Have you got baby product ideas that you know would go over big if you could just get them in stores? Or are there items you’ve searched for fruitlessly, wondering why no one has come up with them yet? When Leo was small, I was always dreaming up innovations that would make our lives easier. A friend and I invented an alter-ego named Ilse (it seemed like so many cool baby products were invented by a Scandinavian mom) and I was convinced “she” could get rich marketing my ‘napping visor’ (essentially a hat to put over your baby’s eyes so they stop staring at the fascinating world and just go to sleep—yes, I was kidding…mostly).
The other week, Melissa Gunning, a mom in Calgary, Canada, tweeted asking if she could send me samples of the product she invented: glass baby food containers she calls Wean Cubes. I don’t typically review products, and I don’t feed Leo purees anymore (except, of course, the homemade applesauce that he essentially lives on). But the cubes are super-cute so I figured I’d take a look, and Melissa Fed Exed a box.
The heavy-duty, square 4-ounce containers are perfect for snacks and tiny bits of leftovers, so we’ve instituted a policy of keeping Leo-friendly bites in them. He is delighted to be able to help himself to something from the fridge (have I mentioned that we’re big into toddler autonomy over here lately? As in “I want to get it myself! I want the whole one myself! I don’t want you to cut my apple/pour my milk/close my sandwich!”).
The other day while I was trying to make dinner I gave Leo a Wean Cube of applesauce, a spoon, and an empty Cube and he sat silently at the table transferring the sauce, playing with the colorful, kid-friendly lids and snacking for at least 20 minutes. I found myself marveling that Melissa turned her idea into a real—and adorable—product, so I called to learn more about her story. If you’ve ever considered becoming a mom-inventor, read on:
Over eight years ago, when Melissa Gunning started feeding her daughter solids, she made her own baby food, and froze it in plastic ice cube trays. “We always used glass for food storage, because it is the safest material and doesn’t leach chemicals into food. But the baby got the plastic,” she says. Something did not compute for this health-minded, eco-conscious mom.
When Melissa’s second daughter was born, six years later, she found tons of stylish, ecological choices for everything from diapers to crib sheets, but still, no glass containers that she could use for freezing and reheating baby food. So she switched to silicone trays, then started to research silicone, and still wasn’t satisfied that she was storing her baby’s first foods in the safest way she could. Sure, she could reuse glass baby food jars for her homemade food, but they don’t withstand the extremes of freezer-to-microwave that are a regular routine for people who make baby food at home.
So Melissa started calling companies that made other tempered glass products (tempering is the process that makes glass strong enough to withstand kitchen use—like Pyrex), to suggest that they make baby food containers. “They all thought I was some crazy eco lady,” she remembers. Melissa kept going, and eventually she found herself talking to a Canadian glass manufacturer who offered to help put her in touch with a company that would make her design for her. She pursued this, talking to engineers, glass factories…before she knew it, someone was asking her what her industrial designer thought. “What’s an industrial designer?” she asked. They helped her find one.
“Everyone put me in touch with the next person,” she remembers, and before she was through Melissa had spoken to hundreds of people, learning as she went. “I started out thinking I would have the jars made for personal use. Of course it would be expensive to do it that way, but I thought I’d get a couple thousand made, just a small run, and sell it to my friends.” This was the big plan until friends of friends started emailing. “I was getting something like 100 emails a week from moms saying how much they liked this idea. Then I got an email from a lady in Costa Rica. That’s when I knew somebody needed to manufacture these, so it became me,” Melissa, a former grade-school teacher, explains.
Wean Cubes were a reality by the time her younger “weaner,” as she likes to call her, was 8 months. There were set-backs, and at times Melissa considered abandoning the project, but her husband was a believer, and eventually she found the factory in China that could make glass up to her standards of safety (no lead and cadmium—even though the government allows low levels of these). Then she located a place in New York where the jars could be tempered well enough that she feels safe putting them in the hands of a 6 month old. She says they are just about the strongest glass you can find.
The lids, which have a silicone seal, are designed to be very leak-resistant, yet easy enough for kids to open and close. “We wanted them to have a lifespan beyond baby food,” she says. And in fact, she’s got a sandwich holder and a bento box in the works, as well as cookbooks (baby foods, then lunches) to accompany these products.
Meeting moms online and off, expanding into retail stores and selling Wean Cubes online has kept Melissa pretty busy. So far, she has not gone back to teaching. “I always say I am living someone else’s life,” Melissa muses. “I’m a great teacher, I’m great at crafts [try her modeling dough], and it’s so funny that I’m up at 3 am on a conference call to China, speaking to 25 people in a board room on speaker phone. I’m not used to working with adults. It’s definitely different.”
When I asked Melissa if she had advice for other would-be inventors, she said “Talk to other moms. They’ll know if it’s a product that will sell. Talk to your friends and baby groups. Don’t go right to a big company, since they won’t have the time for you.” And, she said, feel free to email her through the Wean Cube website (weangreen.com). “I’m very open to answer questions. If you want to get started, it’s important to have somebody tell you you’ve got a good idea.”
Modeling Dough (recipe by Melissa Gunning of weangreen.com)
1 cup organic flour
1/2 cup salt
2 Tablespoons cream of tartar
1 cup water
Food coloring (optional)
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1. Combine water and oil in a small bowl.
2. Mix flour, salt and cream of tartar in a large saucepan.
3. Slowly add the water oil combo into the saucepan with the flour mixture.
4. Cook over medium heat stirring constantly for 5 minutes. It becomes pretty difficult to stir as it begins to thicken. (I counted it as my workout for the day!)
5. Remove and allow it to cool.
6. Knead until nice and smooth.
7. I added some coloring into it because I felt colorful that day. Today, I may not have added color.
8. PLAY WITH IT!!! Oh, and let the kids test it out:)
9. Store in Wean Cubes!
Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer and cookbook editor and co-author of The Flexitarian Table. Food Editor and blogger for The Faster Times, she tries not to eat for two now that her son is a toddler.