The Surprising History of Baby Food

baby good options
Image via Flickr/ fred v

So have you ever wondered what babies used to eat before you could drive yourself to the store and pick up a jar of organic baby food?


Maybe it's just me, but I thought it would be fun to take a little tour of the history of baby food, courtesy of the new book Inventing Baby Food by Amy Bentley.

In the book, historian Amy Bentley, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, traces the history of baby food and what it says about our American diet in a way that really makes me question how strange it really is that we can walk into any grocery store and buy jars of food fit for consumption for the littlest among us.

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In an I-want-it-now world, baby food is no exception. And as the author cautions in her book, it's not all about a cutesy look at the history of baby food, but a warning to us all to remember that our diets, much like a lot of our health and personalities, are set very early on in life. “It's during infancy that American palates become acclimated to tastes and textures, including those of highly processed, minimally nutritious, and calorie-dense industrial food products,” says the University of California Press about the book.

breastfeeding class
Image via J & J Brusie Photography

1600s: Evidence suggests that most European Colonial children were breastfed until approximately two years of age.

1700s: Most babies breastfed until just over a year old.

1800s: Meat and other solid foods were considered damaging to a child's diet, and milk-only diets were encouraged by experts. Homemade “formula” was popular during this time, and women generally started introducing some forms of solids to babies when their teeth came in. Fruits and veggies were avoided until about age four out of fear of diseases.

wet nurse wikimedia commons
Image via Wellcome Images/ Wikimedia Commons

1900s: Babies were fed almost exclusively with breast milk. Wet nurses were used by the very wealthy, or for mothers who weren't able to produce milk for their own children. In rare cases, infants without access to breast milk were fed a form of “gruel,” differing in mixtures of flour, animal milk, and water.

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baby food wikimedia commons
Image via Nestle/ Wikimedia Commons

1915: One of the first baby foods, Pablum by Mead Johnson, hit shelves.

1920s: Canned foods became popular, allowing Americans to eat vegetables and fruit year round. More and more Americans turned to science for advice, and breast milk slowly became to be seen as “inadequate.” Some doctors advised that babies mouths be rinsed with water and women's breasts cleaned with boric acid before and after feedings. Artificial formula (made from wheat) was first introduced.

1926: Gerber began development of a baby strained food.

gerber baby food flickr
Image via Flickr/ Dave Steiner

1928: A publication recommended that infants as young as three weeks old be introduced to orange juice and outlined a timetable for other foods for baby.

1931: The Gerber Baby was officially born.

1932: By this time, Gerber was selling over 2.2 million cans of baby food a year.

baby unsure about solids
Image via iStock

1936: The first mention of canned vegetables and fruits appeared in the official government guidelines for parents, Infant Care. The brochure suggested, says Bentley, that commercially made baby food may be superior, but for cost reasons, the government encouraged parents to grow their own food for themselves and their babies.

1937: Many ads for baby food showed infants as young as three months old eating baby food out of a can.

By the end of 1930s: Baby food was commonly viewed as a separate category of food in mainstream America.

Present day: One certain mother of four is glad that she is delaying starting her almost 6-month-old on solid foods until a later age and wonders if she can talk her 6-year-old into making homemade baby food when the time comes …

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How about you? Do you buy baby food or make your own?

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The Surprising History of Baby Food

Chaunie Brusie is a coffee mug addict, a labor and delivery nurse turned freelance writer, and a young(ish) mom of four. She is the author of "Tiny Blue Lines: Preparing For Your Baby, Moving Forward In Faith, & Reclaiming Your Life In An Unplanned Pregnancy" and "The Moments That Made You A Mother". She also runs Passion Meets Practicality, a community of tips + inspiration for work-at-home mothers. ... More

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