkin and sweet potato purées. For all of these preparations, use just a tiny pinch. A little nutmeg goes a long way.
Nutmeg is a known digestive aid, brain stimulant and provides toothache relief.
Turmeric is a rhizome, or a big mass of roots. It looks like ginger root, only the inside flesh is a bright carrot orange. It is mainly grown in India, the largest exporter of the spice. In parts of Asia, turmeric can be eaten raw, but more commonly the root is dried, peeled and ground into a powder before adding it food. I like to think of turmeric as nature’s food coloring. The rich yellow-ochre color it imparts to dishes is so pleasing to a little one’s eyes. Just a dash will go a long way.
In Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is known to cleanse the liver and stave off a cold. It is also a known anti-septic and can treat mouth ulcers and upset stomachs.
Baby Food Pairings:
Since ground turmeric has a warm flavor and imparts a natural golden color it is the perfect seasoning for baby food. Add it to just about anything, particularly root vegetable purées like turnips, carrots or potatoes. A touch of turmeric also pairs well with puréed lentils. Try combining turmeric with garam masala to give your little one his or her first taste of “curry.”
Have fun and get creative with spices and new flavors! Stay tuned next month for more baby friendly herb and spice ideas.
From my baby’s highchair to your little one’s, bon appetit!