Utter the words ‘baby’ and ‘spice’ in the same sentence, especially in the Western Hemisphere, and you’re sure to get a few eyebrow raises. “Spices for babies?! Isn’t that illegal?” a New York mummy friend gasped when I told her I had fed my 6 month old cardamom-poached pears. I can’t fully fault her for her skepticism. Most of us, particularly in the West, have grown accustomed to offering babies and kids bland food for which experts now resoundingly agree there is no scientific or health basis.
In fact, I’d like to argue that it is precisely the bland, limited diet that we believe is all our kids can tolerate, that leads them to mainly eat off ‘kid’s menus’ as they get older. No offense to kid’s menus – sometimes I want to eat off them too. But there’s a lot more to nourishment, nutrition and the joy of eating than spaghetti with tomato sauce, chicken nuggets and pizza. Many children are consequently overfed and undernourished, which can contribute to higher rates of obesity and chronic disease later in life. There’s no better time to set the stage for healthy, joyful and adventurous eating than in the first years of life.
Spices are nature’s pantry and pharmacy in one and the perfect natural tools to enliven our kids’ plates, palates and health. In the context of kids, the spices to encourage are the aromatic ones like cinnamon, clove, cardamom, turmeric and paprika rather than spicy ones like cayenne, which can be harsh on tiny tongues and tummies. Here are some compelling reasons to spice up our kids’ lives:
- Spices are brimming with beneficial compounds called antioxidants. In the course of normal metabolism, our cells produce molecules called free radicals that can damage DNA, proteins and the protective layer around cells. This oxidative stress has been linked to the development of many chronic diseases like cancer and Alzheimers. Spices pack a punch when it comes to being antioxidant powerhouses – even small amounts are rich sources of antioxidants, counteracting free radical damage and contributing to overall health.
- Spices have many other health and medicinal properties that are being continuously tested and validated by modern science. For example, the golden spice turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, healing the digestive tract, contributing to improved nutrient absorption and gut health. Cardamom is a potent anti-bacterial and cinnamon has powerful blood sugar balancing activity. There are several other examples of the positive effects of spices on health and wellbeing.
- Spices make food exciting and delicious without the usual nasties like excess salt and sugar. Cardamom pears are so much tastier and luxurious than regular pears, turmeric-spiced popcorn is bright and interesting and you’ll never eat plain potatoes once you’ve tried paprika, garlic and their olive oil-seasoned counterparts.
- There is good evidence that food preferences are shaped by what babies are exposed to in their first year of life and even as early as in the womb. Adding spices to boost flavor and nutrition in baby food but also during pregnancy and breastfeeding can mould young palates early on to encourage healthy, adventurous eating going forward.
Here are a couple of refreshingly simple, delicious, spiced recipes for you to offer your babies, kids and even the entire family. To Love & Spice!
6 MONTHS + BABY PUREES
Modern scientific research has validated medicinal properties of cardamom for its anti-cancer, digestion boosting, anti-bacterial and anti-nausea effects. Pears are a superb source of polyphenolic compounds called flavonoids, which can promote heart health and help prevent type 2 diabetes and cancer. The skin of pears contains a large proportion of its flavonoids so it is recommended to buy organic pears and leave them unpeeled for toddlers and older kids. Pears also contain Vitamins C and K and are a great source of fiber.
1 pear peeled and chopped, or unpeeled and chopped for older kids
1 clove (beginner) or 2 cloves (advanced) cardamom smashed lightly or half the seeds from 1 pod freshly ground for a stronger flavour
1/4 cup water
Add the water to a pot with a lid. Add the smashed or ground cardamom and chopped pears. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the pears are soft enough to eat as finger food or puree for younger babies, making sure there is enough water to prevent them from burning and sticking to the pot. Remove the cardamom pod and any seeds you spot although a couple left behind won’t hurt. Puree the pears or leave in pieces and serve. Depending on how watery you’d like the puree, you can add some of the remaining cooking water to the pears and blend.
Offer the pieces or puree to your baby as is, in cereal, with yoghurt or mixed with other fruits and veggies like bananas, peaches, mango, steamed green beans, spinach, peas and broccoli. Other fruits and veggies that can be cooked similarly with cardamom to make exciting purees for baby include carrots, butternut or acorn squash, sweet potato, peaches and apricots.
Nutmeg Sweet Potatoes
Nutmeg’s health benefits include its antibacterial activity, particularly for teeth, its ability to aid sleep and alleviate digestive distress. Less is more when it comes to this spice – if ingested in very large quantities, it can cause unpleasant side effects like palpitations and sweating so use it with a light hand. Sweet potatoes are one of the most nutritious vegetables around bursting with vitamins A, B and C, manganese and fiber. And most babies love them! To maximise the absorption of nutrients, it’s good to cook sweet potatoes with some fat like olive oil used here.
Serves 2 kids or 1 toddler/kid as a side dish
1 medium sweet potato peeled and chopped into 1 inch pieces
2 teaspoons olive oil
A pinch, about 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Water for steaming
Dollop of butter (optional)
Cook the potatoes until soft using your method of choice, preferably steaming or pressure-cooking to preserve nutrients. Drain the potatoes, saving some water if you prefer a more liquid puree. Warm the oil in a pot over medium heat, add the cooked potatoes and nutmeg and sauté for 1 minute until the spice is cooked through. You can add salt for older kids and adults.
Puree, lightly mash or leave in pieces. You can amp up the mash with a dollop of butter. Serve as a side for Thanksgiving or year-round with fish or chicken. Stir in soft tofu or fish poached in milk for a complete baby meal.
TODDLERS / KIDS
Cardamom Quinoa Apricot Banana Porridge
Quinoa is a true superfood containing essential vitamins like Riboflavin (B2) that helps energy production in the brain and muscles, important minerals like iron, magnesium and manganese and twice the fiber of most grains and protein. Rare for plant-based protein, quinoa contains ‘complete’ protein encompassing all 9 essential amino acids, making it a truly perfect, nutritious food for all. Combined with dried apricots, which are a great source of fiber, vitamins A, C and iron, and bananas which have a load of fiber, vitamins and potassium, this dish makes for a delicious and nutritious breakfast porridge.
4 baby, 2 toddler/kid or 1 adult serving
1/2 cup quinoa rinsed well
1 1/4 cups water
2-3 cloves cardamom smashed or seeds from 1 clove removed and ground
3 dried apricots finely chopped
1/2 banana chopped
Splash water, formula, breast milk or cow’s / soy / almond milk
In a pot with a lid, mix the quinoa, water, cardamom and apricots and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook for 15 minutes with lid on until the water is absorbed. Leave to rest for 2 minutes then fluff up with a fork. The quinoa should be fluffy and almost translucent once cooked.
For young babies, add some water, formula or breast milk and the chopped banana and puree to your desired consistency. For the rest of the family, add the banana, a splash of milk and serve for a delicious power breakfast. Instead of dried apricots, you can use fresh apricots or mangoes, which also pair well with cardamom and make for a sweeter blend. Add the fresh fruit after the quinoa is finished cooking.
Note: Some experts consider popcorn a choking hazard for toddlers. Parents are the best judge as to whether their toddler can handle popcorn or not, depending on how well he/she chews and swallows other foods. You can err on the side of caution and wait until your child is 4 years old to give them popcorn.
Popcorn, believe it or not, is a very healthy snack as long as it’s not the butter and sodium-doused movie theater variety or the chemical-laden kind found in ready-to-pop, microwavable popcorn. Popping your own corn is ridiculously simple and when done so, this crunchy, tasty snack is a rich source of antioxidants, fiber, folate and other minerals like iron and manganese. Modern science has validated the anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, gut health boosting, anti-oxidant, anti-depression and many other effects of the magical spice turmeric making this a snack you can truly feel great about offering your kids. The addition of black pepper with turmeric boosts the latter’s absorption into the blood stream to exert its positive effects.
Approx. 10 cups of popped popcorn
1/2 cup popping corn
2 tablespoons coconut oil, preferably the anti-oxidant rich, unrefined or virgin variety
1-2 tablespoons butter depending on richness desired
1-2 teaspoons turmeric powder depending on strength of flavour desired
Pinch or 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Salt to taste
Heat the coconut oil with four kernels of popping corn over medium-high heat in a pot with the lid on. Once the kernels pop, take the lid off, add the remaining corn and give them a good stir. Cover the pot and take it off the heat for 20 seconds, allowing all the kernels to come to popping temperature at around the same time. Place the covered pot over medium-high heat again. Once the kernels begin popping, lift the pot off the heat and shake it from side to side every 10-15 seconds to prevent the bottom layer from burning. Once there is a 30 second gap or so between pops, turn the heat off and lift the lid off the pot.
Melt the butter in a small pan, add the turmeric and pepper and stir for about 30 seconds. Pour in batches over the corn, stirring well between pours to evenly incorporate the seasoning. Sprinkle with sea salt to taste, stirring once again. Store in airtight containers for prolonged freshness. Serve as a snack, during an at home movie night or as a lunch box side. Spice it up further with some cayenne for adults.