We’re currently back in the US for a few weeks visiting family after a whirlwind month of packing up our lives in Bishkek and apartment-hunting in Belgium. Several nearly finished posts are sitting in my draft folder, like popular dishes that babies eat in Kenya and Scandinavia, plus videos of some food experiments with Darwin. Cow tongue? Rice water? Uzbek plov? Yes to all of those, with some funny reactions.
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In my opinion, Italian cuisine is ubiquitous worldwide for being both delicious and gourmet. Maybe in the US it sometimes gets a bad reputation (hello, Olive Garden?), but even here in Bishkek there are several expensive Italian restaurants where you can get truly excellent dishes of fresh pasta, rich sauces, and good olive oils and cheeses that are otherwise unavailable in the city. With such a deep culinary heritage and the importance that Italian culture places on food, is it any surprise that an Italian baby’s first meal seems so fancy?
At its heart, la prima pappa (Italian for “the first meal”) is cereal. I found several variations, some that suggest including pureed vegetables or meat, but the base is the same; prepare a broth (“broddo“, aren’t we feeling fancy, learning Italian words?) from one zucchini, one potato, one carrot and one tomato. Simmer for one hour, strain out the vegetables and use this to cook up some rice cereal (or another grain of your choice, like tiny pasta).
The meal is not done yet. In fact, this next step is the most important. This is what makes it truly Italian. You add a swirl of good olive oil and top it with a bit of Parmesan cheese (aged at least 36 months, naturally).
This is the sort of discovery that makes me excited about this project. Yes, at its core, it’s just a slightly nuanced version of rice cereal, but it’s these tiny additions and variations that make it so culturally relevant, that make it definitively Italian.
Also, olive oil and cheese! What about all of the recommendations not to add extra sources of fat and salt? Olive oil plays a vital role in the Mediterranean diet and has been shown to be a heart-healthy source of good fats. Aged Parmesan cheese, while salty, is not the same as adding extra salt to your baby’s meal (although some would say that a bit of salt for babies is fine, and even necessary, for a healthy diet). It imparts flavor, extra nutrition, and, if aged 36 months or longer, is believed to be easy for little tummies to digest.
Moderation, of course, is important, and the suggested amount that I read in many recipes for this particular preparation is only one teaspoon each for the olive oil and cheese.
Here’s an excerpt from a guide to infant nutrition from the Cultural Association of Pediatricians of Western Italy on the benefits of cheese and olive oil for babies:
“CHEESE: It is good to offer an alternative to meat and vegetables; cheese contains a lot of protein and calcium, but less iron and more fat. You can use parmigiano and Grana Padano, or soft cheeses such as cottage cheese. The amount is variable, depending on the type of cheese: from a teaspoon of Parmesan cheese to a tablespoon in the case of cottage cheese.”
“OIL: The addition of oil, which may be extra virgin olive oil or one such as corn, sunflower or peanut oil, is used to give the child a dose of essential fatty acids. You can add one or two teaspoons to a serving of baby food.”
Do you want to try making this for your little eater? Here’s an easy recipe:
- Wash, peel, and roughly chop the vegetables. Add them to a pot with the water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then simmer for an hour.
- Strain out the vegetables. Use some of the broth to prepare the cereal (you can save the rest of the broth for future meals).
- Stir in olive oil and cheese. Buon appetito!
As for the choice of vegetables in the broth, there does not seem to be any steadfast concensus on which ones to include or avoid. Some sources praised the nutritional properties of a tomato while cautioning aginst the potential toxicity of the potato, and vice versa. When in doubt, check with your pediatrician, but I’m going to use whatever I have on hand when I make this for Darwin. I don’t think he’s likely to eat enough of any one thing to be dangerous.
Would you feed this to your baby? Do you think adding olive oil and Parmesan cheese sets up your little one to be a mini-gourmand, or are they unnecessary extras? I’ll share Darwin’s reactions to his prima pappa in a future post!
I love reading along with Luisa’s experiences feeding her adorable baby son, Hugo. Luisa Weiss is an award-winning food blogger at The Wednesday Chef and author of the bestselling book, My Berlin Kitchen. When it comes to preparing meals for Hugo, not only does she have an impressive reputation in cooking to live up to, but also the battling influences of her Italian, German and American heritages and upbringings. If you aren’t already following Luisa’s blog, you should definitely consider adding it to your list!
People in Japan have a ceremony to celebrate a baby’s first food as well, similar to Annaprashan in India. It’s called okuizome, which is Japanese for “first food” or “first eating”. I noticed a few similarities between the two ceremonies, such as the sentiment behind the event, marking a new phase in the baby’s life, as well as the celebratory atmosphere of the event and a big feast for family and friends. There are some interesting differences, though.
During okuizome, the most unique aspect I found was a ritual in which a small pebble is given to the baby to bite, symbolizing strong teeth. I can get behind this; you need good teeth to fully enjoy food!
Another difference is that okuizome is typically celebrated when the baby is 100 days old. Isn’t 100 days a bit early to introduce solid foods? Some may say yes, but actually, during okuizome, the baby isn’t really transitioning to solid food for good. Usually, relatives just pretend to feed the baby. I have read that some people might wait until the baby is closer to six months old to organize okuizome for them.
So what’s the point? As with any party for a baby too young to remember the festivities, it’s about celebrating the child with loved ones and good food. Okuizome has been celebrated in Japan for hundreds of years, during times when babies didn’t always make it to 100 days old. When the milestone was reached, it was a cause for celebration.
The food prepared at an okuizome varies between the different regions of Japan, but the tray of food to be presented to the child usually includes a fish (cooked whole, with the head and tail still attached), rice, soup, and boiled vegetables. While researching okuizome and reading about the choices behind different foods, I was surprised at how many foods were chosen because their name sounds like the Japanese word for a certain virtue. For example, the word for beans (mame) is similar to the word for loyalty/diligence and the word for red sea bream (a type of fish) is similar to a word for happiness (tai and mede-tai). I like the idea that eating a food that sounds like a positive trait may help you gain that trait!
Can you think foods this would apply to in English? Patience, wealth, serenity, wisdom… okay, really I’m just trying to think of what rhymes with “ice cream”.
Too bad I already missed Darwin’s 100-day anniversary to celebrate okuizome for him (instead we did our own spin on a Korean baek-il ceremony). I think my favorite part is seeing a huge feast set in front of such a tiny baby!
Smakportioner is Swedish for “little tastes” and refers to the practice of giving the baby small bits of food to try prior to when they begin eating food as a substantial part of their diet. It’s only a tiny portion, just enough to pique the baby’s interest and allow him to experience new textures and flavors. Essentially, you just dip your finger into whatever you’re eating and let your baby try it.
I found this advice on the website for Sweden’s National Food Agency, in their recommendations for starting infants on solid food. To paraphrase their recommendations, it’s possible to begin giving the baby smakportioner around the age of four months, or even earlier, depending on the baby’s interest in food. Because the amount is so small (only about as much food that will fit on your fingertip), it’s okay if the food contains ingredients like salt, which is generally much more limited in baby food. Obviously, the food can’t be a choking hazard, but otherwise there are very few limits for a smakportioner.
The small quantity of a smakportioner means that the baby is still fed normally, whether he’s breastfed or forumla-fed, until he begins eating solid foods on a daily basis.
As soon as I read about this practice, I knew it was something I had to try with Darwin. Previously, I had this idea that by waiting until he was six months to start him on solid foods, that a single morsel of food couldn’t touch his lips before then. Now, it makes more sense to me to get him accustomed to different flavors before he turns six months. At least two or three times a week either my husband or I will introduce a smakportioner to Darwin of whatever we’re eating. Since he was about four months old, he has tried gorgonzola sauce, Indian curry, strawberry juice, hummus, pumpkin dip, watermelon juice, olive juice, sauce from a bowl of plov (a Central Asian rice dish), Thai peanut sauce, yogurt, a small flake of trout, and many more that I can’t remember.
It has been a lot of fun letting him try different bits of food this way. There’s no pressure (yet!) to make sure he’s eating enough solid food or worry about whether there are enough of a certain nutrient, too much salt, too much sugar, too much spice, etc. The very first smakportioner he had was the gorgonzola sauce. Darwin had been showing immense interest in eating, so I stuck my finger in the sauce. He excitedly opened his mouth as my finger approached, but when the sauce hit his tongue… confusion. Concern. A bit disgusted. I don’t think he actually swallowed any of it, but rather pushed it all out of his mouth. Subsequent tastes have been much more successful, at least according to his reaction, although he doesn’t always seem to understand that he’s supposed to swallow the food.
Baby steps, I suppose.
What do you think about this practice? Did you (or would you) wait until a specific age to start introducing any solids, or did you give your baby little previews of what’s to come?
I found this adorable video via Dinner, A Love Story. Filmed in high speed, it’s an entertaining and well-crafted look at young children getting their first bites of various foods with strong flavors. The little ones trying the anchovy and orange are my favorite.
I had higher expectations for the little boy eating a slice of lemon. Have you ever searched for videos of babies eating lemons on Youtube? They are super cute! I cannot wait for Darwin’s first lemon video. This only makes me wish I had access to a high-speed camera.
I have no idea! He’s only four months old, so I still have some time to decide. Being such a food-lover myself, I have put a lot of thought into this. Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but I want his first bite to be something memorable (for me, at least), a bit out of the ordinary, and (of course!) delicious. I want his first taste of real food to be something that I myself love to eat. There is a long list of dishes that I would be excited to eat at any moment, but the choice has to be practical for his uninitiated taste buds. Living in Kyrgyzstan definitely poses some challenges, as some foods that I’d consider feeding him might not be available here or in season when he reaches the right age.
Some ideas I’ve considered:
This would be a splurge. They can usually be found in one or two fancier markets in Bishkek, but they’re likely rock-hard and cost about $5 each. Planning ahead, it’s easy enough to buy one and let it ripen until the big moment. Avocados are full of vitamins and a good source of healthy fats, and I have been known to go overboard on a bowl of good guacamole when I’m back in the U.S. Will my love of this green fruit pass on to my son?
Sweet, mushy, easily available everywhere in the world it seems.
Italian-style rice cereal
I’ve read about this particularly unique preparation enough times that it seems like a common first food in Italy. I’ll share more details in a future post!
There’s a significant Chinese population in Bishkek and I also have two close friends with Chinese heritage. This is their version of rice porridge, a twist on the conventional boxed rice cereal.
Darwin will reach six months just as Kyrgyzstan’s bountiful growing season bursts into the markets. I have never tasted berries so juicy and sweet. They’re cheap and sold everywhere, usually so ripe that they’re about to melt into a sticky puddle of jam. He’ll probably get his fair share of berries during his time in Bishkek, but perhaps it would be a tasty introduction?
A giant brownie
What was your first food? What did you feed your child/ren? What is the “normal” first food in your culture?
Annaprashan is a rite of passage in Hinduism to celebrate a baby’s introduction to solid food. The word “annaprashan” (or sometimes, “annaprashana“) is Sanskrit, translating to “feeding of food” but specifically implies feeding a baby its first food. As rice usually plays the starring role of the ceremony, it is sometimes referred to as the First Rice Ceremony in English. In India, it is a religious event that requires consultation with a holy figure. Prayers are recited as the father or another senior male family member feeds the baby his/her first bite of rice. It seems that the exact type of food the baby is fed can vary within India, but generally some sort of rice pudding is prepared, either sweet (called kheer), savory, or both.
After eating, the baby is placed in front of different objects and it is believed that whichever one the baby reaches for first holds symbolic meaning for the baby’s future. So, for example, there could be books to represent knowledge, jewels or coins to represent wealth, and a pen to represent wisdom. (This activity is found in other cultures as well, such as the Korean tradition of celebrating a baby’s 100th day.) According to Hindu traditions, girls celebrate their Annaprashan in an even-numbered month (as in, the 6th or 8th month after they’re born) and boys celebrate in an odd-numbered month.
I think this is a touching and meaningful way to celebrate a child’s momentous introduction to the world of food. Although I’m not Hindu, I’m inspired to plan my own Food Initiation ceremony for Darwin when he turns six months. I’m imagining a small dinner party (or a Sunday brunch) with a few close friends to witness Darwin trying his first solid food, with a lot of picture-taking and cheering included.
Have you ever celebrated Annaprashana, or something similar? Would you plan a food initiation party for your child?
I wanted to share this article that was published a few weeks ago on the New York Times’ Well blog. It really sums up how little we know about what’s right and wrong when it comes to feeding babies, or even if there is such a thing as “right” and “wrong” as opposed to “recommended” and “discouraged”. It touches on a great point about how stressful it can be for parents to feed their baby according to so many different influences; not only doctors, but family and friends too.
Here are a few highlights:
“What you feed a baby is a reflection of your beliefs and family traditions, your cultural background and life situation. But it also means considering the advice of a good many experts, from pediatricians to nutritionists to allergists.”
“It’s only fair to point out that the medical wisdom on infant feeding has changed over time. In the early 1900s, parents were advised not to introduce solid foods until around 9 months…”
“By the 1950s, some experts were recommending that babies start solid foods by 4 to 6 weeks old.”
“Guidelines are themselves a mix of strong science, collective wisdom and common sense; they do indeed change with time and will probably change again. No wonder parents obsess over what goes in and what comes out. Expert committees do the same.”
Despite the ever-changing advice, babies continue to grow into adults, fueled by all sorts of solid foods.
What do you think about this article? Can you think of any advice on feeding babies that is no longer recommended? Are there any recommendations that your parents or grandparents followed that you would never dream of doing?