Tamika Gardner had been running a blog chronicling her kitchen adventures making her babies’ pediatrician-approved pureed and blended foods for four years when she was approached by a literary agent. The agent had a proposal: If she wrote a book of recipes featuring only organic foods, it would get sold and printed. Gardner, who digs organic foods as much as the next person with a high-end blender, agreed and created 201 Organic Baby Purees, which wasn’t exactly a literary breakthrough but remains one of the only books of its kind (and probably the most useful). Now she’s dropping the long awaited sequel, 201 Organic Baby and Toddler Meals, and a bit of knowledge.
Gardner didn’t start making her own baby food because she was specifically interested in having a holistically healthy lifestyle. She doesn’t have a yoga and Grape Nuts vibe. She wanted to save money. That was the point. Now, she’s much more focused on the health benefits of organics. There is, as they says, no zealot like a convert. And Gardner is an interesting evangelist for homemade baby food precisely because she’s genuinely enthusiastic about both its potential positive effects and the actual thing itself; she genuinely thinks that it can be good and prioritizes taste, which is somewhat unusual. A formula and TV-dinner baby herself, Gardner is eager to acclimate kids to good food (in all senses) as early as possible.
Tamika Gardner spoke to Fatherly about how she tested recipes, why blended parmesan crusted chicken with broccoli isn’t gross, and how to taste test on babies.
Making baby food, while a great way to save money and know what’s going into your child’s body, takes a lot of time. Why do it?
It’s a combination of the health aspect, but also the money aspect. It becomes expensive. You’re talking about three to four pouches of baby food a day at three or four dollars. It gets to be expensive and you’re still buying food for yourself.
A lot of it is overkill! Babies don’t eat that much. They may eat a quarter of a cup or something. A lot of stuff spoils and ends up going in the trash. The savings are significant. It was going to cost us at least $100 a month to buy jarred food.
What special tools do you use?
Now that more parents than ever are on the bandwagon, they have processors that steam and puree all they want. You don’t really need that. You just need a blender, food processor, and some containers and call it a day.
What made you take on the baby food industry in such a big way?
The lightbulb moment came when I was at the grocery store and I was putting jars of food in my basket, and then I also had the same types of whole foods in my basket. I thought, Why am I buying this again? Why am I buying this jar of bananas when I already have bananas here? I bought a couple of jars to check the consistency to make sure that it kind of matched up with the [age] stage that they were in at that time. That’s how I gauged the different consistencies and how I came up with the consistencies in the books.
So how was pureeing foods that you ate every day and taste-testing them in a liquid form?
One thing that I put in the book, “201 Organic Baby Purees,” was parmesan crusted chicken. At nine or 10 months my kids were open to eating most things except for peanuts and popcorns and stuff like that. So, I talked to my pediatrician before I started introducing new things and she guided me as to what they could eat. I followed those strict guidelines, but I used recipes that I was making for [my husband and I.] I would just scale it back.
So, with the parmesan crusted chicken, I blended that up with the parmesan and broccoli. I put it all in the blender, added a little water to it and just pulsed that thing until I got the consistency that I wanted, and that was pretty much it.
Honestly, that sounds pretty gross.
By the time my kids were able to eat meat, it was more coarse. It wasn’t, like, ground or pureed completely. I never got to that gross-out moment because I never blended meat to the point where I was ready to vomit. I thought about that too: Am I gonna have to blend up this chicken? It’s maybe a couple of pulses just to make sure that the big chunks are out. It’s really not at all grotesque.
So obviously you did a lot of experimenting. What recipes surprised you the most?
Hawaiian sweet potato. It actually came from my mother-in-law. She used to make sweet potatoes with pineapple. So I adapted her recipe and I added stuff to it. I added butter, cinnamon, a little bit of nutmeg, and crushed pineapple. It tastes really good, and it’s really good for us to eat, too. The kids really enjoyed it and to this day they love sweet potatoes.
I think it’s definitely worth experimenting with your child when they’re in that age, with different foods. It affects them when they get older.
Were there any other unique flavor combinations that people really responded to?
I have a green bean recipe that someone responded to on the blog: “My child loves your green bean recipe.” It was green beans with dill. It wasn’t something I thought went together. I had dill in my pantry at the time. I sauteed green beans with dill in olive oil, a little bit of salt. Just a finger food, basically. It’s really good. A lot of people love that flavor combination.
I am not a milk drinker. I do not like it at all. For the toddler book, I tried a fruit infused milk. I infused it with fruit [by] adding berries and a couple of banana slices and blending that up and it was delicious. Like a smoothie, but not frozen. They loved it.
When you were taste-testing with your family, your children were babies. How could you possibly register their feelings about your food?
They would frown. Or they just wouldn’t eat it. There were a lot of times where we would sit at the table and I’d think, Okay, this is a new recipe. This is going in the book. Let me know! By the time I wrote the second book, they were toddlers, so they could talk. They would say, “I don’t like this,” or, “I like this.”
They didn’t care for the beans or the peas as much, but I didn’t want them to grow up not having those things. I just put peas in and didn’t tell them.