As we look at foods for babies and children around the world, one staple is grain porridges or farinas. Today in the US, we often purchase boxed baby rice or oatmeal cereal to do this, but there are many other ways if we look around the world and into the past. Homemade hot cereal is admittedly a bit trickier to manage since you have to whisk to avoid lumps and monitor liquids to avoid over-thickening. Additionally, it has a different, more viscous, texture than pre-cooked flaked cereal and will firm up when cool. But it is cheap, easy, and very adaptable.
Basically, any flour can be made into a porridge. I already discussed ragi cereal (finger millet) but here are a few others.
If we look to America’s past, Hasty Pudding, Indian Pudding, or Corn Meal Mush, were common for both babies and adults. Sarah Josepha Hale offers a recipe for it in her chapter on children’s food in The Ladies’ New Book of Cookery, 1852. Similar to grits or polenta, these are names for a hot cereal made from corn. To make Hasty pudding, mix some corn meal (whole grain corn bread mix also works) with milk (soy milk or almond milk also work great) and put onto the stove. Don’t use too much cornmeal as it will expand considerably. Whisk in more milk and allow the mixture to slowly heat. Continue whisking as the mixture thickens and add more milk as necessary. After 5 minutes or so of cooking, add a bit of molasses. Any cereal that is not eaten can be poured into a small dish, refrigerated, and, when cool, sliced and fried in a pan.
Here is an ad encouraging children during WWI to eat cornmeal mush or oatmeal cereal instead of wheat, due to shortages.
Cream of Wheat
Another popular cereal from the United States is Cream of Wheat. I remember eating this as a child and enjoying it sprinkled with sugar. This is basically the same thing as cornmeal mush but made from wheat. I would not recommend using plain wheat flour, however, but rather wheat farina.
In West Africa, a popular cereal for children is Cassava, which is a staple food in many parts of Africa. A processed, fermented cereal called Gari is mixed with milk and sometimes sugar and eaten as a snack.
There is a category of cereal that we don’t really have in the US, which is a product like Cerelac. I believe many of these products actually pre-date formula, and represented early attempts to fight infant mortality. In France in the late 19th century and early twentieth century, growth rates hit a disturbing low, while infant mortality was increasing. This was partly due to the decrease in rates of breastfeeding without a suitable alternative. By 1905, authorities were working hard to decrease infant mortality, and one way of doing this was through the development of scientifically-sound baby cereals.
These are milk and grain-based porridges to which you add water or milk, and which I believe are introduced during weaning as a replacement for formula. Perhaps they are not widely available in the US because the recommendations here are to continue with formula until 1 year. I have purchased Cerelac (Banana flavor) and my son likes it mixed in with his cereal occasionally. I would not, however, use it as a replacement for formula.
I also hear about a Swedish product called Valling, that I suspect is similar to Cerelac. A Swedish friend of mine is going to tell us about Valling in a future post, but it is apparently considered a staple infant food in Sweden.
In China, children and adults eat congee, a rice porridge that is made by boiling a small amount of rice in a large amount of water. Like cassava porridge and ragi, congee has also traditionally been eaten by the poor to help the increase their calories and feel full. I think basic congee with white rice must be exceptionally bland, so I recommend trying a couple additions, which are also traditional. Put 1/4 cup of rice, one diced sweet potato, and one slice of ginger in about 1 liter of water. Boil, stirring occasionally, until everything is very soft.
I’m sure this is only a small sampling of the many things one can do with cooked grains!