Baby food also establishes the socializing, bonding value of food.
Parents questioning lifelong eating habits, fast food consumed on the run and the demise of the family meal can look for answers by exploring the role of baby food.
"By preparing a variety of baby foods, you are establishing adult eating behaviors," said Douglas Drenckpohl, neonatal dietitian at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center Children's Hospital of Illinois. "The No. 1 goal of food companies that sell baby food is to make a profit, not to guarantee that your baby gets a wide variety of foods."
When children respond with "Yuck, broccoli. I hate broccoli," that's more a learned response based on the reaction of peers. If children taste and enjoy broccoli when they are young, they are more likely to remain loyal to the vegetable throughout life.
"These are learned behaviors. Adults learn to enjoy certain tastes. Even McDonald's is a learned taste pattern," he said.
The more variety children and adults eat and enjoy, the more likely they are to satisfy a wide range of nutritional needs with food, Drenckpohl said.
Adults who stubbornly adhere to a narrow range of food preferences and don't enjoy new foods may have eaten a limited menu as babies.
"If a baby does not like peas, don't stop serving peas. Wait a week and try again. Or mix peas with potatoes and leeks. Often babies like combinations rather than single foods," he said.
"Sometimes babies reject food not because they don't like the taste but because they are not hungry or don't like the lumpy texture and would prefer a smoother puree. Babies can't tell us with words, so watch behaviors."
However, always start with a single vegetable, not in combination with others foods, he said.
Baby foods are usually introduced slowly starting at 4 to 6 months, but it depends on the recommendations of the physician, said Drenckpohl, who suggests freezing pureed baby foods in ice cube trays for later use.
A part of the family
Besides nourishing, food socializes, said Mary Ewalt, a retired registered dietitian living in Monmouth.
"The true significance of homemade baby food is the little ones become more a part of the family," she said.
A convenient option is to puree the baby's meal at the table in a little food mill. When the baby is eating the same foods as the rest of the family, it raises the focus on nutritional value for everyone.
"Purchased baby food may be nutritionally adequate, but it lacks the tender loving care of eating the food prepared for the rest of the family. The baby sits on the mother's lap or the father's lap or in a high chair at the table, and eating becomes more of a bonding experience," Ewalt said.
Babies observe the reactions of others at the dinner table.
Drenckpohl said, "Babies learn to do what parents do at the dinner table. If you eat green beans, give baby green beans. They learn to pick up signs from their parents.
"Homemade baby food has no salt or sugar added. We have had children with complications from eating too much sodium."
He also cautioned that just because something may not taste good to us and may be too bland for an adult taste, it may taste good to the baby.
If babies develop a rash after eating certain foods, wait at least a week to try again and see if there really was a link between the food and the rash, he said, noting that breast milk has 100 percent of the nutrients needed by infants.
"Less than 2 percent of babies have severe food allergies. Fewer than 8 percent have mild food allergies," he said.
Setting healthy habits
On a recent afternoon, Sara Egeberg stopped by Drenckpohl's apartment on High Street with her 8-month-old daughter, Alexis. Drenckpohl had prepared a number of foods for Alexis to taste.
Sara Egeberg is preparing most of the foods her daughter eats.
"Convenience is a factor. Many working mothers find it easier to reach in the cupboard, but a lot of these (homemade) baby foods freeze well," she said.
A registered nurse at St. Francis, Egeberg said she has seen mothers give candy, soda and juice to babies under 7 months.
"To see soda in a baby bottle is incredible. I hear mothers talking, 'My kid won't eat this. My kid won't eat that.' But the parents shape those food choices," Egeberg said. "I won't be giving my poor child soda, french fries and other fried foods. I will not set her up for poor eating habits."
Drenckpohl said commercial baby foods stored on shelves may be affected by ultraviolet light. Commercially prepared baby food tends to be processed with very high temperatures and then cooled quickly, again affecting the nutrient value.
"Fruits and vegetables in season are going to taste better," he said.
Drenckpohl cautions against using herbal ingredients without talking to the baby's physician. Check the Web site of the American Academy of Pediatricians at www.aap.org. He also recommends the book "First Meals," by Annabel Karmel.
"If you make good food choices in the first year of life, you help control weight later on. Obese children struggle with weight as adults," Drenckpohl said.
"Food is a major component of quality of life, and parents can play a major role in that."