Bridget’s First Food and the Rice Cereal Conspiracy

I KNOW you're not gonna feed me gruel, right?
You’re not gonna feed me gruel, right?

My husband and I think it may be time to start supplementing Bridget’s breastmilk with solid food.

She has dropped a couple of hints lately about being ready for it, mostly with her copious drooling, frantic limb gyration and screaming whenever she smells or sees solid food.

It’s almost as though she were trying to tell us something…

I can no longer keep up with her food demands, at any rate. She nurses so much that I swear you can watch all the hydration leave my body as though you were looking at time lapse photography of a body in the desert.

She needs more.

I take the selection of my baby’s first food very seriously. Call it superstition, over-analysis, or just a personal quirk, but I’m convinced that whatever food babies first taste will set the tone for their future appetite. It becomes the default baseline against which they will compare all other foods.

Bearing that in mind, I’m reluctant to give babies rice cereal even though it’s the national standard. There’s nothing wrong with rice cereal, except it’s tasteless.

Rice cereal is bland. Put your taste buds into a coma bland. What if babies eat all this rice cereal then think that’s how food is supposed to taste?

If babies get used to rice cereal, maybe anything smacking of flavor will intimidate them and suddenly you have a lifetime uphill battle of cramming vegetables and interesting cheeses down their throats? You’ll say, “Here Sweetie, have some steak with roasted garlic,” but they’ll just be screaming for more freakin’ graham crackers.

Is that what you want, rice cereal!?

Again,  I’m not saying rice cereal is unhealthy, just that people are strangely convinced that it’s an absolute necessity for infants. After doing a little research, it turns out that there’s a historical basis for this belief, one that no longer applies.

Apparently, infant formula didn’t used to have enough iron in it. Rice cereal is fortified with iron. So back when practically every kid was formula fed, the ones who ate rice cereal were healthier.

Nowadays, infant formula has enough iron in it, yet we maintain this lingering cultural notion that babies NEED rice cereal. They don’t.

Even Paula Druckerman is convinced. She devoted an entire book to figuring out why French kids eat what Americans consider strictly “grown-up food,” without fuss. In Bringing Up Bebe, Druckerman wrote about how difficult it was to find rice cereal in France, since French parents don’t use it, ultimately finding some imported from Germany.

I had to wonder, while reading her book, why she remained utterly convinced that her babies needed rice cereal after living in a country packed with healthy children who never ate it. Some cultural beliefs are truly entrenched.

She never addressed this question, but did mention that French families start infants off with pureed vegetables when transitioning to food. You have to wonder if this makes any difference in what kids like to eat later on.

People, especially children, tend to like food they are used to. They are highly suspicious of food they consider “weird.”

In America, we talk a lot about adult food versus kid food. We feed children “kid food” for the first decade of their lives (grilled cheese, french fries, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, etc.).

Then after getting children used to bland concoctions, we start throwing all these adult vegetables and gourmet foods at them, nagging for them to at least try a bite.

This can’t be necessary. How long has our culture even had a special industry of “kid foods?” Were kids in, say 1820, refusing to eat because no one had a box of dinosaur nuggets?

I decided to skip the rice cereal.

The first thing I did with my firstborn, Brontë, was dip her hands into grapefruit juice, which she sampled  with curiosity and intensity. I then gave her pineapple, since it’s the kind of sweet and sour combo I thought might get her past a future sweet & bland preference.

From there, we gave Brontë samples of most the foods my husband and I ate for dinner. Sometimes she rejected a food at first (like avocados), but ended up liking it after trying them a couple of times. I found it was better to keep an open mind about what she might like than automatically give her what we assume kids like.

So far, so good.

For Bridget, our younger daughter, we decided to start her with a Summer in Athens salad from Opa Opa in Sacramento. It’s a Greek salad containing cucumbers, tomatoes, feta, and olive oil.

I figured my kids are half made of this food, so they might enjoy it.

When I was pregnant, I had terrible morning sickness and after some desperate, hungry experimentation, I found that Greek food sat well. We used to frequent Opa Opa so I could get a decent meal.

The owner, bless him, is an absolute doll. I was obviously pregnant at the time and don’t know whether Greek culture values the importance of feeding pregnant women, or if he was personally a saint, but he would offer me delicious additions all the time.

“You like lamb?” he asked me once, while eyeing my Gyro. “Let me bring you something.”

He walked off for a few minutes then came back with a slab of lamb and mashed potatoes. “This is all roasted lamb,” he explained. “These are garlic mashed potatoes. Lots of fresh roasted garlic mashed right into the potatoes. Just made them.”

Then he would beam as I tore into the new plate of food like only a ravenous pregnant woman can.

I don’t know if the owner of Opa Opa is married or whether his wife had children and what kind of table-bending extravaganza he presented her with throughout her pregnancy, but I’m certain she was well fed.

So, being completely loyal to this restaurant, we brought Bridget to Opa Opa and ordered a Summer in Athens salad for her first meal. It went against everything the rice cereal enthusiasts would advise.

I fished out a vinaigrette-soaked, feta dusted slice of cucumber and presented it to Bridget. My husband and I watched with great anticipation.

Grabbing the cucumber in her tiny fist, Bridget glanced at it briefly, trying to focus, before tentatively nibbling. Her eyes lit up, she let out a squeal, then she made angry cartoon eyebrows in an upside-down “V” shape before attacking the cucumber like she had to kill it first.

Good baby. That’s how we eat.

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