Homemade meals for babies are not necessarily better than store-bought meals.
Starting a baby on solid foods or weaning a baby can be a confusing time for parents with the plethora of differing opinions on the Internet and from family members.
Although the introduction of solids is a major step in a child's development and can be fun for the child to explore new flavors and textures, how do parents know that their child is getting the right nutrients?
A new study published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood aims to help parents make the choice between homemade versus pre-made infant foods. The team set out to assess whether commercially available ready-made meals that are designed for young children met age-specific national dietary recommendations.
The researchers investigated the nutritional content, price, and food variety of commercial pre-prepared infant and young child feeding (IYCF) meals in the United Kingdom and compared them with home-cooked recipes obtained from cookbooks.
Home-cooked meals had greater variety of vegetables
In 2015, the U.K. market offered 278 commercial savory main meals for young children from eight manufacturers. Six of the manufacturers and 174 of the meals were organic.
A total of 4,438 recipes from 55 cookbooks targeted at feeding the under-5s were selected from libraries and Amazon United Kingdom's top 20 best-selling IYCF cookbooks. A sample of 408 recipes was randomly included in the study that fell within the categorized food types of poultry, seafood, red meat, and vegetable.
Analysis on food types showed that when compared with commercial meals, home-cooked meals were:
- 16 percent poultry-based (commercial 27 percent)
- 19 percent seafood-based (commercial 7 percent)
- 21 percent red meat-based (commercial 35 percent)
- 44 percent vegetable-based recipes (commercial 31 percent).
Across all the meals, home-cooked recipes included a greater variety of vegetables than store-bought meals. Carrots featured highly in the commercial meals, whereas onions were the predominant vegetable in home-cooked meals.
Although the sampled home-cooked meals as a whole included a greater variety of vegetables, commercial products contained a greater vegetable variety of three vegetables per meal, compared with the two in home-cooked recipes.
Most home-cooked recipes exceeded energy and fat recommendations
Home-cooked recipes provided 26 percent more energy and 44 percent more protein and total fat content than the ready-made meals.
The researchers found that while the majority of store-bought products - 65 percent - met energy density (ED) recommendations, 50 percent of home-cooked meals exceeded the maximum range.
Home-cooked meals were significantly lower in average cost - £0.33/100 grams ($0.43/100 g), compared with £0.68/100 grams ($0.90/100 g) for commercial meals.
"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," the researchers emphasize, adding:
"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."
Commercial meals contained a lower level of protein, which, the researchers point out, may be due to the high quantity of early-stage meals and thus a larger number of vegetable-based meals for first tastes on the market.
They also mention that the cost implications of adding protein-based ingredients may be higher, so the manufacturers use less of them.
High proportion of red meat-based commercial meals
The authors write, "If the parent relied solely on the commercial market then it is likely that the child would be exposed to a lower overall range of food types in terms of vegetables, meats and fish options."
The findings indicate that a mix of commercial products combined with home-cooked recipes may provide a child with a varied diet.
However, parents need to observe a level of caution with commercial pre-prepared foods.
Although commercial foods present a convenient alternative, there are a high proportion of red meat-based products and a low proportion of seafood-based products on the market, which conflicts with dietary recommendations of increasing oil-rich fish consumption and reducing intake of red and processed meats.
"The majority of commercial meals met ED recommendations and can provide a convenient alternative which includes a greater vegetable variety per meal," the team says.
"Home-cooked recipes provided 6-77 percent more nutrients than commercial. However, the majority of these recipes exceeded ED and fat recommendations," they conclude.