The Baby Food Debate: The Benefits of Homemade Baby Food Over The Jars

Americans have long depended on jarred baby foods for convenient feeding. In the past few years more and more processed food options have entered the children's food market. The big brands have expanded into pre-packaged "toddler meals" and "school lunches" all in the name of helping busy parents who need things to be fast and convenient. Even for those parents with the best effort and intention, there may be times when you just can't make or safely pack your own food. One of my clients had served her eight-month-old homemade, organic baby food from his first bite. However while traveling with her son to England; she brought a few jars of food "just in case" she ran out of fresh items on the flight. Here are some tips for buying commercially jarred foods, when you're in a pinch.

? Opt for those with the most calories, meaning more food per unit weight.

? Look for jars of organic foods, without fillers.

? Check that the expiration date on the jar has not passed.

? Choose foods without chemicals and preservatives.

? If feeding your baby a vegetarian diet, look for the Vegetarian Society's "V" symbol on the jar or container, to be sure it is truly vegetarian.

Benefits of Homemade

Babies usually triple their weight during their first year. If they are what they eat, this is the most important time to give them the best. You may not be able to give your child fresh, homemade foods everyday, but here are the benefits for you and your child when you do make the effort.

More nutritious

Homemade food is more nutritious than commercially prepared baby foods because it retains more of the nutrients, especially vitamin A and B. This is because the food is less processed. The jarring process necessitates the use of very high heat under pressure. Much more than you can generate when cooking at home. Unfortunately, many vitamins are destroyed by heat.

Some of the baby food on the market has additives and thickening agents including cornstarch, flour, chemically modified starches or "tapioca" (corn syrup, starch). This means your baby is getting less fruit and vegetables and more "filler". Consumers are also getting less nutrition and value for your money.

More Control

By making your own food, you'll know exactly what your child is eating. You can monitor their diet, and know which vitamins and nutrients are lacking. A study by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002, reported that over 40% of children's calories come from fast and processed foods. Spend your time making your own food, rather than reading and de-coding labels on processed foods.

No Chemicals or Preservatives

Your food will not have anything added, that you didn't put there. You're not trying to preserve shelf life or disguise any of the ingredients in your food. Preservatives include partially hydrogenated oils or trans-fats, which are linked to diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Taste

While sometimes convenient, a big drawback of commercial baby food is that it bears little relation to the real food. Fresh, seasonal food just tastes better. You probably haven't eaten baby food since you were a baby ? because you don't want or have to. If feeding homemade baby food, your child will appreciate real foods from their first bite. These will be the flavors and food items that they will continue to enjoy as they grow. Jarred baby food is not available in every fruit and vegetable, nor is it seasonal. You may miss the opportunity to introduce fruit and vegetable options, which you want your baby to eat later with the rest of the family. Some children get used to bland, smooth, jarred foods and have difficulty being reintroduced to the same real foods and textures later.

Less Waste

Making food gives you control over quantity, taste, texture and expense. You will not have to throw away partially eaten jars of food. Instead you can cook what you know your baby will eat, prolong the life of your homemade food in the freezer, or eat your child's food yourself.

Create variety from a single, whole food item. When making baked sweet potatoes you can chose to puree some, cut pieces into soft chunks, and leave the rest whole. Because your homemade purees are made with whole foods, the leftovers can be made into soups, side dishes and sauces for the rest of the family. You may doubt that because you've never considered making a delicious soup from a jar of baby food. However many favorite cream soups get their start from humble, fresh purees.

Less Cost

The cost for making your own baby food is often less than buying commercially prepared baby foods, if you shop smart and cook in larger quantities. For instance a four ounce jar of baby food ranges in price from .60 - $1.20 each, depending on brand and place purchased. However when making your own baby food, and following our tips for creating convenience and buying in-season whole foods you can save on the price. I purchased enough apples for an apple puree for $2 at the farmer's market, and my recipe yielded 16 ounces, thus my cost is $.50 per four ounce serving.

Excerpt from The Petit Appetit Cookbook (Penguin March 2005) by Lisa Barnes.

Lisa Barnes is a cookbook author and the owner of Petit Appetit, a cooking service devoted to baby and toddlers. She teaches private and group cooking classes to parents in Northern California who want to provide their children with fresh, healthy, organic foods. Visit http://www.petitappetit.com for more information and to sign-up for free newsletters.

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