Store bought vs. fresh – what’s right for your baby?

If you don’t have the time to make your own home made food for your baby is it fine if you buy shop bought, ready to heat food? Or are you doing your baby a disservice? Angelique Ruzicka investigates.

If you decide to make your own nutritious food for your baby there’s a lot of work involved. Yes you can make food in bulk but it still means you have to cook it, puree it and then force the food into ice cube trays and find space in the freezer.

Making your own baby food is cumbersome and you never really get the time to do it. By the time the baby is asleep all you can think about is relaxing, cooking your own dinner and catching up on your TV programmes while you still have some peace and quiet.

Store bought, ready to heat foods are easy, hassle free and mean a busy mom (like me) doesn’t have to slave over a hot stove cooking a week’s worth of food. They offer variety in an instant (as there’s usually a selection of flavours) and it means there’s no fight in getting solidly frozen home-made food out of ice trays and being in a flat panic when you forget to defrost food in the fridge overnight. But are we doing our children a disservice for choosing the easy quick fix that is store bought jar food?

According to Megan Bosman, nutritional therapist at Simply Nutrition, no food bought in a jar will ever be as nutritious as fresh, home-made foods. “It is especially important to try and limit your baby’s exposure to chemicals and preservatives often found in bottled baby foods,” she explains.

Kath Megaw, a clinical paediatric dietician of Nutripaeds, says parents who prefer homemade baby food have many reasons for their choice. “They know exactly what they’re feeding their baby. It’s more economical than buying pre-packaged foods (although some parents note that this is not always the case).

But there are plenty of advantages to making your own food. Megaw points out that making food at home gets the baby used to eating the same food as the rest of the family – just in puree form. “They can choose their own fruits, vegetables, and other foods for purees, instead of relying on the flavours chosen by manufacturers. You’re not going to find melons or avocados in the baby food section of the supermarket.”

Bosman concedes that, in reality, some parents don’t always have the time to prepare fresh food every day, but adds: “I recommend that you make a big pot of food once a week and then store it in separate containers in the freezer. All you need to do is take it out each day and warm it up. Go organic, there are some lovely baby food options which are organic.”
What’s best for baby?
Bosman hones in on the importance of fresh, organic foods wherever possible. “Avoid food chemicals such as artificial colourants, flavourants and preservatives,” she says.
And if you are pressed for time she advises planning meals ahead of time. “Choosing food for your child in a rush often leaves you making bad choices. Stick to a regular eating pattern, children love routine. Try to have eating times at the same time each day,” she recommends.
What does the research say?
In 2003, the World Health Organisation published research entitled ‘Guiding Principles for Complementary Feeding of the Breastfed Child’. Today this document is still widely quoted. Here are some important tips from WHO’s document:

  • Breastfeeding is best: Mothers should practice exclusive breastfeeding from birth to six months of age and introduce complementary foods at six months of age (180 days) while continuing to breastfeed. Exclusive breastfeeding confers several benefits on the infant and the mother, including a protective effect against infant gastrointestinal infections and there’s also some evidence that motor development is enhanced by exclusive breastfeeding – however, the report does concede that more research is needed to confirm this.
  • Make sure your baby is getting enough: The energy needs of complementary foods for infants with “average” breast milk intake in developing countries are approximately 200kcal per day at six to eight months of age, 300 kcal per day at 9-11 months of age and 550 kcal per day at 12-23 months of age. In industrialised countries these estimates differ to 130 for six to eight months, 310 for 9-11 months and 580 kcal for 12-23 months because in the differences in average breast milk intake. But WHO warns not to be overly prescriptive with these amounts and points out that each child is different.
  • Growing up: By eight months most infants can also eat finger foods (snacks that can be eaten by children alone). By 12 months, most children can eat the same types of foods as consumed by the rest of the family. Avoid foods that may cause choking such as nuts, grapes and raw carrots.
  • Avoid sugary drinks: Dairy products are a good source of some nutrients, such as calcium, but do not provide sufficient iron unless they are fortified. Sugary drinks such as soda should be avoided because they contribute little other than energy and thereby decrease the child’s appetite for more nutritious foods.