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November 06, 2008

An Adventure in Baby Food Land: Starting My Own Co-op


I am going to come right out and say it: I like to cook.  I am not some awesome chef that had fancy training.  In fact, my only formal cooking education came from wedding shower where we got a cooking lesson and then got to eat the results.  My mom always cooked when I was young - probably because we lived on a farm and the nearest restaurants didn't provide much variety, but also because we were a thrifty family.  When my son was born, I was a neurotic mess most of the time.  I decided that anything that passed his lips had to be organic if it wasn't breast milk (current me frequently snickers at old one-child me).  I took a look at the baby food that came in jars and cringed.  I had never been big on canned foods myself and thought I could do better on my own.  Someone had given me a used copy of Super Baby Foods before my son was born so I dug it up and started reading.  I started experimenting and buying more books.  It turned out to be fun!  When my daughter came a long eight months ago, I thought about making baby food but was completely overwhelmed by the addition of a second child to my life.  However, the closer she got to six months everything got a bit easier, and somehow making food seemed possible.  I jumped back into my old baby food making ways, but after three or so recipes, I realized that I was not going to have time to make enough food myself to get a real variety in her diet.  Then it dawned on me -- babysitting co-ops have gotten pretty popular - what about a baby food co-op?  I put a post up on the local parenting board trying to find a few people to join me.  We do our second swap tomorrow and so far, it's been really amazing!  In fact, I haven't had to use jarred food once in the last month! 

So why did I start my own baby food making coop when it comes in handy little jars at the grocery store? 

Reason #1: Big Money Saver!
In the current economy, a little Midwestern thriftiness can go a long ways!  Just like eating at home has saved us a ton of money, making most of my own food has made a big difference in our grocery budget.  Today, I made a butternut squash + lentils + potatoes + carrotts + leeks puree.  If I buy the ingredients from Fresh Direct (definitely not the cheapest place to buy groceries!), it comes out to about $.40 per 4 oz serving.  Earth's Best 4 oz jars are $.79 at Fresh Direct - and this is about a million times better since I know what goes into every bite.

Reason #2: Big Time Saver!
For my part of the food exchange, I  put in about 1.5 hrs of time in cooking, pureeing and freezing my two recipes.  After our swap, I will have eight different things which should last me about three weeks if Maddy eats the food at every single meal.  All I have to do at each meal is pull out two or so purees and she's got a healthy meal that only takes me a minute or so to defrost in the microwave.

Reason #3: A Wide Variety of Textures & Tastes!
This may not be super important to everyone, but I really want my kids to like food.  I love to eat.  It's a highlight for me every day.  Just like I want to develop their love of music or the outdoors, I want my kids to enjoy eating.  It's really a simple pleasure that can last your whole life!  I think developing a taste for different foods and textures early on can at least help combat some of the toddler pickiness that comes later.

As with making any co-op work, we definitely learned a few lessons along the way.  Some things that were key for us: 

Finding other parents with kids at similar eating stages: I started my son on solid foods at four months on the recommendation of our pediatrician to try to help with his reflux.  We started my daughter at five months because she was grabbing food off our plates and stuffing it into her mouth.  Generally, babies start eating between four to six months and progress through trying new foods and textures until they are full weaned onto solids.  Through an email on our local parenting board, I found three other moms whose kids were all within a month or two of each other but were eating the same kids of things.  I also roped in a mommy friend who I knew liked to cook as well and also had two little kids.
Keeping it small: 
I had visions in the beginning when I put up my post of having ten people.  However, I only got three takers -- which turned out to be very lucky.  Cooking enough for four babies at the same time takes a pretty big pot.  I can't imagine how much we would have to make to share a recipe among ten babies!
Setting basic ground rules:
As I mentioned, I fed my son all organic.  This time around I am a lot more relaxed.  Organic is important to me but it's currently behind locally grown and not crazy expensive.  I tried to find moms that felt the same as I did.  I also made sure to check on allergies.  So far, neither of my kids have had any reaction to foods.  I certainly did want to cause any problems for any of the other babies in our little group.
Setting a general exchange schedule: After our first meet up, my group thought we could do an exchange every two weeks.  We quickly learned that we could actually stretch it to three weeks with the quantities we were exchanging.  The exchange definitely fills my freezer to capacity (and sometimes even squeezes out the ice cream!) but the trade off for having all the great food is worth it to me.

Finally, I just want to say to all the skeptics out there that baby food making is pretty easy.  You don't have to be a fabulous chef to make baby food.  Just aim for mushy and your baby will be very happy!


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