Types of Grains
Examples of unprocessed whole grains to cook for your baby include short grain brown rice, sweet rice, and millet. Occasionally, your baby or toddler can also enjoy cracked grains such as rolled oats, noodles, couscous, and treats made from wheat flour if he shows no signs of gluten sensitivity.
Moreover, eating whole grains as first foods helps your baby develop a strong foundation for tastes and flavors that will last a lifetime.
There are more than 7,000 varieties of rice found around the world. Whole-grain rice is called “brown” due to its golden-brown hue. Brown rice is a body-building food for your baby’s bones, muscles, hair, and teeth.
White rice is brown rice that has been milled to remove the outer bran. Brown rice is more nutritious than white processed rice, with higher levels of fiber, fatty acids, vitamins B and E, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, iron, and potassium. Rice contains no gluten and is one of the easiest grains to digest.
Hideko Yoshida, my mentor at the Dream Window Kindergarten [where I worked] in Kyoto, Japan, said that for simple daily food, brown rice is best because it offers everything the body needs on its own. Eaten together with a legume, rice makes a complete protein.
Easily accessible in most groceries and natural stores, brown rice comes in three sizes: short, medium, and long grain. Short grain is soft and starchy, and has a creamy consistency when cooked for puree, so it is used most often for children.
In November 2012, Consumer Reports published a report regarding inorganic arsenic in rice. Arsenic is a carcinogen that can end up in soil and water from animal feed, fertilizers, and poultry waste. There are pollutants in today’s environment and it is impossible to avoid these contaminants completely. Soaking or sprouting grains helps minimize these contaminants.
Choosing organic and whole-grain rice along with a variety of other whole grains can provide your baby a healthy start. You can also help your baby build a strong immunity that can eliminate waste toxins by eating other whole and fermented foods.
Sweet Brown Rice
Sweet brown rice is sticky, and as indicated by its name, is sweeter than short or long grain rice. For Japanese New Year’s celebrations and other special occasions, sweet rice is pounded into mochi with a big mallet. I especially like to mix sweet rice with millet for porridge or with regular brown rice for making rice balls.
Sweet brown rice is beneficial for nursing mothers because its protein and fat content boost breast milk production. When I was nursing [my daughter] Emi in Japan, each week we ordered homemade mochi made with different ingredients. Mugwort mochi contains a wild green plant with lots of chlorophyll that turns the mochi green and adds extra cleansing phytonutrients for mother and baby. Other variations contain black beans or sesame seeds for protein. Toasted in the toaster or in a skillet, mochi puffs up like marshmallows; dropped into soup, it gets soft like dumplings.
You may think of birdseed when you think of millet, but this golden, gluten-free grain is healthy for humans, too, and is dinner for about one-third of the world’s population from Africa to China. Millet is alkaline-producing, is high in minerals, and serves as a complete protein. East Asian medicine claims that millet soothes morning sickness and helps prevent miscarriage. Millet is soothing to the stomach, so it is ideal in times of digestive distress.
Many varieties of millet are grown for human consumption around the world, the most common of which is pearl millet. After soaking millet for a couple of hours, it cooks in 20 to 30 minutes and absorbs more water than rice does, so the ratio of water to grain is higher for millet than for rice. This healthy grain has a creamy texture that is easily digested and combines well with other grains, beans, and vegetables.
The Incans called quinoa (pronounced “keen-wa”) “the Mother Grain,” and believed its consumption could lead to a long life. Quinoa is an excellent grain because it is gluten-free and packed with protein. It also contains a higher percentage of calcium than milk; is a good source of phosphorus, iron, vitamin E, and B vitamins; and is easy to digest.
Quinoa adds texture to soups, stews, and porridges and cooks quickly—only 20 to 25 minutes in boiling water. Quinoa is often prepared together with other grains for babies and children due to its strong taste.
The fat content in oats is the highest of all the grains, so along with the satisfying taste, oats are valuable for warmth and stamina. They are among the most nutritious of cereals, containing high levels of protein, fat, and fiber. Oats grow best in northern climates and have been an essential food since ancient times in Ireland, Scotland, northern Europe, and Russia.
Instant oats, or quick oats, have been precooked in water, dried, and rolled very thin, a process that reduces their nutritional value and flavor. They can be cooked in 3 to 5 minutes.
Rolled oats are made by pressing whole oats between two rollers. For babies and toddlers, rolled oats have a smooth texture and are convenient for occasional use to make a breakfast porridge or for baking. These oats take 15 to 20 minutes to cook, but have more nutrition and flavor than instant oats.
Steel-cut oats are oat groats (hulled grains) made by cutting whole oats into two or three pieces. They require 20 to 30 minutes to cook, and are more flavorful than rolled oats, with a nutty and chewy texture. Whole oat groats retain the beneficial bran and germ of the oat and they store well. Whole oats take as long to cook as brown rice does—around 50 to 60 minutes.
Barley was a primary grain in Europe before wheat and rye became more popular. Barley is high in essential minerals like selenium and tryptophan. It contains gluten, so you may prefer to wait until your child is over one year old with a stronger digestive system before introducing this grain. It is most commonly available in the pearled form, which requires removing the bran.
Pearled barley and barley flakes cook to a soft consistency and can be added to stews and soups. Barley flour can be used in muffins or cookies.
Similar to quinoa and fellow native to the Americas, amaranth is botanically classified as a grass instead of a grain. The color of amaranth ranges from golden yellow to deep red to black. Its protein content is almost double that of rice and corn, and it is also high in the amino acid lysine, which aids the body with growth and regeneration. Cooking a small amount of amaranth with other grains adds a rich depth of flavor, and it takes 20 to 25 minutes to cook.
Due to bread’s popularity around the world, wheat has become the most widely distributed grain. Wheat is classified as either hard or soft: hard wheat has more protein, and soft wheat has higher levels of carbohydrates. Soft wheat is good for pastries, cookies, and crackers, or it can be mixed with hard wheat for bread. The gluten in wheat can cause allergic reactions, which may be difficult for your baby’s digestive system. To avoid potential allergies or digestive concerns, I suggest to wait until your child is one year old before introducing him to whole wheat.
Wheat bran and wheat germ are nutritious components of wheat. Wheat bran comes from the outer layers of the wheat kernel, is high in fiber and protein, and is effective for helping reduce blood cholesterol. Wheat germ contains the embryo of the wheat kernel and most of the vitamins and minerals found in the grain.
Cracked wheat can be cooked as a cereal grain or used as bulgur—a popular staple of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean diets. Bulgur is a form of whole wheat that has been cleaned, steamed or dried, and then ground into grains. Bulgur is most often made from durum wheat and is a good source of protein, iron, magnesium, and B vitamins.
Fine bulgur can be eaten as a cereal and used in desserts; coarsely ground bulgur is delicious in salads and casseroles. Bulgur is precooked and is ready to eat after 10 minutes of steaming or boiling, and offers an easy, nutritious substitute for pasta. However, because it is a cracked rather than a whole grain, I recommend using bulgur occasionally.
Because buckwheat grows more like a bush than a slender grass, it is not classified as a true grain, but nutritionally it aligns with other grains. The largest consumer of buckwheat is Asia, with its production and consumption of soba noodles, and Europe integrates buckwheat into its dietary traditions as well.
Russians are especially fond of this grain (called kasha) because of its warming properties. Whole-grain buckwheat is very nutritious, containing key essential amino acids and high levels of lysine, which helps synthesize protein. Also rich in B vitamins and minerals, it is a good source of choline, a compound in the vitamin B complex that plays an important role in metabolism, blood pressure, and cholesterol regulation.
You can cook buckwheat in its whole-grain form and serve it as a soft porridge like rice; boil buckwheat soba noodles for a delicious and satisfying meal or snack; or make a hearty breakfast of buckwheat pancakes from the flour. However, as a very heavy and hearty grain, it tastes better when mixed with a lighter grain, such as oat flour (which is gluten-free) or unbleached whole wheat flour.
Offer it to your child occasionally, and you can balance its flavor by cooking it with white potatoes as kasha or serving it as pancakes with sweet maple syrup. Soba noodles can be served warm in winter or cool in summer, and they are a Japanese celebration food for New Year’s Eve to provide strength and health.
Corn, Polenta, and Corn Grits
Due to low levels of niacin, which is an essential B vitamin, corn is healthiest when combined with a variety of other wholesome grains, beans, and vegetables to avoid deficiencies. After his first birthday, your baby can enjoy corn fresh, on or off the cob, or dried and ground to make cornmeal, cornbread, tortillas, or polenta. Corn can sometimes be hard to digest before your baby is under one year old and it may cause allergies.
Wait until your baby reaches at least one year to introduce corn products. Once his teeth are in and he can chew well, he can try fresh corn on the cob. Pay attention for signs of corn allergies in your child by looking for hives, headaches, stomachaches, or hyperactivity.
Corn is everywhere
In many cases, high-fructose corn syrup is used in children’s foods such as cereals, spaghetti sauces, and even canned soups. Michael Pollan, expert in the health and food industry and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, says that corn is the primary ingredient in today’s food: it is used as a sweetener, fed to animals raised for meat, and used as an additive in fast and processed foods.
Pollan explains that due to agricultural policy and subsidies, an overabundance of industrially produced cheap corn is an incentive for food scientists to use the excess in other food products. These by-products offer no nutritional value for your baby, and generally come from corn crops that have been genetically modified. Read the labels on processed foods to make sure there are no corn by-product ingredients before your child is one year old.
Common corn-based products that could cause health concerns:
- Baking powder and cornstarch
- Caramel color (may contain corn syrup)
- Confectioners’ sugar
- Corn syrup
- Dextrin and dextrose
- Sorbitol and mannitol
- Vanilla extract (may contain corn syrup)
- High-fructose corn syrup
Common foods containing high-fructose corn syrup:
- Pancake syrup
- Flavored or sweetened yogurt
- Frozen pizzas
- Canned soups
- Salad dressing
- Applesauce and canned fruits
- Cereal bars
High-fructose corn syrup is linked to:
- Compromised learning ability and memory
- High blood pressure
- High levels of mercury
What grains does your baby enjoy? Tell us in the comments below!