Does homemade baby food measure up?

Homemade meals specifically for infants and young children are not always better than baby food available in the store, new research suggests.

Although homemade meals are usually cheaper—unless made from organic ingredients—they often exceed energy density and dietary fat recommendations.

It’s recommended that the introduction of solid foods, known as weaning, begin when a child is six months old. It should include a variety of foods to provide a balanced diet rich in a broad range of nutrients.

“Unlike adult recommendations, which encourage reducing energy density and fats, it is important in infants that food is suitably energy-dense in appropriately sized meals to aid growth and development,” says researcher Debbi Marais, principal teaching fellow at Warwick Medical School at the University of Warwick.

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“Dietary fats contribute essential fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins together with energy and sensory qualities, thus are vital for the growing child, however excessive intakes may impact on childhood obesity and health,” says lead author Sharon Carstairs, of the Health Services Research Unit of the University of Aberdeen’s School of Medicine and Dentistry. The work appears in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Meals from the store and the kitchen

The researchers wanted to assess how well homemade and commercially available premade meals designed for infants and young children met age-specific national dietary recommendations.

They compared the nutrient content, price, and food group variety of 278 premade savory meals, 174 of which were organic, and 408 homemade meals, made using recipes from 55 bestselling cookbooks designed for the diets of infants and young children.

The pre-prepared meals were all available from major UK supermarkets, a leading pharmacy chain, and a major health and beauty chain.

  • In terms of the food group content, 16 percent of the home cooked meals were poultry-based compared with 27 percent of the premade meals;
  • around one in five (19 percent) were seafood-based versus 7 percent of the premade meals;
  • a similar proportion (21 percent) were meat-based compared with 35 percent of the commercial products;
  • and almost half (44 percent) were vegetable-based compared with around a third (31 percent) of the premade meals.

Home-cooked meals included a greater variety of vegetables (33 percent) than premade meals (22 percent), but commercial products contained a greater variety of vegetables per meal, averaging three compared with two for home-cooked recipes.

Homemade meals also provided 26 percent more energy and 44 percent more protein and total fat, including saturated fat, than commercial products.

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And while almost two thirds (65 percent) of commercial products aligned with dietary recommendations on energy density, only just over a third of home-cooked meals did so, and over half (52 percent) exceeded the maximum range.

But homemade meals were around half the price of commercially available readymade meals: $0.43/100 g compared with $0.90/100 g, excluding fuel costs.

Additional factors

The researchers highlight that the lower protein content of premade meals might be due to the higher proportion of early-stage meals on the market, as predominantly vegetable-based meals are recommended for first tastes.

Furthermore, parents may choose to vary the content of recipes, and there are likely to be natural variations in the nutritional content of raw ingredients, thus making direct comparisons harder to make.

Premade meals are a convenient alternative, they say, but suggest that any parent looking to provide their child with a varied diet should probably not rely solely on this source.

However, they state that the high proportion of red meat-based meals and recipes and low seafood meals are of concern when dietary recommendations encourage an increase in oil-rich fish consumption and limitation of red and processed meats.

Source: University of Warwick

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Source: Futurity