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Modern baby foods are commonly made using various strengths of blender, but what was used before then? I assume something like a potato masher, but that would only work for a few foods. So what was predominately used for baby food in the past?

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    It's worth noting that the idea of making food specifically for babies is a relatively new one. Mothers are biologically well suited to feeding very young babies and the blended food is really a stop-gap between milk and solid food. It's not strictly necessary for the baby's survival. – AJFaraday Jan 4 at 11:50
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    I'm surprised by the premise of this question. None of my kids had blended food, be it home-made or purchased. – Martin Argerami Jan 4 at 20:27
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    I'm pretty sure that babies do not eat modern blenders. – copper.hat Jan 7 at 18:08
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    @copper.hat But what about each other? – Ian Kemp Jan 7 at 18:14
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Many babies were indeed fed mashed food, typically of cooked vegetables and fruits. While it's true that not all foods can be prepared like this, keep in mind that pre-modern families rarely have access to the kind of dietary diversity as modern developed economies anyway. So this was likely not a realistic concern for most.

Nonetheless, there is a variety of other historical baby foods. A common method of preparation is to soften food with liquid. For example, since antiquity European babies have been fed bread soaked in honey water, milk, soup, or even wine. Other, probably more familiar examples include what's basically oatmeal or porridge.

At around six months the child would begin a mixed diet of breast milk and cereal [that has been] soaked in milk or hydromel, soup or eggs. At six months the doctors ordered that the child should be given sweet wine or wine sweetened with honey, or water . . . or else bread soaked in wine.

Rousselle, Aline. "The Bodies of Children", in Porneia: on Desire and the Body in Antiquity. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013.

Likewise, in Asia, infants and toddler were - and continues to widely be - fed congee. This dish is cooked simply by boiling rice in too much water, and has been prepared since time immemorial. No blender or other advanced kitchen appliances required.

One of the first meals fed to a baby is “congee", a broth and rice mixture of the consistency of oatmeal. This dish is usually prepared with meat, fish, or vegetables, but foods other than rice might be removed and not served to the child.

Morris, Heather M., et al. "Cultural brokering in community health." The Canadian Nurse 95.6 (1999): 28.

Finally, there's pre-chewed food. Humans actually come equipped with a kind low powered biological blenders: their own teeth, with which most foods can be rendered viably pureed for feeding babies.

Another acceptable method suitable for meat was for the parents or wet nurse to pre-chew some food and then feed it to baby with their fingers. One text describes the individual servings of pre-chewed food as being morsels the size of an acorn.

Newman, Paul B. Growing up in the Middle Ages. McFarland, 2007.

Premastication has been documented throughout human history and likely dates from the depths of prehistory - it is even observed in our biological cousins such as the orangutans.

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    @JanusBahsJacquet Historically, there would have been various different strengths of wine - such as a"normal drinking" wine, and a "party wine" - because the important aspect was that the alcohol and the process of making wine would kill off bacteria, making it safer to drink than plain water. Especially for a baby with a weaker immune system than an adult – Chronocidal Jan 4 at 12:54
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Wine was a luxury, but it also wasn't. There are varying grades of wine. The reason historically many people mixed wine with honey or mulled it with spices is because their wine was usually really bad, cheap stuff. So while there were fine luxury wine for the upper class, there were also simple, rubbish wine (e.g. from the last pressing) for the peasants. The Venetian Republic, in fact, provided shipyard workers with free wine daily - sort of like a medieval watercooler. – Semaphore Jan 4 at 13:53
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    @JanusBahsJacquet you have to consider location: in Northern Europe small beer was a common mildly alcoholic and reasonably clean drink (and had some nutritional value) but grapes are less efficient/reliable than barley. In warmer climates grapes grow better, and we might expect something like piquette to be used instead. – Chris H Jan 4 at 15:46
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    Turns out I make congee all the time. Just not on purpose... – corsiKa Jan 6 at 3:04
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    @Fermiparadox Context is important. Not dying of starvation is preferable to a small chance of being poisoned. Infant mortality rates used to be quite high in the past (of course, depending on time, location, population pressure, availability of food...). Honey is a significant risk to modern human infants in western societies, because infants in modern western societies don't tend to die all that often. – Luaan Jan 7 at 9:13
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Mother's milk, overlapping with more solid food, was typically a major part of a baby's diet for much longer than we now think of in many western countries, where starting weaning at a few months and completing within another few months has become common in the last few decades, and breastfeeding is by no means guaranteed. Susbstitutes for breastmilk weren't as good or as readily available as now until the 20th century.

Babies develop physically very rapidly around the time they're ready to start weaning, so from around 6 months they can start getting some nutrition from properly solid foods rather than mash, especially if milk is still available. If however you're trying to replace milk with other foods from 4 months, babies will struggle with even soft solids.

The modern version of this is called baby-led weaning, essentially providing foods that the baby can eat with their fingers (this is actually becoming increasingly recommended by health authorities . Raw fruit and veg cut into grabbable pieces, stewed veg/meat, even bread (though that's rather salty). None of these are new - in fact some of them are among the earliest foods known to humans. Of course other primate species don't have blenders and wean onto things like ripe fruit (see First molar eruption, weaning, and life history in living wild chimpanzees, TM Smith et al.)

Further interesting reading:

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    Anecdotal example: my daughter started on solids by grabbing cucumber off her mother's plate – Chris H Jan 4 at 10:25
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    Just to add. We did baby lead weaning. The kids were breast feed for a long time but at 6 month they were given normal food to taste. No need to spoon feed them. – the_lotus Jan 4 at 13:08
  • @the_lotus similar here. We just reduced the (already small) amount of salt in our food as developing kidneys can't handle much, and gave her what we ate – Chris H Jan 4 at 13:28
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    I came here to add this answer but you obviously beat me to it. Still, to add the personal anecdotes. I've got 4 kids (and a fifth on the way) and other than the first child, none of them ate baby food or mashed food. We breast feed much longer than the norm around here, and usually exclusively breast feed for at least 6 months. We introduce our kids to solid foods as they show interest, and there are plenty of "adult" foods around that a baby can eat (or at least gnaw on) without issue. – conman Jan 7 at 13:35
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    So in our house the answer to that question is simple and (for us) very intentional: What do babies eat? Our babies eat whatever we happen to be eating that day. – conman Jan 7 at 13:36
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Methods for making fruit and vegetable purees existed long before the modern electric blender.

A mechanical food mill is usable on most cooked fruits and vegetables with very good results. I don't know about early historical times, but these things were very typical throughout the 20th century in locales where blenders were not common, for example in Eastern Europe.

Food mill

Mothers would also use a special kind of grater, with four star-like pips on each hole, to create a slightly rough puree from either raw or cooked plants.

Pureeing grater

Then there are also meat grinders, also a post-industrial-revolution tool, but quite good at making a mash-like substance out of many foods.

meat grinder

Simple mashing also works remarkably well for many fruits and vegetables, especially when cooked. For that, you can use a levered press.
spätzlepresse

A more affordable and broadly represented instrument is the simple masher you already mentioned.

potato masher

And to make it very simple, there is always the humble fork. A star chef might turn their nose up at a mashed puree full of 3 mm pieces, a baby would swallow.

fork

And if you are looking for truly ancient tools, a mortar and pestle have been used for tasks like flour making thousands of years before mills were invented. They are not only usable with raw grains, but with most other foods, and are the preferred preparation method for many traditional recipes, even outside of baby food.

mortar and pestle

Of course, all of these tools require a much longer preparation time than using a blender. But spending that kind of time on food preparation was the norm, and people just did it.

I cannot give you data on which society used which tool in what proportion, or what was the actual ratio of using pureed foods versus foods which are soft for other reasons. But as you see, humans have always been able to puree food, independently of electric appliances.


Also, an aside which is not really related to history: if you want to puree a food nowadays, be it for a baby or for some other purpose, some of these tools are still superior to a blender, which is very sensitive about the liquid-to-solid ratio. You also have the choice of further modern tools such as food processors, slow juicers, and electric mill/grinders.

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    Love the list - own all of those still... but you missed the obvious... a knife & fork ;) I grew up in the 60's in the UK. My childhood contains memories of things being chopped up for you &/or squished with a regular fork. No-one in the UK had blenders back then, they didn't gain popularity really until this century, being considered "new-fangled, American" things. – Tetsujin Jan 5 at 12:14
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    @Tetsujin thank you for mentioning it, I now extended the list with mashing implements, including the fork. – rumtscho Jan 5 at 13:27
  • @Tetsujin And of course, this is made even easier when you consider that vegetables in medieval times used to be cooked for a very long time (a good idea when you're using human waste for fertilization, especially without proper composting) - try cooking something like carrots for eight hours; they're already pretty much a puree :) – Luaan Jan 7 at 9:17
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Vegetables, fruits can be pureed. Meat is very easy to grind, or cooked meat can be chopped fine pieces. Carbohydrate sources like noodles, potatoes or rice are generally very easy to cook to a soft mash. Blender is not a must, even nowadays.

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Usually mashed food usually vegetables and fruits. I've personally seen babies being fed mashed potatoes and mashed banana.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    I actually have 0 doubt this is correct. However we generally want more than just the poster's say-so that historical statements of fact are valid. – T.E.D. Jan 4 at 13:40
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    @T.E.D. While this is a historical question, due to the fact that 99% around the planet know and apply these "ancient techniques", I think we can relax on "pic or didn't happen" stance. – Greg Jan 5 at 8:00
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    @Greg - Perhaps, but that also means references ought to be trivially easy to dig up (as was done in higher rated answers). Trying to gently prod a new contributor here towards an answer that will net them a better score. – T.E.D. Jan 5 at 16:12
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    @Greg - I can't really argue against that. However, as a diamond mod I don't get to participate in close votes, so that one's not really my place to say. Even if it were my place to say, the comments of an answer would not be the place to say it. – T.E.D. Jan 5 at 21:35
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    @Chan-HoSuh - I mostly service mod flags, and try to give advice where it might be helpful. This answer got the post notice due to being flagged by a user, and then the advice because it seemed needed. If you're curious why our users flagged this and not another question, I suppose you could try asking them on meta. – T.E.D. Jan 7 at 2:45

protected by T.E.D. Jan 4 at 17:50

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