A Real Taste of Home Cooking (part 2!)

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Homemade and Commercial Baby Food Carrots

Is a cooked carrot a cooked carrot, and do mashed bananas always taste the same? Interesting questions, when you consider them from the perspective of baby foods. You may be surprised to find that what you are feeding Baby, and what Baby is actually tasting, are not necessarily the same thing.

I became fascinated by all of this when my oldest son was starting on solid foods. Like most of us, I headed for the baby aisle at the grocery store to stock up on the little jars of Number Ones, the single foods like carrots, peas, bananas and green beans that pediatricians tell you to introduce to the diet one at a time. I bought a few and took them home for sampling. Baby Willie liked most of them well enough, but as I started paying more attention to the foods, I became concerned about what he was tasting. Not what he was eating, because of course the foods in commercial baby food jars are what they are labeled to be, but what those foods looked and tasted like. These were like no carrots, green beans or peas that I had ever eaten.

For starters, the colors and textures were always a little off. Pureed carrots from the jar were a darker orange, as compared to the fresh carrots that I steamed in the microwave and pulverized in a food processor. And the commercial version was so runny in texture that it had an unsettling resemblance to ketchup. Same with green beans, peas and spinach; in each case the green color had a muddy tint rather than the bright vibrancy that we typically associate with these vegetables. The photograph here gives you a good idea of the visual difference between the two products.

Some of the aromas were different too. More than one brand of “stage one” bananas reeked of overly-ripe fruit. The ultimate test, of course, was the taste of the products, homemade versus store bought. And since I couldn’t subject poor Willie to this taste test with enough detailed results, I decided to try it on my own.

Over the next few weeks, I staged an elaborate testing session, to settle once and for all the question of whether or not there is a real taste differentiation between the packaged baby products, and what we can easily make for babies at home. I invited several parent/ foodie/ chef friends to join in this little project, so that I would get more objective descriptions of the two, compared side-by-side. I bought a variety of national brands of stage one and stage two commercial baby foods, both organic and conventional, and then prepared those same items fresh at home.

The recipe for homemade was the same for each product: Steam the vegetables that need cooking in water in the microwave, and then puree in food processor. Fruits that did not require cooking were simply pureed to an almost-liquid form. No other seasoning was added. Our group rated them first on appearance (color and texture), then on aroma, and finally on taste. What we found was actually a little surprising, on several fronts.

The complete results of the taste test are detailed in my book “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything.” I’ll post some of them here next week.

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