It’s not all mashed bananas. Well. Not if you’re lucky. You have to admit the average baby menu is pretty depressing. Especially now, as more young mothers consciously avoid packaged food. Take out the pretty boxes and jars, with their admittedly addictive contents, and you’re left with dal, ragi and squishy porridge.

Fortunately, Chennai’s popular Mallika Badrinath has got into the game, with her recent book, Infant Foods. As it turns out, all it needs is a little imagination (and a lot of know-how) to jazz up junior’s food. With a popular TV cookery show, 28 published recipe books and three grandchildren, Mallika’s put all her experience together to make mealtimes for babies more fun.

The book, a simple but earnest affair, begins with advice for parents, followed by solicitous information graphics, such as a box demonstrating what to feed the baby every month. In an attempt to make this as practical as possible for modern mothers, it includes pre mixes that can be made and stored in advance: rice flakes with roasted gram, puffed rice with peanuts, parboiled rice with green gram dal. Then come the march of millets: sprouted ragi, bajra and jowar.

That’s not all. She also explains how to make a range of nutritious porridges with carrot, sago and red rice porridge. Soups made of almond, pumpkins and local vegetables like the ubiquitous ‘chow chow’. And finally, at eight months, the solid food: red rice, dal and ragi rotis, pongal. She’s not forgotten how much babies love dessert: egg custard with mashed banana and oat-date kheer sweetened with jaggery.

Married at the age of 21, Mallika says she didn’t cook till she moved to Chennai with her husband. “We lived in a joint family in Salem before that. With my father’s four brothers and their families. Almost 25 people in all. So there was a cook, and he had an assistant,” she says, adding that she was, however, fascinated by recipes.

“There were no television cooking shows then. Everybody used to have their own recipes written in notebooks. I used to copy them by hand… No photostat then,” she laughs. By the time she was married she had ten notebooks filled with recipes from her grandmother, mother and aunts.

“I started cooking in Chennai, and after a while I found it difficult to look through all my books each time I wanted a specific recipe. So I finally decided to put all the gravies together in one book. When my husband saw me writing it, he said, ‘why don’t we publish this and give it to our friends’. They decided to print and sell it at cost price. “They were ten rupees each. And within three months I sold 1,000 copies of the book. This was in 1988, and people loved ‘hotel recipes’ then. Things like palak and butter paneer. Or vada curry. So those were the dishes I wrote about.”

She’s written one book a year since then. “All vegetarian. Except for one book I did on eggs. My father had a poultry farm. So although our joint family was vegetarian, we could cook eggs in the bed room. We had a small stove there.”

With more than 3,500 recipes, she decided it was time to dedicate a book to babies. “When my daughter-in-law had her first child, I realised how many people give their children ‘sathumavu’ here. It’s a traditional mix of healthy sprouted flour. So I went through my books, where I had taken down my grandmother’s recipes and it gave me more ideas.”

Her main focus has been on combining foods for maximum nutrition. “I made up a lot of the recipes, based on traditional principals. Cereals combine with pulses and legumes to give a perfect balance of protein and amino acids. You increase the value of flour by sprouting it. Then it must be roasted for good aroma and flavour. It’s an easily digestible form of protein, and the vitamin value increases tremendously.”

(Infant Foods is available in Chennai at book stores, and some department stores.)