Michael Pollan, author and expert on food, claims that cooking connects plants, animals, the soil, farmers, history, and culture, as well as relationships with family and friends. In his book, Cooked, he argues, “Taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.”
Cooking transforms and predigests food, and although it may destroy some nutrients, it makes the remaining nutrients easier to assimilate, which results in a higher net absorption of nutrients. Cooking does some of the work of digestion before food enters your baby’s body, which is a benefit to her underdeveloped digestive system. Different methods of food preparation have profoundly different effects on the nutritional value, energy, balance, and digestibility of food.
Learning a variety of cooking methods can help you adapt to your baby’s changing needs and tastes. During the first few months of cooking for her, you need very simple cooking methods. Her first foods need to be moist, soft, and light for digestibility. To achieve this, you can boil, water sauté, steam, and make soups. As she gets older, she will crave more variety, so you can add more complex ingredients and cooking methods that include oil, dry heat, and pressure.
During your baby’s first few months of eating, I prefer to boil grains, beans, and vegetables because it is the easiest method for pureeing. Before cooking, soak grains and beans, then boil and puree. As she grows, the same cooking method can be used with less water and without the puree step. For these recipes, the water used in cooking is pureed with the grains or beans to retain nutrients. For vegetables and fruits, boiling retains the fat-soluble nutrients, and loses some of the water-soluble nutrients. Boiling ensures that vegetables and fruits are completely cooked and are moist enough to puree. You need liquid to make the puree a smooth consistency, so it is convenient to boil with water, and then mix together in a blender or food mill. Bring the vegetable or fruit to a boil, reduce the temperature to a low simmer, and cook until soft, adding more water as needed. Leftover water from boiling or steaming can be a nutritious drink, stock for soup, or can be added to the puree for a smooth consistency.
Steaming is a lighter form of cooking that preserves flavor and nutrients. It is refreshing in warm weather, balances heavier foods, and is uplifting and relaxing. Steaming can be used for making purees, but when steaming, be sure that the food is thoroughly cooked for digestibility. When your baby can chew well, steaming can be a convenient method for quick meals or bentos. Food stored in glass cubes can be heated in a steamer before serving. Stainless steel steamers are easy and practical to insert into your cooking pot. Once your child is old enough to need seasoning, a sprinkle of salt, tamari, or plum vinegar can be added to vegetables while they are cooking or still hot.
Soup is delicious for a first course to start digestive juices flowing, or it can be served alone as a meal by itself. Vegetable broth and vegetable soup puree allow your baby to drink nutrients as a beverage before she can use a spoon. You can make soups with boiled or sautéed vegetables, beans, grains, and sea vegetables. Wakame flakes and kombu have natural glutamates and they add a satisfying taste to soup, while providing valuable minerals. At six months, a very small amount of miso or tamari can be used to flavor soup. Add them at the end of cooking to preserve the healthy living bacteria and enzymes. Puree the soup when all the vegetables are completely cooked.
Baking brings out a rich and delicious sweet flavor in vegetables. For sweet potatoes you may bake them whole, and for winter squash you can simply cut them in half and scoop out the seeds. You can cut different vegetables into chunks, such as carrots, onions, zucchini, and beets. Preheat your oven to 350º to 400º. Oil the baking pan, drizzle on sesame or olive oil, and add herbs for flavor. Add a few tablespoons of water to avoid drying out. To keep the vegetables moist, cover with a casserole lid or foil to create a tenderizing, steaming effect. This method of cooking is especially warming in the winter.
Water sauté is an efficient and healthy cooking method, because it retains nutrients and flavor in the vegetables. Put a small amount of water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. If using salt, add a small pinch to the water, and then add vegetables or fruits. Cover with a lid and cook until tender, adding water as needed. This is a quick-cooking method, which requires attention to avoid burning. You can either puree the vegetables or use this cooking method, without pureeing, when your baby is old enough to chew her food and she can appreciate the added flavor.
Sautéing vegetables is a cooking method that adds both richness and nutrition to satisfy your baby’s needs. Especially for a plant-based diet, quality fats are important for health and satisfaction. This method is used more often for cooking whole vegetable pieces when your child can chew foods. Add ½ teaspoon of oil to the pan. Stir in vegetables and enough water to cover the vegetables. Add salt or seasoning, if using. Cover with a lid and cook until vegetables are tender and there is very little water left in the pan.
A pressure cooker is a sealed pot that cooks food quickly using the pressure from the internal steam of boiling water. Because beans take a long time to cook, pressure-cooking is a method to speed up the process, if you are in a hurry. Grains and vegetables can also be cooked in a pressure cooker.
Fresh foods have beneficial enzymes that are lost when heated, and they can provide balance to heavy foods, or in hot weather. Some fresh fruits can be mashed and served raw when your baby is eating puree, such as avocados, bananas, and melons. Once you are confident that your child can chew well, raw vegetables, such as carrot sticks and cucumber slices are healthy snack options. Until your child is experienced with eating raw vegetables and fruits, be sure to serve her very small pieces to avoid a choking hazard.
Even though heat is not used in pickling vegetables, time, pressure, and salt offer a food preparation that helps predigest the food. Fermented foods and pickles provide good bacteria to help build immunity and aid digestion. In the beginning stages of eating, you can puree pickles or give your child the juice from pickles. After she can chew, you can serve her pickles in small pieces. Be conscious of the sodium content in pickles and adjust to meet your child’s age and needs.
Rice cakes, popcorn, and puffed grains are a convenient snack. However, because they are cooked under intense, high heat, they can be dry and hard to digest. Your toddler can enjoy rice cakes and puffed grains for a treat. When she can chew well enough to eat popcorn here is a tasty recipe that Naoki taught me: put oil (coconut, olive, or sesame) and popcorn kernels in a pot at room temperature, and heat while stirring constantly. When the kernels start popping, put on the lid, and shake the pan, back and forth, over the heat. When the popping stops, add seasoning, such as brewer’s yeast, tamari, or plum vinegar.
Deep-frying is a cooking method that uses oil with extreme heat. After your child is eating a variety of foods, and her digestive system is working well, deep-fried foods can be a delicious treat. Tempura vegetables made with a batter, white or sweet potato French fries, and fried croquettes are fun for special occasions. The oil should not be saved and reused because it oxidizes and goes rancid between uses.
Grill or broil
Using high, dry heat, fish or vegetables can be broiled or grilled to add variety to cooking methods. Since food that is broiled or grilled is usually tougher and drier, as well as more difficult to digest, I recommend giving your child foods cooked with this method after she is two years old, and can chew well.