Menu and Meal Planning
You can use different colors, tastes, textures, and cooking methods in a simple, intuitive way to create a balanced menu plan. Consider balance for the whole day or week, not just for one meal. Planning a menu for the week saves time and money so that you stay focused when shopping. Planning helps you to buy only what you need, and to remember necessary ingredients so that you do not have to make a return trip to the store.
Make meal and menu plans that are appropriate for your baby’s age and stage—first creamy, then crispy, and finally crunchy. When she is capable of eating all three textures, she will still enjoy and benefit from eating a variety of these textures.
Your baby’s tastes may change in response to previous foods that she has eaten, as her condition changes, and when she is in different climates, seasons, or weather. If she has a lot of sweet treats, then her taste for a milder sweetness in vegetables will diminish, and she may also have an attraction to salty foods to return to balance after eating sweets. If she is feeling weak or tired on a cloudy, winter day, then her taste for sweets may diminish, and she may be attracted to salty or animal foods. If she is feeling energetic on a hot, sunny day, then she may be attracted to ice cream or fresh fruit. You can observe and respond to her needs as her tastes change.
The Five Tastes in East Asian Medicine
- Sweet is the first taste for your baby, especially a natural sweetness from breast milk and whole foods; it tonifies and balances your baby’s body. Examples of naturally sweet whole foods are: grains, such as rice, millet, and quinoa; starchy vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and green peas; legumes, such as adzuki beans, chickpeas, and kidney beans; ripe fruits, such as apples, pears, cherries, and bananas; and for a more concentrated sweetness, rice syrup, maple syrup, and honey (after the first year).
- Sour is the second taste for your baby to enjoy, and it manages fluids in her body. Examples of sour tastes are grapes, melons, pickles, plum vinegar, and brown rice vinegar.
- Salty flavoring can be added after your baby’s first year; it focuses her body for physical energy and mental concentration. Examples of a salty taste come from salt, tamari, miso, and umeboshi.
- Bitter is usually not a popular taste for children during their first two years. According to East Asian medicine, bitter sedates and hardens the body. Examples of a bitter taste are in lettuce, asparagus, and chocolate.
- Pungent is a taste that may be appealing to your child, usually after one year. A spicy and astringent taste expels pathogens from her body. Examples of pungent are fennel, chives, basil, ginger, scallions, mustard, curry, and garlic.
In 1908, the Japanese researcher, Kikunae Ikeda, PhD, found that the substance, glutamates, contained in seaweed sauce imparts another taste called umami. This concept came from a broth made with kombu sea vegetable, which is used as a base in Japanese cooking, similar to the way chicken stock is used in Western cooking. Umami has depth and is more complex than taste alone. It means a rich, delicious, soulful, and savory flavor that comes from the synergy of amino acids triggered in food pairings.
When foods rich in L-glutamates are combined with certain other foods, together they produce a higher, incomparable taste intensity that is more than the sum of its parts. You can find umami taste in tamari (soy sauce), miso, Parmesan cheese, black olives, mushrooms, olive oil, celery, and other foods. Breast milk contains the same umami that is found in kombu broth.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a chemical method of creating a glutamate taste in low-quality and inexpensive foods. It does not contain the salts that create the natural umami taste.
Another factor to consider in planning food for health and comfort are the thermal properties of food. Different foods can warm up or cool off your baby’s body:
- Foods that are on the cool color spectrum (blue, green, and purple) tend to be cooling, while the warm tones (red, orange, and yellow) are warming. A lemon is more warming than a lime.
- Quick-growing foods, like cucumbers and zucchini, tend to be more cooling, while foods that take longer to grow are more warming, such as onions, turnips, and carrots.
- Tropical foods balance your baby’s body when she is in the hot sun by offering cooling properties, while foods grown in a temperate zone tend to be more warming. Oranges grown in Florida are more warming than apples grown in Vermont.
- The amount of water in a food influences its thermal properties. Dried foods and denser foods, such as raisins, are more warming than juicy grapes.
When you purchase foods that are grown locally, you will naturally choose foods that are in season and will help your baby find balance. Generally, foods that cool her body grow in the summer, and foods that are warming grow in the autumn. Notice that giving her avocados and bananas can cool her body, which may be comfortable in the summer, but chilling in the winter.
Observe your child and see what she seems to crave, enjoy, and select from her plate. Consider factors such as colors, smells, textures, and tastes as you plan her meals and menus, but it does not have to be complicated. You can develop your intuition and flexibility, while encouraging your child to experience a range of foods. If you include the basic food groups, and think about a variety of colors and textures, you can easily make healthy food for your baby that includes the nutrients she needs.