11/26/2013 01:28 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Educating an Eater

By Matt Heffernan

Originally published on Food Politic: Journal of Food News and Culture

When people find out that I've been working in food the first question that comes out is usually, "Are you a foodie?" My answer is always an uncomfortable, "no."

I don't like the word foodie. It puts food on a pedestal where it should be admired instead of eaten. Over my years working in food, but never in a kitchen, I have worked hard to avoid fetishizing food. I want to feel like an active participant and not a voyeur even if my contribution is through policy, and logistics, and cooking at home.

When those same people find out that I have a new baby daughter the next thing they always ask is, "but I'm sure you make your own baby food?"And there they have me, because I do. My wife and I put anything we can in a blender every weekend, and I love it. I may not want to be a food groupie but if I'm not careful I might end up raising one.

Of all the milestones in my daughter's life (and there have been a surprising number in nine months) I was most excited about her first solid food. She ate pureed prunes and the look on her face when she realized it wasn't milk was life changing. Her eyes lit up, and it opened a world of possibilities for me. I had been excited about sharing food with her. I wanted to teach her about my favorite foods and the traditions that I hold from my mother, and my Gran, but until that shocked look across the highchair I hadn't really considered how exciting it could be to explore food with her.

A lot of us don't remember our first watermelon or our first apple. We were too young when those foods became a part of our lives. Feeding my daughter has given me an opportunity to think through these experiences as an adult, and provide them for someone incredibly dear to me.

Watching her crunch through her first piece of watermelon, releasing that cold rush of juice, reminded me middle-aged men seeing the ocean for the first time. The texture and the taste were completely foreign and exciting. When she reached out for more I had to grab a chunk for myself, piggybacking on that new perspective, and now I get to have that same experience with pasta, and turnips, and olive oil, and chicken.

We try everything so she will be exposed to a variety of food and, honestly, because it's fun to discover what she likes. She makes it obvious. At first she did not like beets; tongue out, face scrunched, but she eventually came around. Her absolute favorite is bananas. She lunges against the high chair and jumps at the spoon to get more. I've always felt that most things taste better when they're fresh.

I think you can tell when the people who make it (cook it, grow it, process it, sell it) know what they are doing and enjoyed doing it. To be honest, I don't know how fresh the bananas are.  Besides starting somewhere in Honduras I don't really have any idea how they made it into my kitchen. But food has to be flexible, and when the baby will not eat the peaches that I made for her breakfast I am always grateful that she has found something she likes that can be mixed in.

The other thing I have learned to be flexible about is the prepackaged baby food she eats. It's good to have something that will last in the cupboard, and it is ten times more valuable to have something that can live forever in the car or in the diaper bag. We are lucky that she will eat anywhere and everywhere but it's not as easy to figure out what she should eat in those circumstances. We wanted to find baby food that was as much like real food as possible.

Our first thought was to go with the "organic" version. After a quick search through the super market we discovered that a lot of these foods had gelatin, choline bitartrate, and alpha tocopheryl acetate listed on the back. As long as there's an alternative I'd rather not start her on all of that just yet.

Organic doesn't say anything about what's added to your food, or any other way it's treated after harvest. I wasn't surprised to see this lesson applied to my daughter, but I did hold out some hope for more transparency when it comes to feeding a new eater. If we are putting together someone's first experiences with food there should be some responsibility involved to make the food as good as possible.

So far she has eaten at rest stops, in parks, at the fair, while driving on the Prospect Expressway, and we are just getting started. I have to remind myself to appreciate her openness and not to pass along some of my own habits that she doesn't need. I was raised to clean my plate, and I'm religious about it. I have been impressing mothers and wait staff across continents for years. My wife has to remind me that this doesn't have to apply to the baby as well. If she is done I don't need to push the last three spoonfuls of spinach and rice. Our pediatrician has made it very clear that we should feed her until she is done, and then she'll grow just fine.

It's been working. She is putting on pounds at a fantastic rate, but I still find it hard to shrug off my no food left behind policy. It's ingrained in me at this point along with every other food prejudice I've acquired over the years.

It's habits more than tastes that I really worry about now that we are developing our daughter's relationship with food. I want her to be healthy, but I don't want to instill any fear into her eating habits. I know that meat is a tricky subject. We don't eat a lot of it in our house. It usually adds substance and flavor, but as an addition not as the backbone of a meal. I struggle with the concept of communicating this to a growing little girl, because I never want her to be the person who goes to a burger joint and orders just a salad.

Eating should be an enjoyable and diverse experience. I don't want her to be afraid of red meat, or carbs, or bitter greens, or anything edible really. Most importantly, I want to set up a way for her to enjoy eating, and to be responsible while she does it. I'm worried that as she grows less eager to gobble everything down I won't be up to the challenge of helping her eat with an open mind.

I know what I want for my daughter's relationship with food. I want her foundations to be set in solid sense memories. She should have special occasions like little oily fish before Christmas, and rich, hearty brisket at Passover. She should have the everyday basics like the smell of sauce cooking down on Sunday, and where and why to buy the best dozen eggs. The more I consider setting up another person's outlook on food I see that responsibility looming larger and larger; a major component of raising a productive member of society. Now, I am left to accomplish something simple and complex armed with just bananas, and watermelon, and a food processor.