Kate LaVail might have ended up making her own baby food anyway, but the baby shower sealed the deal.
"They played one of those horrible games where you smell and taste the baby food, and you have to guess what it is," said LaVail, a graduate student in the University at Buffalo's Department of Communication. "Everyone was wrong, because it really doesn't taste and smell like anything edible."
The mystery substance, later determined to be green beans, LaVail said, seemed "not fit for human consumption." Instead, it fed her determination to join a growing group of parents making their infants' first solid foods themselves, instead of grabbing jars from a supermarket shelf.
Everybody made their own before commercially produced pureed baby food spread across the United States in the 1930s. It has become such a standard that even today, with do-it-yourself food surging in popularity, time-stressed parents ask baby-food-making peers: "Why would you bother?"
Their mix of motivations may differ, but many baby food makers cite similar goals. They want to know exactly what their child is eating, without preservatives or added sugars. They aim for maximum nutritional value, believing commercial canning temperatures deplete vitamins. They encourage bonding by feeding infants what others are eating. Plus, they spend a lot less money on baby food.
Julie Schmidt understands why parents she knows -- including doctors -- are astonished that she makes her own infant chow.
"When you have babies and little kids running around, you don't have time," said Schmidt, a part-time physician's assistant caring for Leighton, 18 months old, and Sydney, 3. "Your brain is going in a million different places. You have kids clinging to your ankles, crying and wanting to be held. Making baby food is just one more thing to add to the list."
But it takes less time than you might think, Schmidt said. "If I can do it, anybody can."
All you need is a food processor or blender, and containers like ice cube trays or recycled baby food jars. Plus, to be sure, a little organizational energy.
Parents make batches of steamed green beans, peaches or sweet potatoes, for example, and puree them, adding a little water if necessary. They pack containers that last for days in the refrigerator and weeks in the freezer.
Making lots of little tastes can help with the process of getting infants accustomed to new foods. Pediatric nutrition research suggests children may reject a new flavor eight to a dozen times before accepting it.
Ice cube trays are popular as storage and portioning aids. Purees are smoothed into the containers and frozen, covered. Cubes, each about a standard one-ounce serving, are popped out and stored in bags, to be reheated and served.
Using local produce and recycled containers, like empty baby food jars from family members, makes Schmidt feel better about the environment, too. "If I can save money, save the use of a glass jar or plastic container, support a local farmer, and my child is eating the same thing I am, why not?" she said.
Retailers, having caught on to the do-it-yourself baby food movement, have lots of containers and equipment to sell to expectant moms. But don't assume specialized gear offered by kitchen gadget marketers will work better, LaVail said.
"I went hog wild and got this special puree maker, all this gear that was totally worthless -- really, a big Cuisinart does a much better job," she said. "I realized that people have been feeding their kids for years and years before there was jarred food -- and before there was a special baby food pureer, with special spatula."
Local fruit, especially berries, is a favorite of the do-it-yourselfers and their customers. Meat, especially chicken and turkey, is well-received, with many parents mixing in a vegetable to get their infants used to different flavors.
Lorrie Perrin, a full-time title analyst who purees fresh vegetables like green peas and corn for son Noah Custer, 1, considered making her own when older family members said they never bought baby food.
"They made food for us as children when they made meals for the family," she said. "Whatever was going to be served to the babies was taken out before the seasoning was added."
Her son couldn't digest milk protein well as a baby, so the two to four hours a week she spends making baby food allows Perrin to control what foods he's exposed to and gauge his reactions.
She selects fresh fruits and vegetables -- Noah's favorites include strawberries and sweet potatoes -- and lean meats from grass-fed, hormone-free animals. She's usually making the food while cooking dinner for the rest of her family. "After dinner, I usually mix everything and package it in the containers," she said.
Kristin Van DeWater, an Independent Health marketer, doesn't think she fits the image of a mother who would make her own baby food. She doesn't go to farmers' markets, and isn't that earthy. In fact, she only bought organic produce for her son, Jackson, now 22 months and on to solid food.
"I'm your average working mom, married to your average dad -- a plumber at that -- who just happened to make baby food," she said. "After doing so, I feel it's easier than most people would think and would encourage others to give it a try."
Unlike LaVail, Van DeWater loves her custom baby-food maker, which steams the food before pureeing it. Pregnant again, she expects to use it again to make the baby food, sending her back to the organic sections, even though it's more expensive.
But not as expensive as buying organic baby food. LaVail did the math last week, comparing store-bought organic baby food against peaches from a farmers market and organic supermarket chicken.
The homemade peaches were less than one-fifth the store-bought price, LaVail calculated, the chicken about one-quarter the cost.
In the final analysis, though, the money isn't the most important factor to what she fed Maxwell, now 14 months old.
"It's our first kid, and I felt like we were a little closer to him because we were sharing food," said LaVail. "That sounds totally hippy-dippy, but I felt like he was eating what we were eating and he was that much closer to being a real person."