Healthy Kids: Homemade Meals Not Always Best

A little girl eats a meal.
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Parents who prepare homemade baby food and meals for their toddlers can not only save money, but may also provide their kids with more nutrients, a new study suggested.

The study, led by researchers in Scotland, found that home-cooked foods made based on recipes in cookbooks for infants and preschoolers provided up to 77 percent more nutrients than similar foods that were commercially prepared. The findings were published today (July 19) in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

However, the study also suggested that meals made from scratch were not necessarily better for babies and toddlers than store-bought counterparts: The data showed that the majority of cookbook recipes contained more calories and fat than are recommended for children ages 4 months to 4 years. [10 Ways to Promote Kids’ Healthy Eating Habits]  

The findings indicate that "home-cooked recipes from infant and toddler cookbooks are a cheaper meal option and contain greater nutrient levels, such as protein, compared with commercially available infant and toddler meals," said study researcher Sharon Carstairs, a doctoral candidate in nutrition at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Although the analysis was based on store-bought meals purchased in the United Kingdom, Carstairs said that similar findings may be found for commercial products in other Western countries.

About 50 percent of the home-cooked recipes evaluated in the study exceeded calorie recommendations for young children in the United Kingdom, containing about 51 percent more calories than recommended, on average. And 37 percent of the recipes exceeded dietary fat recommendations, Carstairs said. This could potentially set the stage for kids to consume too much dietary fat and calories from an early age, which could affect their health and their risk of obesity, the researchers said.

In comparison, 65 percent of the ready-made meals analyzed by the researchers met calorie recommendations. However, these foods provided less dietary fat than young children need for growth and development, and also had a lower than recommended protein content, Carstairs said.

In the study, the researchers evaluated how the cost, nutritional content and food variety of 278 baby and toddler foods sold in supermarkets and retail stores in the United Kingdom stacked up against 408 recipes for comparable baby- and toddler-friendly meals found in best-selling cookbooks. [7 Baby Myths Debunked]

The researchers based their cost estimates for the homemade meals on grocery store prices for nonorganic foods, but noted that families who prefer to use organic ingredients would pay about one-third more to make these meals. However, preparing recipes from scratch with organic ingredients would still be less expensive than the average cost of buying comparable commercial products, the investigators said.

Tips for mealtimes

One of the weaknesses of the study is that researchers do not know how closely parents followed the recipes in the cookbooks they selected, and whether the parents made changes to the ingredients used, which would alter the nutrient composition of the meals, Carstairs told Live Science. 

Making meals from scratch is more economical for families and typically offers higher nutrient content, but the study found homemade meals fell short in the variety of vegetables used. Home-cooked meals included, on average, two vegetables per meal, whereas store-bought products included three vegetables per meal on average. [6 Easy Ways to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables]

Commercially prepared baby and toddler foods can be a time-saving and convenient alternative to cooking. But many of these meals have a smooth texture, so parents may need to introduce their young children to foods with more varied textures to broaden the youngsters' eating experiences, Carstairs said.

Parents can take steps to make up for some of the excess fat and calories and lack of vegetable variety seen in home-cooked meals, she said. Specifically, parents may want to provide more vegetables with family meals and cut back on some of the high-fat ingredients in recipes, to help reduce the overall fat and calorie content in these dishes to meet dietary guidelines, Carstairs said.

Offering younger children low-fat snacks and finger foods can also help balance out their daily diet, Carstairs suggested.

Original article on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.