Is feeding your baby from a jar always a bad thing?
In an ideal world we'd make baby food from scratch but the reality is that parents often reach for a jar of something shop-bought. And is that always a bad thing? Arlene Harris reports
From the moment our babies are born, we mothers are perpetually wracked with guilt - are we holding them properly, are they getting enough sleep, is the air fresh enough for them? And so the anxious questioning of our abilities goes on until our tiny tots are well into adulthood.
But a new piece of research should gladden parents' hearts everywhere because there can't be many around who haven't turned to shop-bought baby food as a means of nourishing their growing children.
Sure, some would, ideally, only ever use homemade, but you can be guaranteed at some time or other they have guiltily fed their baby from a jar when realising that their homemade organic purée was languishing in the fridge, while they were miles from home.
However, according to the Universities of Aberdeen and Warwick, those who feed their babies with (good quality) shop-bought food need not hide the evidence anymore as the results of their recent comparison has shown that not only can the bought variety be as good as its homemade counterpart, in some cases it has proven to be actually better - providing more nutrition and less additives for growing babies.
Comparing the price, nutrient content and food group variety of 278 ready-made meals (most of which were organic) and 408 meals cooked at home using recipe books for babies and young children, researchers found a greater variety of vegetables in the shop-bought meals and worryingly found almost treble the level of saturated fat and salt in some home-cooked alternatives.
However, the study overall concluded that most homemade meals contained a very broad range of healthy ingredients and were of a very high nutrition value, but the study served to show parents that shop-bought meals should not be ruled out as they provide a very 'convenient alternative'.
Derval Petit is a first-time mum to Sean (7 months). Living in Dublin with her French husband, Laurent, the life and business coach agrees and says she regularly switches between home and shop varieties as, having studied the labels, she realised that many of the ready-made varieties were indeed high in nutritional content.
"When I first started Sean on solids, I didn't give him anything other than homemade," she admits. "But there came a time when, for practical reasons, I had to buy some food and I realised that a lot of the products out there are very good. I checked all the labelling and could see exactly what was added (and also what wasn't) and decided that I would have to trust that the manufacturers were telling the truth."
Her young son is thriving and Derval believes he has a very good diet, which she puts down to variety.
"When I realised that the organic baby food out there was as nutritious as what I was preparing at home, I decided to go with a combination of both," she says. "I purée lots of different fruits for him and make lots of homemade meals, but I also give him pre-prepared meals, which are often more adventurous than what I could cook and I believe that this is helping him to develop his palate and learn to try different foods.
"I did fret the first time I gave him shop-bought food - but as I said to my mum, the companies have done the research and wouldn't be able to claim their products were healthy if they weren't. Studies like this one reduce the guilt and make life that bit easier."
Laura Haugh of mummypages.ie says many mothers in their online community use a combination of homemade and shop-bought baby food.
"Introducing your baby to solid food can be a daunting process and many of our MummyPages mums tend to combine off-the-shelf baby food solutions with some of their own home-cooking and this is down to leading busy lives or not having the confidence to create a recipe which has all the major food groups their baby should be getting."
But director of Safefood, Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, says parents should concentrate on providing homemade food and only use ready-made occasionally.
"Ready-made meals should be the exception ideally and use of recipes and advice from reputable non-commercial sources is the way to go," she advises. "Then by using a freezer and a bit of planning, busy lives can be made a bit easier.
"So, while ready-made shop-bought baby foods can be useful when travelling or eating away from home, try not to rely on these foods every day. When you do need to use them, choose savoury meals rather than desserts or puddings as these can be high in sugar. And it is important for parents to check the levels of sugar, fat (saturated fat) and salt."
Dr Foley Nolan believes the report from Aberdeen and Warwick Universities does not actually condemn homemade food but in fact points the finger of blame on recipe books designed for babies - so she would encourage parents to continue making their own food but to ensure they are including all the important food groups.
"The UK report doesn't actually compare ready-made meals with home-cooked baby food," she says. "The researchers compare 408 home cooked meals, made using recipes from 55 cookbooks for babies and toddlers. While this may be a useful resource to some, it has not established what percentage of parents use these cookbooks or how often they would cook these recipes. We could conclude that this study questions the value of baby recipe books and not of homemade foods.
"Also, the report actually states that home-cooked meals had a greater variety of nutrients, in all, and were more likely to include fish. So parents can be in control of the foods that they cook for their children by ensuring they access reliable resources to guide them in the weaning and feeding process."
• It's best to start on bland foods such as baby rice.
• The food should be of a runny consistency.
• Remember your baby has been used to just drinking milk up to that point so it will take time for baby to get used to the concept of food.
• Puréed root vegetables such as carrot and parsnip are also popular with babies as are puréed cooked fruits such as apple and pear.