Baby’s First Food(s) – Bones!
Ok, so the title of this may be a little deceptive, because I’m not actually talking about giving your baby straight up bones as their first food(s) but rather two bone derived foods – broth and whipped marrow.
It may seem odd to start a baby out with these foods as in the US we often think of fruit and veggies as being the “ideal” first foods (hopefully everyone has now gotten the memo that rice and pretty much all baby cereals are definitely to be avoided). The truth is that “first foods” for babies are very cultural and have little basis in the consideration of nutrition or what we know of the eating habits of wild humans.
When you take these things into consideration, it makes a lot of sense to start babies with the bone derived foods broth and marrow.
Let’s start with the anthropology.
There is a very compelling argument that when our ancestors were on the cusp of “becoming human” they were scavengers, often picking at the remains of a kill left by much more skilled big game hunters. But while we might not have been skilled at hunting big game (yet) we did have opposable thumbs, which made us skilled in activities that other animals couldn’t do, like using “tools.” One way that we put this to good use was to find a way to get at some pretty nutrient dense foods that the primary hunter would have left behind, namely bone marrow and brain. By using something like a rock to smash open the hard casing (the bone), our ancestors were able to get at the fatty goodness inside.
Bone marrow and brain are very energy dense and it is thought that access to such energy dense foods was a large part of why we were able to grow such large and energy taxing brains – when compared to other animals the human brain uses a greater percentage of energy.
Given that bone marrow was one of the foods that allowed for our large brain growth, it makes good sense to include it in your child’s diet during the time of the greatest development in their brains. It may not be necessary for an adult to eat a diet super high in fat, but I think it makes a lot of sense to feed the first “brain” boosting high fat foods to a baby who is rapidly growing grey matter.
Now let’s take a look at the nutritional aspect of things.
Since first foods are meant to compliment breastmilk, not replace it, it’s a good idea to look at which nutrients a baby starts to need in higher quantities than breastmilk alone can provide. Iron and zinc are often named as the two nutrients that baby starts to need more of, but protein (or rather specific amino acids that make up protein) is also in the mix.
I am currently working on a large research heavy piece about iron needs in infants. There is a lot of confusing and conflicting information around this topic and I’m hoping to provide some clarity. But before I can get that information out, I’m going to stick to the current recommendations to start babe with iron rich foods.
Keeping in mind that we don’t eat nutrients but rather foods, picking foods that include bioavailable forms of the nutrients that baby needs a little more of is a good way to select first foods. These foods are generally going to be animal based foods.
I’m not going to pretend that we have a lot of information on the nutrient analysis of bone marrow and bone broth. But we do know a few things and can make some educated guesses about other components. Marrow is a rich source of fat and a good source of protein; given that there is blood in marrow it is generally said to be a good source of iron and zinc; it is also believed to be source of vitamin K2. Bone broth is a rich source of protein and collagen; it is also believed to contain a good amount of minerals.
The composition of bone broth has been promoted in recent years to help “seal the gut.” Again, the research around this is very very limited BUT that is actually true of a lot of nutrition research. The components of broth are the same as those needed to replace and repair the gut lining, helping to “seal” it. Babies have “open” guts for the first several months of life. This is a good thing in the beginning but around 6 months of age a baby’s gut “seals.” The gut sealing is an important step in the maturation of the gut and the ability to safely digest food. If the gut isn’t sealed when food is introduced, components of the food can enter the blood stream and potentially lead to health issues and food allergies.
What is an “open” gut? The cells of the gut lining (namely the intestines) are not tightly bound together when babies are first born. This allows for certain components (namely immunological components) to enter the baby’s blood stream more rapidly. As babies age their guts “seal” and the cells are bound together by “tight joints.” This prevents large components in the gut from entering the blood stream directly. At this point all elements have to go through a cell before they can get to the blood. The cells act as gate keepers and re-packagers so that the components that reach the blood are in the proper form. If the gut does not seal properly or becomes unsealed later in life (this is called a “leaky gut”), large components that should not directly enter the blood stream are able to and this can cause all kinds of issues.
Beyond the anthropology and the nutrition, there are other factors that make broth and marrow great first foods. Babies are really good at swallowing liquid which makes broth a good first “food” and the whipped marrow has a texture like butter so it stays on a spoon well and pretty much melts in the mouth so there is little concern over baby gagging.
I like to offer broth in a small open glass (I love these from Ikea – perfect for little hands and very inexpensive just in case they break). An open glass is better for oral development than a sippy cup or even a bottle and it challenges the baby to master a new skill. It also allows the baby to control how much liquid they get more than a sippy cup or bottle. Yes, you still have to help baby hold the glass and tip it a little, just watch baby and let him/her take the lead.
To offer the marrow, you can either offer a little bit on a finger or scoop a little on a spoon and allow baby to bring the spoon to his/her mouth, which again gives baby a little more control. As baby gets older and you are starting to introduce different foods you can use the marrow in place of butter on things like sweet potatoes.
The final great thing about starting baby on marrow and broth is that utilizes whole animal eating and very little goes to waste, plus you save money by using the same bones twice.
Roasted and Whipped Bone Marrow
2-4 lbs of center cut long bones
Heat the oven to 425.
Place the bones on a pan, marrow side up.
Roast the bones for 25-35 minutes - you’re looking to render the fat and the marrow to start pulling away from the bones.
Let the bones cool until able to handle.
Scoop the marrow into a bowl, make sure to pour the rendered fat into the bowl too; save the bones to make broth (see below).
Place the bowl in the fridge to firm up.
Once firm, use the whisk attachment on your mixer and whip away.
Store in the fridge for several weeks or in the freezer for a few months.
Isn’t it so pretty?
Whipped Bone Marrow
2-4 lbs of bones*
* you can use: the bones from the marrow above; knuckles are especially good for broth; whole chicken carcasses; chicken feet
If you buy marrow bones, roast them first and remove the marrow (see above). You can skip this step, but the roasting creates a deeper flavor and if you don’t remove the marrow you’ll make a for pretty fatty broth which is a pain in the butt to strain.
Place the bones in a pot (I use a crock pot because I make my broth over more than 24 hrs and I don’t like having the stove on all that time, but you can definitely still do it on the stove.)
Cover the bones well with water, can even be a finger or two above the bones.
In the crock pot cook on high for 12 hrs and then on low for 12 hrs; if in a pot on the stove, you want to make sure the heat is high enough that it’s simmering.
After 24 hrs, skim the top of fat and floating bits as best you can. At this point I assess the state of my broth and what I do next depends on what I happen to have on hand and what I want to use my broth for.
If I just want a plan broth, then I won’t add anything and I’ll assess my broth based on how much it has reduced. I usually look for the liquid to have reduced by half and I want it to have a rich color (what color that is exactly depends on the type of bones used). If the broth is reduced and has a nice color, I’ll strain it and store. If not, I’ll keep it simmering until it does.
If I want to add a little more depth of flavor and some nutrient bonuses, I’ll add any or all of the following:
Egg shells (helps add minerals, namely calcium)
Leafy greens like kale, collards, beet greens (helps add magnesium)
Allow the bone broth to keep cooking with the added ingredients for about 3 hrs on low, keeping an eye on how much the broth is reducing.
Once the broth is done, strain EVERYTHING out of it.
Pour it into containers and refrigerate or freeze. You can store it in the fridge for a few weeks and in the freezer for months.