Countering the popular belief that meals cooked at home are healthier for kids, a new study claims that it is not always better than commercially available baby foods.
Often perceived as the best option, home-cooked meals are cheaper but they usually exceed energy density and dietary fat recommendations, researchers said.
It is recommended that the introduction of solid foods, known as weaning, begins 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.
The researchers from University of Aberdeen and University of Warwick in the UK wanted to assess how well homemade and commercially available readymade meals designed for infants and young children met age specific dietary recommendations.
They compared the nutrient content, price and food group variety of 278 readymade savoury meals, 174 of which were organic, and 408 home cooked meals, made using recipes from 55 bestselling cookbooks designed for the diets of infants and young children.
In terms of the food group content, 16% of the home cooked meals were poultry based compared with 27% of the readymade meals; around one in five (19%) were seafood based vs 7% of the readymade meals; a similar proportion (21%) were meat based compared with 35% of the commercial products; and almost half (44%) were vegetable based compared with around a third (31%) of the readymade meals.
Home cooked meals included a greater variety of vegetables than readymade meals, but commercial products contained a greater vegetable variety per meal, averaging three compared with two for home cooked recipes.
Home cooked meals also provided 26% more energy and 44% more protein and total fat, including saturated fat, than commercial products.
While almost two thirds (65%) of commercial products met dietary recommendations on energy density, only just over a third of home cooked meals did so, and over half (52%) exceeded the maximum range.
“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,” researchers said.
They highlight that the lower protein content of readymade meals might be due to the higher proportion of early stage meals on the market while predominantly vegetable based meals are recommended for first tastes.
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, researchers said.
The research was published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.