BOSTON — WHEN Jasper White prepares his much-celebrated dishes in the kitchen of his Boston restaurant, his confidence is seldom shaken. Back home, when Nancy White, his wife and co-owner of "Jasper's," fed their infant son - a finicky party of one - the same couldn't be said.d try 10 different things," she says, remembering those days now three years behind her. "If Jasper Paul didn't like one, I would quickly whip up another. Finally, he'd become full - and I'd be exhausted." Her description of those discouraging months is so down-to-earth that one could easily forget her ties to the world of haute cuisine. In fact, Nancy White's dilemma hits surprisingly close to home for many regular parents who, come mealtime, are fraught with questions: What should I feed my infant? Is she getting enough? Is his meal balanced? By relying on J.P.'s favorites - mostly pasta - Mrs. White muddled through her son's babyhood, but it wasn't until her husband submitted a baby food recipe for publication that she learned the value of a cookbook geared for kids. "Jenifer Lang's cookbook gave me the courage to expand my repertoire away from macaroni and cheese," she said.
Allaying new-parent jitters This new cookbook ("Jenifer Lang Cooks for Kids," Harmony Books, $22.50) and two others, "Baby Let's Eat!" (by Rena Coyle, Welcome Entertainment, Inc., 1987, $7.95) and "Mommy Made - and Daddy Too!" (by Martha and David Kimmel, with Suzanne Goldenson, Bantam Books, 1990, $13.95) are especially helpful for allaying anxieties of new parents. Written by parents and well-established "foodies," these books are closer to guidebooks than cookbooks. The authors, while subscribing to slightly different approaches, hold readers' hands through the feeding process - offering advice on scheduling, equipment, the introduction of new foods, and more before presenting their recipes. The practicality that Nancy White found in Jenifer Lang's book is precisely what Lang found lacking as a new mother. Lang, a professional chef and food writer, sought to fill this void by writing her own book. "My son Simon inspired the idea for my cookbook," she said in a telephone interview. "Feeding him ... making sure I was getting nutrients into his diet ... it was all very anxiety-producing. I wanted a book that was practical and down-to-earth, without knocking me over the head with whole-grained foods." Does "practical" include jarred foods? "I used a lot of Earth's Best foods when Simon was a baby," she says, referring to the Vermont-based company that in 1987 introduced baby food made from certified organically grown foods. She quickly adds that this shortcut wasn't taken merely for the sake of convenience. "Someone tipped me off before he was eating. She said if you spend a half hour cooking carrots and he spits it out all over his tray, you'll go nuts." Her book contains nearly 60 recipes geared to the period from first bite to around the first birthday, when baby shows an interest in table food. Many of the dishes are appropriate for Mom and Dad, too. This practice of making "one-dish meals" suitable for baby (by steaming and pureeing), toddler (by mashing with a fork), teenager, and parent, is one that Jenifer Lang advises with caution, however, because of conflicting nutritional needs.
'But what do I feed her?' To resolve this conflict, Rena Coyle, in "Baby Let's Eat!," suggests that concessions be made to adapt (her word is "overhaul") the family diet. In her family they ate pastina (small pasta), cut out salt, and replaced some spices with herbs to accommodate the baby. That allowed her to cook one-dish dinners. How did Coyle land upon this approach? She recalls the day, nine years ago, when her pediatrician gave her the go-ahead to feed her daughter Kaitlin solid foods. "But what do I feed her?" she wondered. Like Lang, she's quick to point out that her professional background (as a baker, caterer, and food writer) had little bearing on her confidence. "The irony of it all was that both my husband and I were professional chefs, and it was like hearing the word 'food' for the first time," she says. Nonetheless, she dutifully scurried to the local grocery story where she stocked up on fresh fruits and vegetables. (Jarred foods have made great strides in recent years, she says, but she was turned off by their bland flavor at the time.) After days spent zealously steaming, pureeing, sorting, and freezing, she prepared a full-course meal for Kaitlin - who refused to eat more than a tablespoonful. Resolving to find a less exhausting way to feed her baby, Coyle re-thought her technique. Five years later, she published her discoveries in the book that today is considered a classic. "It seemed more normal than other books to me. It was a whole fresh approach; I still haven't seen anything like it," raves Gretchen Talbot of Glencoe, Ill., who bought Coyle's book when her youngest was born four years ago and has given the book to many expectant friends since. While she may find such praise flattering, Coyle insists that the premise of her book is far from revolutionary. "It's just going back to basics," she says. When a reader called to say that she was "startled" by the book's ingenuity, Coyle couldn't help laughing at the irony. "You know, your mother ate this way," she responded. "The ingredients may not have been thought of in the same manner, but they didn't have jarred baby foods, and the babies ate whatever the parents were eating." Coyle's colleagues, Martha and David Kimmel, blended their talents - David as a professional chef, and Martha as an early childhood development specialist and teacher. They launched a business making baby food soon after the birth of their first daughter Teddi in 1986, and more recently wrote "Mommy Made - and Daddy Too!"
Taste test for parents Their book opens with the bold-lettered heading, "Only the Best Will Do." Why is fresh best? Many reasons, they say - the first being its superior flavor. They urge readers to take their own taste test: "Compare a fresh, juicy Bartlett pear to a jar of baby pear puree," they write: "If the pears don't convince you which tastes better, then try the carrots or even the jarred, pureed meats with a shelf life of two years." To time-strapped parents who think they must opt for convenience over flavor, they say: not to worry. Three hours of steaming, pureeing, and sorting yields two weeks' worth of food for baby. The payoffs are big for this minimal investment, say the Kimmels. Among them, is a less finicky palate. "As parents, we develop children's palates. We train them," Martha says. "The earlier you introduce them to the smell, the touch, the feel, and taste of fresh food, the sooner they make the appreciation and the association that this is the way they want to eat." When Martha isn't in the kitchen or the classroom (she teaches a baby-food making course in New York), it's likely she's behind closed doors, counseling parents and families about the issues beyond ingredients, portion sizes, and grams of protein. "It starts with food, but other stuff comes out of that," she says, "stuff" like discussions of eating habits and disorders. She stresses the importance of family unity - an idea she sees as directly linked to harmony in the kitchen and as often neglected in today's harried households. What steps can families take to foster unity? "I encourage families to eat together," she says, pointing out the nurturing benefits of a shared mealtime. "Family time is so precious. Doing this gives a warmth to the home and support for the children."
Next week's Food page will appear Fri., Jan. 3.