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Blast from the Past

Blast From The Past: How Parents Used to Introduce Food

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Who knew the topic of food could be so complicated? Moving beyond the debate of whether to breast or bottle feed (either is perfect, by the way), you’re now faced with the question of when, how and what solid foods you should give your baby.

There are parents who are firmly in the BLW camp, that’s baby-led weaning, to the uninitiated. Then there are the parents who puree, and the parents who fall somewhere in between. But how did our parents or grandparents  introduce food to us, and what did they feed us?

Back in my day…

In a nutshell, our elders took it easy and watched their babies for cues that they were interested in food, generally around the four to six month mark.

May Woon, 61, said she started her children on baby rice cereals until they learned to chew and swallow. They then moved on to congee, or rice porridge, and mashed soft foods.

“We didn’t aim to start at any age, but would try when they started getting curious about food,” she said.

Elaine Chow, May’s 31-year-old daughter and mum to seven-month-old Henry, recalled May spending significant amounts of time preparing the food and  sitting with her to get her to finish a meal.

“Partly because she was a full-time housewife, partly because she put so much work into the food, and partly because she had less milk supply and was in a hurry to wean us,” said Elaine.

“She still happily spends half the day planning and preparing Henry’s food.

“Mum thinks there’s no better food for babies than congee – she’s always giving ideas of what to put in it. She always cooks way too much congee for him!”

Alicia Chew, mother to 11-month-old Nate, said her mother was slightly disapproving of her steaming and pureeing fruit and vegetables when she started weaning her son.

“She kept nagging me about why it wasn’t porridge, and asking me why I was so westernised,” Alicia, 32, laughed.

“I assume it’s what they did for me because it’s what they’ve been telling me to do for my son.”

Affordability and access

The porridge-is-best view possibly harks back to a time when parents had no choice but to be practical and use whatever they had. Rice cereal, which is a common first food for baby, was either too expensive, or not available.

Yin Chia, 81, said porridge was the only food she had to feed her children when they were babies.

“I’d boil porridge with de-boned cooked fish and some finely-sliced vegetables, like carrots or onions. I’d cook it for hours until it was broken down and soft enough for them to eat,” she said.

“It was always cheap fish like ikan kembung (mackerel) and vegetables like daun keledek (sweet potato leaves). We couldn’t afford meat back then.

“If you had other salty foods in the porridge, like ikan bilis (anchovies), you wouldn’t add extra salt or soy sauce.”

Yin said ikan bilis was known to be a good source of calcium. It also provided a bit of flavour to food and best of all – was cheap and accessible.

“Even when I was looking after my grandchildren, I would peel the ikan bilis to get rid of the bones, roast it and blend it into a fine powder to add to porridge,” she said.

What about other cultures?

Meanwhile, in Australia, 41 year-old mother of two, Meg Schiafone, said the first food of her and her siblings was rice cereal with breastmilk around four to six months of age – depending on the size of the baby.

Mum was told to introduce food for a big baby around four months and a small baby around the six-month mark,” said Meg.

“We were given a weak solution of rice cereal and breastmilk. In the morning, we had one teaspoon for one to two weeks, increasing to two to three teaspoons over time.”

Meg said following rice cereal, they were introduced to fruit like pear or apricot for lunch or afternoon tea.

“Again, we were given one teaspoon for one to two weeks before introducing another fruit. If there were no allergies or reactions, she would introduce another fruit.

“The midwife gave my mum two options; cook the fruit yourself or buy the jars of fruit.  She used the jars because she was busy and not a fantastic cook!”

Meg and her siblings had rice cereal or fruit up until the age of six months. After that, their mum introduced vegetables like pumpkin, peas and carrot. The six-month mark was also the time when babies could also be introduced to cow’s milk.

“Mum said we were introduced to pureed meat in the baby food jars around seven to eight months old. This included meat like beef and lamb,” she said. 

No rules

What amazed Meg was there were no other rules to introducing food to babies back then.

“There was nothing about allergies to peanuts, eggs or dairy, and no mention of added sugar and salt,” she said – a contrast to the cautious environment she is raising her own kids in.

“There weren’t so many rules then,” recalled May.

“I recall hearing about feeding them more fish and eggs. We didn’t think about allergies. We fed them egg yolks to see if they had an allergic reaction, in which case they couldn’t get certain types of vaccinations. That was all.”

They were also pretty easy-going about added seasoning in food, she added.

“Elaine avoids salt and sugar in Henry’s food, but I didn’t have this rule,” said May.

“Maybe we avoided very strong-tasting, sugary or greasy foods. But what we considered nutritious for adults would usually be fine for children.”

Parents these days have it good in some ways – we have access to knowledge and advice from health professionals. We can also buy a wide array of prepared food or fresh produce.

In some ways, we probably have too much information and choice compared to our parents or grandparents – which can sometimes work to our disadvantage!

If you’re keen for more information about food and nutrition for babies and children, view the 2013 report on Malaysian Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents by the Ministry of Health.

Faye is a former journalist now working in marketing and communications. She lives in Darwin, where she enjoys the best of Southeast Asia (the food and night markets) and Australia (the workday that ends punctually at 4.21pm), with her husband, toddler and small dog.