If you’re stressing over whether to feed your infant homemade or store-bought baby food, here’s some good news: Dietitians say there’s no major nutritional difference between the two options — with some caveats.
The real debate comes down to your family’s lifestyle.
“Either way will work,” said Nancy Farrell, a registered dietitian nutritionist in the Washington, D.C., area and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s your personal preference and time and what you feel comfortable with, what you want as the parent.”
There are pros and cons to both routes. Perhaps the biggest reason people go the way of commercial baby food is convenience, Farrell said.
“Many of us are on the run these days,” she said.
A study by researchers in the U.K. found both provide good nutrition. Commercial meals tended to provide more vegetable variety, while homemade foods were less expensive, but were more likely than commercial meals to exceed calorie and fat recommendations for infants. The study, published July 2016 in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, compared 278 commercial baby foods to 408 baby food recipes people can make at home.
While adults are often advised to limit their calorie or fat intake, infants are growing rapidly, and thus tend to need more food. There is an upper limit, however: Too much can put them at risk for obesity later on, the study’s authors wrote.
Farrell generally said infants need about 45 calories per pound — far more than adults, who require about 18 calories per pound.
“It’s just because their energy needs are so great,” she said. “They’re growing and developing. Cells are multiplying. Brain development.”
Store-bought baby food can be nutritious and safe, but it’s important to read the ingredients before piling jars into your cart. Choose baby foods that list only one ingredient, Farrell said. She cited the example of a jar that listed only green beans and water.
It’s also important to make sure they don’t have added salt, sugar or seasonings, Farrell said. Additionally, it’s wise to avoid fillers like food starch and tapioca, as well as honey or corn syrup for kids younger than one year.
Manufacturers tend to be aware of the no-seasoning rule, so Farrell said she doesn’t think people will have trouble finding single-ingredient products at the grocery store.
Commercial baby foods are labeled by certain stages for different ages, which correspond with different textures as babies get older, said Abby Douglas, a registered dietitian with Synergy Health and Wellness in Bend.
Douglas recommended going for organic baby foods if families can shoulder the extra expense, as those foods tend to have fewer additives and preservatives and less salt and added sugar. Farrell, however, doesn’t see a benefit in buying organic baby food. She said it’s more important to check out the ingredient list to ensure there is only one ingredient.
A fact sheet from Central Oregon Pediatric Associates recommends starting with one new single food ingredient every three days and be on the lookout for potential allergic reactions, such as vomiting, diarrhea or rash.
Infants should not be given cow’s milk, soy milk, goat’s milk, unpasteurized milk or rice milk before their first birthday, according to the fact sheet. That’s because those products don’t provide the necessary nutrients, and it’s difficult for infants’ bodies to digest them. Cottage cheese, pasteurized cheese and yogurt can be introduced around 8 to 9 months of age.
When it comes to adding vegetables, Central Oregon Pediatric Associates recommends starting with sweet and mild varieties such as sweet potato, winter squash, carrots, avocado and green beans. Then add spinach, cauliflower, broccoli and sweet red or yellow peppers. Spinach, beets, turnips and carrots prepared at home should not be fed to infants younger than 6 months because they could contain nitrates.
Mild, noncitrus fruits like pureed peach, pear, apricot or apples are a good start, according to Central Oregon Pediatric Associates’ fact sheet, followed by pureed blueberries, strawberries and melon.
If you’re making your own food, dietitians recommend steaming vegetables and fruits rather than boiling them — it preserves more nutrients. If the baby is old enough, softer foods like a ripe banana or a cooked potato can be mashed up with a fork. Sometimes adding water, breast milk or formula to the foods can make them easier to eat. Otherwise, it’s best to use a food processor or blender, Douglas said. And don’t think you have to buy a fancy baby food blender — the one you already have in your cupboard will work just fine.
“A lot of moms get sucked into feeling like they need specific tools which might make it more expensive,” she said.
Farrell advises against adding any salt, sugar or other seasonings to homemade baby food. The former two can cause infants to develop preferences that could linger to preschool age. That could set the parent up for food battles later on.
Another concern with salt is it could lead to water retention and dehydration.
“An infant can’t necessarily tell you, ‘I’m thirsty,’” Farrell said. “They’re just going to cry a lot and moms have to figure that out a little bit.”
Safety is one of Douglas’ biggest concerns when it comes to homemade baby food. Once the food is prepped, cooked and blended, it shouldn’t sit at room temperature for more than two hours. If it has any red meat, poultry or fish in it, it can only stay in the refrigerator for 24 hours before it goes into the freezer or gets eaten. Fruits and vegetables can stay in the fridge for two or three days before going into the freezer. Once foods are in the freezer, they can stay there for two months, she said.
“Babies’ immune systems aren’t fully developed yet, so you just need to be pretty careful with that,” Douglas said.
It’s also important to wash your hands, equipment and foods prior to cooking, avoid cross-contamination by using different cutting boards and utensils and cook protein thoroughly, Farrell said. She also warns against “double dipping.” Always remove the portion of the food the baby will eat from a container and place it into its own container. This is because the baby’s saliva can cause the food to spoil, she said. Baby food can be stored in small freezer containers, placed into ice cube trays and covered or and in airtight freezer bags.
While you don’t want to introduce too many foods at once, it’s also important to expose your child to a variety of different foods before they turn 2 years old to decrease the chances they’ll develop neophobia, an aversion to anything new or unfamiliar, Farrell said. It can take up to 20 exposures to a food before a child accepts it, so it’s always a good idea to reintroduce foods, perhaps in a different preparation: cold instead of hot or steamed instead of baked, for example.
Douglas commonly hears from parents the concern that if they’re not feeding their infants homemade baby food, they’re not getting all the necessary nutrients.
“I wouldn’t say that’s the case,” she said. “If there’s a day when you’re out of your homemade baby food and you don’t have time to make more, there is nothing wrong with going and getting store-bought food. It is nutritious and good for the baby.”•