Feedbag: Should I Make My Own Baby Food?

Welcome to the Feedbag, where all the dumb questions about food, drink, cooking, eating, and accidental finger removal you've been embarrassed to ask can finally receive the berating they goddamn deserve. Also: answers. Send all your even-vaguely-food-related questions to albertburneko@gmail.com. All of them.


Rob
:

I have a new baby and my wife wants to make baby food. I understand the healthy eating aspects of it but I'm afraid I'm going to get dragged into daylong pureeing marathons. Is it worth it to make your own babyfood? Am I getting suckered into a healthy moms scenario I want no part of? Can I eat the babyfood as a late night snack?

Rob (or, well, Rob's wife), nothing in the world is more understandable than the desire to give one's children the absolute best of everything. The best possible food, the best possible exercise, the best possible education, the best possible prosthetic rocket launcher. And you think to yourself, Hell, if giving our kid(s) the very best of everything means that we have to be haggard, braindead, wrung-out bone-bags because we spend 23.5 hours a day puréeing organic carrots and kale and spoon-feeding it to our baby instead of sleeping, eating, going on dates, taking breaks to play video games or whatever the fuck, well, little Ysybylle deserves parents who are willing to do that for her, doesn't she? And, of course she does. Look how cute she is! Look at how she brims with light and life and spirit! Look at how profoundly, radiantly joyful she is in the alternate universe in which you have any time or energy or emotional bandwidth to engage with her happily because you are not spending every waking second puréeing squash and making SAT prep flashcards and hand-stitching dye-free onesies for her! What a fulfilled, stimulated, happy child she is, in that alternate universe over there!

Look: Being a parent of a baby is an exhausting, punishing, around-the-clock commitment even for those parents who don't turn it into the goddamn OCD Olympics: It's a sacrifice even for parents who do not fetishize their own self-sacrifice. It's hard. It's emotionally overwhelming. There's an entire industry built out of dreaming up new imaginary child-rearing challenges and new products to address them and telling you that you are a delinquent parent unless you purchase them for your kid, and there's an entire counter-movement of stinky hippies who tell you that your children will grow up to be mechanized cancerous Morlocks unless you resist at every turn every child-rearing option which does not require the absolute maximum of work and attention and suffering on your part. There will be times, no matter how dedicated and loving a parent you are, no matter how charming and easygoing your child is, when you will resent your child's very existence and seem to have energy only for mourning the life you used to have—which, when you think about it, is a pretty horrible fate for your child, mitigated only slightly by the fact that she shares it with every other person who ever lived. That's the best-case scenario.

And the easiest thing to lose sight of in the unnavigable fucking love-and-guilt swamp of new parenthood is this: The very best thing you can give your child is parents who take good enough care of themselves to have something other than exhaustion and resentment and homemade baby food to give to her. Which, not so coincidentally, dovetails quite nicely with your responsibility to take care of yourself. A healthy family is better for your kid than organic homemade green beans.

Which is to say, put the fucking blender away. Put the steamer pot away. Sock the empty jars in a box and stick it in a fucking closet. Buy some goddamn corporate baby food (or, hell, go to friggin' Whole Foods and buy some organic jarred hippie-baby food). Call a trusted adult to come over and shovel some of it into your baby's face for 90 minutes, and take your beautiful wife out for a big steaming bowl of pho. Make tired, grateful ain't this some shit? faces at each other. Hold hands. Be the people you were a year ago, together, for a little while. Share a deep breath before you dive back in.

This isn't magically going to turn you into Mary Poppins. But if it refreshes you just enough, if being away from the baby for 90 minutes makes you miss her just enough to be eager, glad to see her, and prepared to be OK with whatever screeching horror she throws at you between now and bedtime, if you and your wife feel just that much more like you're partners looking out for each other rather than cagey strangers at opposite ends of the same lifeboat, you will have done 10 million times more for your baby than your fucking Cuisinart ever could.

Lee:

I "work" in an office-type environment, which means I'm bringing a lunch from home most days. This lunch is invariably either a very sad sandwich or a, like, Toy Story 3-sadness-level wrap, all lumpily-rolled and stuffed with nameless white meat (like your mom) and some limp spinach or whatever green stuff is in the fridge.

What's something I can bring for lunch that doesn't suck? Difficulties: I do not have access to a fridge (!), so whatever it is has to be able to survive at room temperature for a couple of hours. I do have access to a (shitty) microwave and some hot water.

The very best advice I can give you for this is to suggest that you cook something you love for dinner the night before, make enough of it to have leftovers, and bring a tightly-sealed tupperware of leftovers with you for lunch the next day. Many home-cooked meals taste far better the next day than they did when just-completed: their flavors have had more time to hang out together, and more importantly, you're no longer all exhausted and annoyed from what a goddamn chore it is to cook dinner, so you can actually appreciate your food instead of hating its stupid face.

So, like, chili, for example. Chili is better the second day than it was on the first, plus it's hearty and vivid and exciting enough to sock some energy into you in the middle of the day. Make a big pot of chili and save some for tomorrow's lunch (and, if you make enough, for the next day's lunch, too). It's not going to spoil over a few hours of hanging out in a sealed container in your briefcase or backpack or fannypack or taped to the inside of your thigh, so long as you don't blow your nose into it.

I think most foodstuffs won't spoil from a few hours outside of a refrigerator. Things like, say, salad greens might get wilted and soft and unpleasant to eat; seafood-y stuff like tuna casserole, or some leftover shrimp linguine, or, like, an entire bushel of crabs, which would be very tasty but inadvisable for several reasons, will get stinky and earn you some bad vibes from your coworkers. But, for example, a meatloaf sandwich isn't going to fester and rot and reanimate as a horrible bleating miniature ghoul-cow just because it spent the morning under your desk and not in the Arctic circle.

So. Cook something you like the night before, and bring some leftovers. Or, hell, bring a packet of ramen, a microwave-safe bowl, and a noose. Presumably your ridiculous fridge-free craphole of an office supplies you with a chair, yes?

Ryan:

Let's say that one has reached adulthood (or something resembling it,) and has moved into their first place that allows for a real outdoor grill. In your opinion, does this person go with a gas or charcoal grill, assuming that they can only afford or have room for one, and why?

What is this person looking for? There are virtues to either choice (he says, ducking a crossbow bolt from the CHARCOAL OR DEATH crowd).

Gas grills heat up fast, give you more control over temperature, don't require you to constantly restock your charcoal supply, and sometimes include neat-o (dorky) bells and whistles like side burners and shit that you don't really need, but which will make you feel cool even as they make everyone else think you're a putz. Also, cooking over charcoal is a race against the fire's consumption of the charcoal; managed properly, it can last a good long time, but the heat is going to diminish as the charcoal turns to ash. With gas, you just cook and cook and cook; you're not going to use up all the propane in a full tank unless you're planning on standing out there for several days, in which case you're a lunatic.

Charcoal grills, by contrast, are cheaper. That's about where their benefit to the convenience-minded ends. You have to keep track of how much charcoal you've got; you have to have some method of ignition (lighter fluid or a chimney starter or a bunch of newspaper or some kindling or whatever the hell); you have to light the fire well in advance of the time you're planning on actually cooking on it (in order to give the open flame time to die down and retreat inside the charcoal so that it doesn't incinerate the food you cook over it); unless you're splurging on some ridiculously expensive hobbyist contraption like a Big Green Egg, you won't have much control over the temperature (nor even, with many basic charcoal grills, the ability to know the exact temperature of the cooking surface at all). If you're cooking several rounds of stuff—say, burgers and franks and chicken and veggies, for a big cookout with lots of people—you have to have a plan for the order in which you're going to cook the stuff, so that you can pair the different foods with their proper cooking temperature and get them all cooked before the charcoal is exhausted. It can be a pain in the ass.

And yet. Food that has been well-cooked over charcoal just tastes goddamn incredible, in a way that gas grills, for all their many merits, cannot match. (On the other hand, you can ignore the but gas grills make your food taste like propane! people, because that's not really true unless your shit is broke.) On top of that, many larger charcoal grills can be used to produce indirect heat, which means you can use them to smoke and/or slow-cook stuff, which is great.

Also, crucially: Cooking over an actual by-God charcoal fire (as opposed to the tidy, tightly controlled, incidentally outdoor stovetop of a gas grill) is lots of fucking fun. It's something to learn, it's not particularly challenging, and, um, fire! It's a thing to know how to do, where cooking over a gas grill is just like being in your kitchen, only a bird might shit on your head.

So: What is this person looking for? If he's looking for a convenient and easy way to have some grilled food from time to time and has a bit more money to spend, he should get a gas grill. If he's looking to spend less money and is looking for both grilled food which tastes like what grilled food tastes like when you imagine the taste of grilled food, and also flaming adventure!!1!11!, he should get a charcoal grill.

Oh, fuck it. He should get a charcoal grill. Goddamn it, it's just a lot more rewarding.

E.J.:

As a father of 2 kids under 4 and a wife who gets home after 7 (too late to cook dinner, so it's my job), can you suggest 5 easy to make/Go to dinners that I can put in the rotation and CRUSH every time?

Eej, lemme tell ya buddy, I sympathize. For I, too, am a father of two young kids (2 and 4), and I too have to do all the cooking, and if I turn my head quickly, I leave an entire head-shaped cloud of lost hair hovering in the air I just vacated.

When you're responsible for cooking dinner for your family every goddamn night, it shifts your priorities around. Whereas once upon a time you might have chosen your cooking endeavors on the basis of their deliciousness, or their novelty, or their alcohol content, now that you have two young kids and are cooking dinner five nights a week, literally the only thing in the world that you care about at all is avoiding cleaning. Unfortunately, your municipality's Child Protective Services office doesn't share your priorities, and this forces you to make a compromise in your cooking, between nutritional well-roundedness on the one hand, and feeding your family rolled-up paper plates on the other.

The happy medium between these two priorities is: roasting things! Roasting things is great for a few reasons. First, if your oven has two racks, you can roast a bunch of different (figurative) shit in there at the same time. Second, you can do an entire dinner's worth of cooking on that pair of beat-up old cookie sheets crammed into the darkest recesses of your kitchen cabinets. Third, if you line those old cookie sheets with aluminum foil before you put any food on them, you can clean them by whipping the foil off, throwing it in the trash, and pumping your fist in triumph.

(Oh, right, and: Roasted stuff tends to taste good.)

So, roast stuff. I'm not gonna give you five whole recipes here, pal, because there's only so much room on the entire internet, but I'll give you a couple of lists.

Here's a list of vegetables (or, like, tubers or lichen or whatever the hell) that are good for roasting: asparagus, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, parsnips, squash, bell peppers, tomatoes, and so on. Toss 'em with olive oil, season 'em with salt and pepper, stick 'em in a hot oven for a while, and shake the pan to turn 'em every few minutes or so.

Stick some pieces of chicken, or some filets of fish, or, hell, a friggin' meatloaf in the oven with your veggies (on a separate pan, of course). No, everything won't cook at exactly the same pace, and no, it's not gonna be the finest dining you ever tasted, but that's not what matters, right? You've got two kids under 4: the important thing is that it'll be easy to clean up, and, I suppose, whether it's edible ([eyeroll]). You can try out variations on this, say, three nights a week. The fourth night, make a quick pasta, something just healthful enough to pass muster, like penne with broccoli, grated cheese, and crushed red pepper. The fifth night, make breakfast for dinner. Kids like breakfast for dinner. Make french toast. They'll go nuts.

Unless they're my kids, in which case they will tell you that they don't like french toast, even though they do, even though they asked for it, even though they have been agitating for french toast for a week, even though you are curled up in a ball under the table muttering improvised serenity prayers and biting your fist. If your kids are my kids, hell, Eej, what the fuck are you doing in my house?

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Image by Jim Cooke.