I have touched on this topic with previous posts, but it remains an extremely common question that I get from parents whether home-cooked foods are better than ready-made meals.
Of course as a dietitian, I will always prefer home-cooked foods to ready-made meals, as this does not only allow for a lot of flexibility with meal variety, but also ensures that babies and toddlers are exposed to an environment where cooking occurs and where they eat the same as the rest of the family (minus salt and sugar). Role-modelling around food, meaning that a baby/toddler observes that the foods that he or she is eating is also being consumed by other family members is so important.
However, there are other reasons why I prefer home-cooked foods, which relate to the variation in texture and also the fact that home-cooked food is not sterile and therefore seems to have a positive impact on the gut microbiota (the bugs in the small and large bowel). Most of the baby foods come in 3 stages for texture, they come in pouches and the recipe of the meals remain exactly the same. Whereas home meals, even with the similar ingredients, often have slight variations in taste and texture. I frequently see children in my clinic, that will not eat home-cooked foods because its not as finely pureed as ready-made meals or they do not cope with the texture of stage 2 or 3 meals.
Lastly, there has been a worrying trend in ready-made foods for babies and toddler, with the addition of fruit into savoury meals. These are also often not spoon fed, but given to babies to suck on, because this is faster and cleaner. This is now starting be addressed internationally and the first position statement has been published in Germany against using excessive fruit in ready meals and I am hoping this will lead to also a position statement in the UK. Sweet is a primary taste that is well developed in babies because breastmilk and formula milk contains lactose which is sweet and signals energy. Babies and toddlers will prefer sweet flavours and by having savoury meals with sweet fruit in them, they do not learn to eat the more bitter tasting vegetables and savoury tasting legumes and meats. Also, babies need to learn to feed themselves and this is a messy process and should not occur through sucking a pouch, which is clean and they know how to suck, but need to learn to chew and take a spoon.
Of course, we all live in the real world and I know it is impossible for all parents to cook for their baby or toddler all the time and when you go on holiday, parents also need a break from cooking. So for me its finding the happy midway of doing some cooking at home (there are usually foods you cook for yourself that can be used for babies – minus sugar and salt) and complementing this with ready-meals as it suits your lifestyle. Have a look at the ingredients of the ready-made meals and avoid savoury meals with sweet fruit added to them and go for combinations of foods that your baby/toddler is likely to be exposed to at home as well. Vary the texture by adding vegetables or meats/legumes to the ready-made meals and also offer age appropriate finger foods. Most importantly, feed the ready-made meals with a spoon and avoid for your baby/ toddler suck their food from a pouch.