Some alternatives for Julie Furrer's children, such as home birth with a midwife's aid, came after careful consideration.
Others, like a diet of homemade baby food, hardly deserved a second thought.
"It's super simple," says Furrer, 27. "My mom did this for us when we were kids."
Furrer's KidCo hand-cranked food mill mashes any food — even meat — into a texture appropriate for infants. Mixtures of banana and oatmeal or rice and gravy have remained palate-pleasing even as Furrer's daughters outgrew the need for soft foods.
"If I'm having a weird soup that the kids won't eat, I just puree it up," Furrer says, adding that the mini mill allows her to fortify other mixtures with foods that 5-year-old KatieJo and 3-year-old Dorianna wouldn't eat otherwise.
"It's a good way to hide the green stuff because they can't pick it out."
Health is the primary reason that more parents are making baby food instead of purchasing it jar by tiny jar, says Michelle Bienick, a naturopathic physician practicing in Medford. Economy recently has emerged as another obvious benefit, she says.
"I am really a big, strong advocate of this for many reasons," Dr. Bienick says. "I practice what I preach."
Admittedly, most of her patients are partial to foods grown locally or in their backyards, Bienick says. These families instinctively know they can do better than commercially prepared baby foods, even organic ones. So it comes as no surprise that Bienick's prescription for introducing infants to solid foods usually can be filled from the family meal.
"It's easier than most people think," Bienick says.
Servings of steamed vegetables are baby-ready after a few seconds under a potato masher or in the blender. Most fruits require no cooking and, when ripe, are soft enough to squish with a fork. Special food mills like Furrer's are handy but unnecessary, Bienick says. A schedule of introducing foods according to age is practically the only instruction parents need, she adds.
Unorthodox by some American standards, Bienick's guidelines seem strict compared with worldwide customs for feeding infants. In fact, some of the practices that come with stern warnings in this country are contradicted in other cultures. No honey before age 1, pediatricians say, because it may contain spores of botulism that could endanger infants.
Yet babies born in some parts of India are given an introduction to sweets with a blessing and a bit of honey on their tongues. Strong spices such as turmeric and cumin are not held back from food mashed for Indian babies, which can be lentil crepes, spinach with chicken, and yogurt with fresh-fruit purees.
According to Bienick, chicken is taboo before 18 months, yogurt before a year. Goat's milk should be consumed long before the addition of cow's milk, a common allergen. To detect allergies, parents should introduce a single food over a period of three to four days. And foods that prompt no allergic reaction should be rotated every five to six days to minimize sensitivities.
The rules seem unnecessarily rigid when placed against the research of Clara Davis, a Midwestern pediatrician who conducted studies of babies' eating habits in the 1920s and '30s. According to Nina Planck's new book, "Real Food for Mother and Baby" (Bloomsbury), Davis' team assembled a group of test babies and laid out a decidedly unbabylike spread: broiled ground beef and lamb; steel-cut oats; bone marrow; rye crackers; minced haddock, chicken and sweetbreads; raw and poached eggs; and a variety of steamed and baked fruits and vegetables. With a little dish of sea salt at each baby place setting, the spread was devoid of processed foods.
The doctor's findings were fascinating. When left to eat what they wanted, the babies preferred meat but had a relatively varied diet and tended to eat in streaks (a lot of one kind of food for a while, then they moved on). They dipped in and out of the salt, to no ill effect. Close records were kept, and the babies thrived despite Davis' departure from the era's prescribed diet of sieved vegetable soup at 1 year, potato at 18 months and never a banana, which was considered indigestible.
The following decades, however, saw a move away from real food for babies as families sought the safety and convenience of jarred foods, touted as healthful and nutritious. While there always have been parents like Furrer's who opted out, the environmental impact of commercial baby foods are becoming a major concern for the next generation, Bienick says.
"All these little baby containers are kind of a one-time or one-feeding thing."
Furrer agrees, adding that eschewing baby food at the grocery store saves resources and, for her family — soon welcoming a new mouth to feed — about $30 per month.
"The jars are really jiffy and handy, but if you're home, why not make it?
"You know what's in it. You know it's fresh."