How did we get here? What was baby food and infant nutrition like at the start of the 20th century? In this series of blog posts, we’re going to take a nostalgic journey back to the early 1900s to explore the humble beginnings of baby food, a time long before the convenience of store-bought jars and pouches – not dissimilar from how Kekoa Foods started, but that’s a story for another blog post.
In the early 20th century, the concept of store-bought baby food was virtually non-existent. As Amy Bentley describes in her insightful work, Inventing Baby Food – Taste, Health and the Industrialization of the American Diet, parents at the time relied heavily on homemade recipes passed down through generations. These meals, simple and made from readily available ingredients, often mirrored a softer version of what the rest of the family ate.
It used to be that the freshness and wholesomeness of ingredients straight from the garden were regularly found in an infant’s and toddler’s diet. Babies were typically fed mashed vegetables like carrots and potatoes, and soft fruits like bananas and apples. Cereals such as oatmeal and barley were common, but meat wasn’t a staple in early baby food. The preparation was straightforward: boil and mash, ensuring the food was soft and digestible.
A typical meal for a baby back then was a bowl of mashed potatoes and carrots, cooked just right to keep the natural sweetness and nutrients; and for dessert, perhaps a small serving of apple sauce, stewed enough to create a smoothness babies could eat, digest, and enjoy. Breakfast might have been a simple watery oatmeal, gentle on a baby's stomach yet filling.
Baby Food As a Reflection of the Times
Pediatric nutrition in the early 1900s was more about tradition and familial practices than scientific research, as Bentley notes. Mothers and grandmothers, armed with home remedies and natural approaches, were the primary sources of knowledge on child rearing and feeding. The food, often boiled and bland, was meant to be gentle on the baby’s stomach, not necessarily diverse or nutrient-rich by today's standards.
Furthermore, this era’s approach to baby food reflects broader societal contexts of the time. The early 1900s were a period of limited technology and minimal commercial food options. This lack of commercialization in baby food meant that home cooking was the norm, which, while labor-intensive, ensured that meals were free from additives and preservatives – a concept that resonates with today’s organic and natural food movements.
The strong emphasis on family and home cooking was also a reflection of the societal structure and values. Families were often larger, and the communal aspect of meal preparation was an integral part of daily life. The act of preparing baby food at home was not only a necessity but also a way to bond and care for the youngest members of the family. This hands-on approach to infant feeding created a sense of connection and tradition, aspects that are sometimes lost in today's fast-paced, convenience-oriented world.
It was indeed a time when feeding your baby was as organic and natural as it could get, albeit not as nutritionally diverse or scientifically informed as we understand is needed today. The early 20th century laid the foundational beliefs and practices in baby feeding, which would eventually evolve with advancements in nutrition science and societal changes.
Up Next: The 1920s-1930s & The Dawn of Commercial Baby Food
As we continue to delve deeper into the history of baby food in our upcoming posts, we’ll explore how these humble beginnings influenced the evolution of an industry and how they contrast with modern understandings of infant nutrition.