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TODAY

Sunday, July 21

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Airbags

This is part 1 of a 4 part series that will appear over the next couple of months. If you have a recipe to share, send it to .

If you're like me you may have a friend or three who recently ventured into that scary, life-changing role known as "becoming a parent." This leaves you with one less person to take to smoky bars every night, but it also means you gain a gurgling, drooling, grabby friend by proxy. Chances are if you want to see these friends who have become parents, at least some of your time together will be spent with their progeny.

One thing I've learned over the last few months as I've seen my friend's babies grow and gurgle, is that babies are hungry all the time. I assumed after a couple of months that they settled into the breakfast, lunch, dinner routine pretty easily. Instead, it seems they have a couple dozen small meals throughout the day. Since I like cooking, and since my friends don't have money to go out to dinner as often, cooking for baby and parents seemed like a nice way to spend time with them, and learn something about the drooling creatures now attached to my friends hips. Eventually I'm going to end up babysitting and having to come up with a meal for baby, so instead of dreading it, I decided to do a little research and see what I could make.

(Disclaimer: I'm not a baby nutritionist or an expert. What I've learned has been gathered from books and the Internet. Before you feed anything to a baby you may want to ask their parents first to find out what is OK and what is off-limits -- just because a cookbook says that a 12-month-old can have beef stew doesn't mean that parents want their children eating meat.)

There seem to be four different age groups of babies that you can cook for, each with different nutritional needs. Before four months of age, infants will be satisfied with and should only eat breast milk or formula. Between four and seven months, babies should slowly be introduced to different carbohydrates and cereals, as well as a few fruits and veggies. Beginning at seven months babies start to need more iron and introducing them to iron-rich meats and veggies should begin then. At about 10 months onions, garlic, fish, and many other vegetables and fruits should begin be added to their diets and lots of snacks are going to be required. After 15 months they're more able to help feed themselves and should be offered a wider variety of foods at every meal. They're now officially little people and aside from spicy foods they should be able to eat just about anything.

Since chronological order makes sense, I'll begin this series by offering up some foods that you can feed the average 4- to 7-month-old while his or her parents are either hanging out with you or spending a few hours away from their infant. Just don't be surprised if the parents call you every hour or so to make sure things are OK. Even if the baby has done nothing but sleep and drool they may need the affirmation that your childless self hasn't damaged it permanently.

To convince them that you're a trustworthy baby watcher, and feeder, I'm going to provide you with a list of foods that aren't safe and a few that are.

Foods to avoid:
• Salt -- Their immature kidneys can't process it.
• Sugar -- Sugar can cause tooth decay even before they have teeth. But it also causes erratic energy spurts which is the last thing you want to deal with.
• Wheat and rye contain gluten, which can trigger celiac disease in some babies under 6 months of age.
• Undercooked eggs may cause food poisoning and you don't want to clean that up.
• Honey may contain botulism spores. If you want to make sure that you're never asked to babysit again, go ahead and dip their pacifier in honey. (Just kidding. Don't do that.)
• We all know that lots of kids are allergic to nuts, so avoid anything with them in it. Let their parents find out if the kid goes into anaphylactic shock when it eats peanut butter.

Foods that are probably safe:
• Rice cereal
• Cooked and pureed apples and pears
• Cooked and pureed potatoes
• Cooked and pureed vegetables

If you're expected to feed the baby while you babysit, you'll probably be given a small bowl of dried rice cereal which you'll mix with water and then slowly spoon into the baby's mouth. Mom and Dad may also give you a small (and I think overpriced) jar of fruit to mix in with the rice cereal. This is fine and dandy, but for lots less money and just a little bit of time, you can become the favorite babysitter by making your own rice cereal and your own pureed fruit.

Rice cereal
Prepare rice like you normally would for yourself. One-half cup of rice, one cup of water will give you more than enough rice for yourself and the wee one. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes or so until the water has evaporated. (Or you could bust out the rice maker, which I think is a lot easier.) Take about 2 tablespoons of the rice and mix it with a tablespoon of water, formula or breast milk. Puree this in the blender. (You can easily double, triple or quadruple the batch.)

If the baby is just beginning to eat solid food, you'll want to make it thin, about the consistency of what is in their bottle. They have all the muscles and coordination for sucking, but not for taking food off a spoon. If they end up wearing more than they're eating, or if they just spit it out, try watering it down a bit. Feed small amounts, about an eighth of a teaspoon at a time, and make sure you're not wearing a dry-clean only shirt.

Pureed fruit
Take a fork and prick several holes in the skin of an apple or pear. You don't want steam to get trapped under the skin of the fruit and cause a fruit-plosion in your oven. Bake it for about 20 minutes, or until a fork goes through the flesh easily. (This may leak, so use a pan you don't care about staining.) Let the apple cool before taking off the skin and removing the core. Place the fruit into a blender and add a little water or formula if necessary to create a thin sauce.

Both of these are incredibly simple and inexpensive. Once they're mixed with formula they'll spoil very quickly, so only mix as much as you'll need. The rest can be stored in small tightly sealed bowls in the freezer, or you can even freeze them in ice cube trays and then dump the trays into a plastic bag. These will only last about one month in the freezer, so make sure to date your bag. Each cube is about the size of one serving for a new eater.

Baby's First Potato and Cheese Casserole
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 small onion (about 2 tablespoons) chopped
1 potato, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons milk or formula
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon grated cheddar cheese (look for one low in salt)

Heat the olive oil in a small pan over medium heat and saute the onion for about five minutes, or until it is clear. Don't let it brown or burn. Add the potato and cook on low for a minute. Now add the milk and water and stir to mix. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally to keep the potatoes from sticking, for about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the grated cheese. Puree either in the blender, or by forcing the mixture through a metal strainer with the back of a wooden spoon. If it seems too thick, add some water.

Baby's First Vegetables
1 teaspoon of olive oil
1 large carrot (peeled and chopped)
1 potato (peeled and chopped)
2 tablespoons of sweet corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
1 tablespoon of peas (fresh or frozen; canned have too much salt)
4 tablespoons of water

Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and add the carrot. Cook for about five minutes and reduce the heat to low. Add the potatoes, sweet corn, peas and water. Cover and simmer for about 15 minutes stirring occasionally to prevent the carrots from sticking. Once everything is nice and soft, puree it in a blender or push it through a mesh strainer with the back of a spoon. Add a little water if it seems too thick.

With just a little bit of effort you can impress the parents of your favorite new non-talkative person. Just make sure to let them know what you're going to be feeding the baby and let the parents introduce new foods to them. You really don't want to ruin their date night by telling them you're at the emergency room with Junior.

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