Baby's first foods

Homemade vs. jarred baby food

Choosing between jarred and homemade baby food

When my son was 4 months old, he was diagnosed with a serious milk-protein allergy. I was faced with a decision I had not read about in any baby book. Do I make his baby food or buy prepared food from the store? For me, the answer was to make all his food.

As I spent the next 8 months making his food (and later his baby brother’s, I discovered a host of advantages that far outweighed the extra work. Since the food you feed your baby is literally the building blocks of his growing body, isn’t it worth considering the pros and cons, and then making an informed choice?

As I learned, there are numerous advantages to making your own food. Some can be verified only by an expert, others are learned through the day-in, day-out experience of mothering.

Save time and money

Judy Dodd, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND, a nutrition education consultant with the University of Pittsburgh, says the main advantage is clearly peace of mind. “You are able to use food and ingredients you can trust, with minimal processing for better nutrient value,” she says.  

Once a child is ready for more advanced meals, you’re able to use the same foods you are feeding the rest of the family, saving time and money. Dodd also points out, “you can prepare any amount, and not be limited to opening a standard size serving, determined by a baby food company.” Wonderful advice, in this age of overeating.

Lisa Sharda, MA, RD, LDN, IBCLC, a clinical pediatric dietitian at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, notes that homemade food provides more fiber, has no preservatives, and in general has a higher nutrient composition than jarred food, since there is less processing involved.

“It’s also easier to transition to table foods due to stronger tastes. Jarred foods tend to be bland in flavor,” says Sharda.

I personally found it easy to transition my sons to “regular” food, since I kept feeding them the same items, just not as mushy. From early on, they acquired a taste for the foods we still have nightly.

READ MORE: How to make your own baby food

You control the ingredients

Preparing your own baby food is an excellent way to get control if your child has any restrictions on their diet. It’s also a wonderful way to teach your kids to appreciate the true taste of plain old fruits and veggies. Jorj Morgan, author of “At Home in the Kitchen - The Art of Preparingthe Foods You Love to Eat!”, underscores the advantage of being able to control the quality of the ingredients. “You, the mom, are choosing the best looking apple, the ripest banana, the leanest meat and poultry,” she says. “You also control any added sugar and salt.” She feels this technique can introduce your child to a “life-long habit of good food choices.” 

A matter of taste

For some, the number one reason to consider switching to homemade baby food is taste. Pure and simple, homemade food tastes better than anything in a jar. It also exposes your child to the variety nature has to offer. Applesauce can, and should, taste 10 different ways, depending on the apples selected. Try finding that variety in the grocery store. 

Heidi DeCosmo, Executive Assistant, R & D Chef at Morrison, offers an expert opinion on taste. She feels strongly about feeding her baby the freshest, most flavorful and healthiest foods possible. She chooses to make her own baby food since she prefers to use organic fruits and vegetables, and wants to clearly know what her son is eating.

“I would not feed my baby anything that I wouldn’t eat. I don’t know if you have tasted jarred baby food, but they don’t taste good!” says DeCosmo. She has chosen to make her son’s food as a way of instilling an appreciation for fresh vegetables, which she hopes will pay off as he gets older. She finds making baby food much cheaper than buying it, and she, like me, has found it to be a most enjoyable endeavor.

Time-honored tradition

There’s also an emotional component to food that is hard to deny. I feel a kinship to all mothers that have gone before me, when I enjoy the satisfaction that comes from watching my sons “clean their plates.”

Preparing food for your little one can be a fulfilling experience for everyone. It’s a great time to prop your baby in their bouncy chair, and begin telling them about the veggies you’re working on — how they grow, how they taste. It’s also a wonderful example to older siblings who have discovered sugar-coated breakfast cereals, as they see you make a fuss over a perfectly blended yam.

READ MORE: Don't outsource your baby food

Potential hazards

The obvious drawback is time. Clearly it is faster to grab a few jars while you’re at the store. Another consideration, as Morgan points out, is that “commercial food may in fact have additives that benefit the baby. However, I believe that a good, balanced diet will provide everything that the baby will require.”

Gerber cereals are fortified with iron and zinc, which are important for young babies. Their toddler foods include calcium, iron and zinc for older babies.

Cathie Squatrito, former director of medical marketing for Gerber Products, notes other potential drawbacks to preparing your own baby food. “The main risks involved in making your own baby food are food safety issues, like making sure you wash your hands and the fruits and vegetables thoroughly.

“Make sure that meats and poultry are fully cooked before pureeing or cutting them into small pieces, and that the texture you use is appropriate for your child’s age.”

Nutritionist Judy Dodd adds that cleanliness extends to all surfaces used in preparation, how the food is handled and even stored. She also warns against using leftovers from the family’s meal. “Food used for the baby should be cooked, processed and served (or cooled) immediately. It should not taken from the table after the meal. Textures also need to be appropriate for the child’s developmental age,” notes Dodd.

As I learned, getting just the right amount of lumps takes a bit of practice. Dodd concedes “commercial baby food is easier, travels better, and provides standardization of texture and quality control. But it is not better.” Especially as a child gets older, using more table food becomes an easier and less expensive choice. It also introduces the older infant to lumps, textures and varying flavors.

Making baby food doesn’t have to be a complicated process. I found it was thoroughly enjoyable, saved money, and in the end it was less work than I had imagined.

What’s best for you?

So, what is the best choice? Morgan advises that while she “strongly believes the benefits of preparing homemade food far outweigh the convenience of purchasing store-bought meals, the ultimate decision should be what is right for your individual baby and lifestyle.”

Dodd says, “Plan some meals that you can make into appropriate food for the baby, but use commercial food when time, travel or an inexperienced baby sitter has to do the feeding!”

READ MORE: Does introducing solid foods lead to allergies?

Squatrito stresses that the important thing is to introduce children to a wide variety of healthy foods during the first two years. “Research has shown that a child’s food preferences do not change significantly between the ages of two to three years, and age eight, making it very important that children be introduced to a wide variety of healthy foods when they are under the age of two.” Combining store bought with homemade would offer a tremendous variety to your little one.

There’s an incredibly small window in which we can care for our children in this way. Soon enough the world will push cheeseburgers, and food that is unnaturally blue, on them at every occasion.

The foundation of a house can only be poured once, but if you do it right, once is enough. And so it is with nutrition. As parents we can only lay the foundation, keep the sides from falling in as the house ages, and then hope it can withstand what the weather, or life, has to offer.

As Morgan points out, “establishing the foundation of teaching your child to eat and enjoy great quality food as a baby will ground him when other food choices compete for his palate.” If only all of life was that simple.

Linda Kastiel Kozlowski is a freelance writer and mother of two boys