Herbs and Spices for Your Baby
Every culture relies on plants for seasonings and for their therapeutic, healing properties. Culinary herbs, such as basil, cilantro (coriander), parsley, mint, dill, and garlic (although botanically closer to vegetables, such as onions and shallots, garlic is often used as a culinary herb), are used in different cultures to add flavor to food. European herbal traditions, East Asian medicine, and Ayurveda (the traditional healing system of India) are some of the primary philosophies used for herb-based healing. Many essential oils use herbs for fragrances, healing, cleansing, and purifying the body and soul.
Herbs are vitamin- and mineral-rich leaves of herbaceous (non-woody) plants. They tend to grow in more temperate climates. Spices, which are more commonly native to hot, tropical climates, are extracted from other parts of the plant, such as the root, stem, flower, bark, or seed. Herbs and spices add flavor and nutritional value, such as vitamins, minerals, and other healing properties to food. In many countries, herbs and spices are a part of baby food from the beginning. In Thailand, for example, babies are fed coconut milk, lemongrass, and tamarind, while Indian babies have curry. Italian babies are exposed to basil and oregano, and French babies enjoy thyme and rosemary.
When you cook your own baby food at home, you can experiment with different herbs and spices for variety and enjoyment. Younger babies usually are satisfied with very simple cooking, but after your baby’s first birthday, he may become bored with food and respond well to herbs and spices that make it more interesting to him.
Herbs provide sensory and health benefits in cooking and for healing all kinds of illnesses. Herbs and spices can provide lightness, flavor, and variety to balance grains, vegetables, beans, and fish dishes. They can also help your baby’s body fight against germs and toxins and build immune defenses. Herbs and spices can reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as blood sugar levels for diabetics.
Because your baby’s body is small, he will be more sensitive than adults to the effects of these herbs and spices. Experiment with small amounts in the food that you cook for him and watch for his reaction. Herbs and spices make eating more interesting for him, and it can help him be satisfied with seasonings that do not include large amounts of salt and sugar.
Types of Herbs for Your Baby
All herbs have properties that affect food in some way. All herbs have properties that affect food in some way. Fresh herbs can range from very mild to a stronger taste, and most of them provide medicinal effects, in addition to enhancing the flavor of food.
Fennel has a slightly sweet, earthy taste. The fresh plant or dried seeds can be made into a tea to increase milk production for nursing mothers, or to relieve colic or digestive upset for your baby. Fennel is known for relaxing muscles, and it also is helpful for relieving digestive issues. Fresh fennel can be cooked in with grains or vegetables for both taste and general health.
Bay aids in digestion, and is an herb mostly used in its dry form. Add bay leaves to grains, soups, and beans at the start of cooking and remove them before you serve the dish. Place dried bay leaves on a shelf or in a drawer of any cabinet to keep bugs out.
Basil is an herb that tastes similar to its cousin, mint. Basil comes in a number of varieties, each with distinct flavors and aromas. Used fresh or dried, basil combines nicely with grain, vegetable, bean, and fish dishes. Unlike many herbs, its flavor intensifies when cooked, so use it in moderation.
Thyme, a member of the mint family, is a rich, aromatic herb that enhances the flavors of soups, vegetables, and sauces. Add thyme to a dish toward the end of preparation to preserve its flavor. It is often used in winter dishes because it has warming properties.
Mint is used as a cooling herb with its fresh, aromatic, and sweet flavor. The two most common cooking mints are peppermint and spearmint. Although fresh mint’s menthol flavor can overpower certain foods, it makes a refreshing addition to grain, fruit, and vegetable dishes—especially cooler meals in the summertime.
Lemongrass is an aromatic, sweet herb that adds zest to vegetable dishes, soups, and teas. Lemongrass tea is also used as a decongestant and to relieve diarrhea.
Cilantro is a flavorful antioxidant and digestive aid. Made into a weak tea, it can be used as a remedy for colic. Older children can chew cilantro to aid digestion. It can also enhance the production of breast milk.
Parsley is a member of the carrot and celery family. It is a source of chlorophyll, vitamin A, vitamin C, and iron. Finely chopped pieces can be added to steamed vegetables or soups.
Types of Spices for Your Baby
Very strong spices, such as chile peppers, may be unappealing to your baby in the early months, but there are a number of mild spices that you can incorporate into your cooking that will be appealing to him.
Cinnamon is a sweet spice that is often added to desserts or grains. Its warming effect helps aid digestion and circulation, and it offers a high dose of antioxidants. Medicinally, it has been used to combat bloating and diarrhea.
Curry is a blend of various spices that is warming to the body and stimulates digestion. A small amount of curry has a mild and sweet taste, so toddlers usually enjoy it. When I worked at Muso Yochien (Dream Window Kindergarten), karē raisu, or curry rice, was a popular dish in Japan, and a favorite dish for both the students and me. I learned to read the name in Japanese so that I could look forward to curry rice day. Most curry consists of cumin, turmeric, coriander, red pepper, and fenugreek. Depending on the recipe, additional ingredients include ginger, mustard seed, fennel seed, cinnamon, nutmeg, caraway, clove, cardamom, and other spices.
Garlic is full of vitamins and minerals. With its antibacterial and antifungal properties, it helps fight infection and is cleansing to the system. Because it has a strong taste and is potent, make sure that it is fully cooked for your baby and wait until he reaches 12 months to introduce it.
Ginger is warming and stimulating. It can be used as a digestive aid for stomach upset, motion sickness, or nausea. It can help make oils in fish or fried foods more digestible. The taste may be too strong for your child, so introduce it in small amounts blended into juices or add as a seasoning in cooking.
Vanilla comes from the fruit of an orchid plant, which grows in the form of a bean pod. The green bean goes through a fermentation process that takes about six months. Vanilla beans are soaked in hot water, rolled in blankets and dried, and then stored to ferment. This fermentation process creates the alcohol in vanilla extract. This alcohol has been used as a remedy for teething by rubbing vanilla extract on sore gums. Vanilla has been used to cure stomach distress, reduce anxiety, and promote feelings of well-being. There is nonalcoholic vanilla, but the taste may be weaker. Vanilla is a sweet tasty flavor for babies and children, and it can be used in baking, puddings, and desserts.
While not an herb, brewer’s yeast is a flavorful nutritional supplement that is found in powdered, flaked or liquid form. It is a live culture that is full of protein, B vitamins, and minerals. Brewer’s yeast reduces cholesterol, helps build healthy flora in the gut, and helps digest and process sugars and starches. It can be sprinkled on porridge for a nutritional boost.
Introducing Herbs and Spices
If you breast-feed, then your baby tastes the herbs and spices that you eat through your breast milk. Some herbs, such as fennel and chamomile, are medicinal and can help digestion or colic by making an herbal infusion for your baby at six or seven months. If you give him herbal infusions before that age, make the infusion very diluted and give it in small doses. Check with your health care provider about herbal infusions for colic or digestive concerns.
When he is nine months old, you can add mild herbs to grain or vegetable dishes for seasoning, flavor, and health purposes. When you introduce your child to a new herb or spice, follow the same guidelines you would for other foods: introduce the herb or spice one at a time and wait three days to ensure that he has no allergic reaction. At around twelve months, you can try stronger tasting herbs and spices, paying attention to his response.
The following chart gives an overview of which herbs and spices to start feeding your baby and when. It also includes how frequently to offer them.