Excerpt from presentation First Foods for Baby: A Guide for Families and Culinary Leaders Based on the Mesoamerican Tradition given at the 2015 Native American Culinary Association’s Native Foods Symposium in Tucson, Arizona – Nov 12, 2015.
For a human being in infancy, each milestone is a step away from mother’s womb towards more autonomy. When it comes to feeding, the introduction of solid foods is a practice that awakens the digestive system and prepares the body for eventual weaning.
Our ancestors were thoughtful about feeding infants (and postpartum women) foods that were easily digested; in some regions, this meant avoiding ‘cold’ foods, though this does not refer to temperature, rather to the nature of food. However, there is no agreement on what foods are considered cold or hot; no definitive list exists.
Zero to Six months: Breast Milk
From ages 0 to 6 months, the best food for baby is breast milk. Breastfeeding should continue beyond six months as solid foods begin to be introduced. In the Nahua tradition, breastfeeding occurred on demand (not on schedules) for a minimum of 18 months and usually lasted from 3 to 4 years; if a mother was unable to breastfeed due to illness, breast milk was donated by another lactating mother (Lewis, 1960; Shein, 1992).
It is important to note that breastfeeding requires abundant community support. Even in older times, it was seen not as something dreamy, but as a practical sacrifice that women made for the health of their babies – and the social norms supported them through it. In modern times, some women lack the information (e.g., benefits of breastfeeding), sociopolitical support (e.g., maternity leave), or social support (e.g., assistance with latching) needed to breastfeed and must rely on formula to nourish their babies.
Six months and beyond: Three Key Foods
At the age of 6 months, solids can be gradually introduced to baby, one ingredient at a time. Once a food is introduced, one should wait 3 to 5 days before introducing another food to monitor for allergies. Following this method, between 6 and 10 foods can be introduced each month.
Three key foods of the Mesoamerican diet that greatly benefit infants are spirulina, amaranth, and chia.
Spirulina is a blue-green algae known in Nahuatl as tecuitlatl (‘rock excrement’) that was once harvested from Lake Texcoco. It is an excellent source of iron, protein, antioxidants, and all Omega fatty acids (3s, 6s, and 9s), including the fatty acid GLA, which is also found in breast milk. Because of it chemical composition, it is especially easy digest. Spirulina can be started at six months. Serve in smoothies, teething pops, and sprinkled on cold foods. Pair with Vitamin C, as this will help the body absorb the iron it provides. Start with an eighth of a teaspoon and work up to half a teaspoon by age 1.
Amaranth is an ideal first grain – started around the seventh month. It’s Nahuatl name is huautli; it is widespread across Mesoamerica, with over 40 varieties. Its grain is high in protein, calcium, magnesium, and a good source of iron. Grind the grain to make a course flour and boil it with filtered water to make a simple atole. The grain can also be puffed and eaten alone, sprinkled on fruit, or as an ingredient in smoothies.
Chia (Chian in Nahuatl) is a seed high in protein, omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, magnesium, antioxidants, and many more nutrients. It can be added to smoothies and teething pops.
Follow the hashtag #indigenousbabyfood to find out more ingredients and recipes for baby food based on the Mesoamerican tradition.
A fuller feeding schedule based on the Mesoamerican tradition will be published soon. Stay tuned!