Many parents wonder and ask me if it’s okay for them to feed their babies ready-made baby food from a jar, pouch or those newer frozen baby food ranges. Some parents find that their children don’t easily take to foods that they prepare at home. Parents go to all the effort of making a nutritious meal only for it to feel like it hit and miss with their child! Who has time for that scenario?! With a gazillion things to do, parents might then try to find more convenient ways to feed their child, hoping that it is nutritious and supportive of development. Many assume that it must be good. So, do these products provide children with everything they need for growth and development?
For many, pouch and frozen meals seems to go better as you get a quick and convenient food that kids usually find easier to eat because it’s either smooth, liquid or easy to chew, dissolvable, uniform and predictable. Kids like to stick to things that are familiar and safe. For many, these products become a go to when eating away from home or even for those days where a quick and easy meal is needed. For some, these products can become a staple.
To explore this topic, I’d like to start by acknowledging that most parents want the very best for their children and are doing the very best they can. Parenting is not easy!
What ready-made baby foods are out there?
Food products aimed at children tend to be labelled according to age from birth to preschool age. You have 4months +, 6 months+, 7months+, 8months+, 10months +, 12 months+, 1-3 years, and 1-4years. Products differ mainly on texture: smooth, puree, soft lumpy, lumpy, chunky or whole.
What are you trying to achieve at meal times?
A helpful question to ask, no matter what age or developmental stage, is: what are you trying to achieve when feeding your child?
Here are just two points (1) (of many) that are important:
- To create opportunities for your child to learn about food and how to eat it
- To provide a range of nutrients needed for growth and development at various ages/stages, such as energy and iron
Creating opportunities for your child to learn about food and how to eat it
Infants and toddlers
At the early stages introducing solids to babies is more about them becoming more familiar with foods rather than getting in volumes of food. The exploration begins. They need to look, touch, smell, listen and taste a variety of foods and textures. They need to work out how to use their oral muscles (e.g. tongue) to move food around and keep food inside their mouth. They watch their caregivers and copy what they see. This time is important as it encourages important jaw and muscle development and oro-motor skill to be able to move on to more complex foods, tastes and textures. There are critical milestones for feeding development (2) that allow children to progress through textures. Although children develop at their own pace, sometimes missed milestone may lead to delayed feeding development and ultimately a child that may be harder to feed.
In order for your baby to learn about food that your family eats, they need to be offered family foods most of the time.
Infants and toddlers will go through a range of experiences that will cause them to react in many ways. They may screw-up their face at a sour taste, open their eyes wide at sweet taste or spit out something that was too firm. These expressions are almost never an indication that the child did not like the food. It does mean that they are experiencing their food with all their senses.
During toddlerhood, children are still needing to go through lots of food exploration. This is when they extend their food experimentation, food knowledge & acceptance, and self-feeding skill & ability. You can read more on normal toddler behaviour here.
Infants and toddlers need to continue to gather more information about all foods. Parents’ jobs are to keep offering a range of foods and showing them how to eat it. They will get used to home cooked meals and eat them too!
Older children, can go through developmental changes that might result in them dropping foods out of their diet or perhaps taking to a food and requesting it on repeat. This is a time where it is important to continue to offer the range of family foods prepared, rather than only offering on the requested food all the time. Certainly, the child does need to be offered food that they will eat and so it is reasonable to offer their preferred foods along with the family meal.
Providing a range of nutrients needed for growth and development at various ages/stages
Nutrient needs change from around 6 months of age. Breast milk or formula alone may not provide sufficient energy and nutrients such as iron, needed for growth and development. And so, when introducing solids to babies it is important to prioritise the introduction of iron-rich foods amongst the variety of food introduced, to prevent iron deficiency.
Iron as an example…
I looked for iron-rich foods in the ingredients list of eight different baby pouch or frozen baby food brands labelled 6months+. They contained 6% – 12% of meat (6g-12g meat per 100g), which equates to about 0.56mg – 0.58mg of iron per 100g. That is about 5% at most of the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for Iron for infants through to children aged 8yrs (3,4). Some products contained lentils (a source of plant-based non-haem) however, it was listed towards the end of the ingredients list indicating that the amount used would be small and likely not a significant contribution to iron intake.
With preparing family meals at home, the proportions of the foods can be adjusted to suit your child’s nutritional needs. Instead you might add more red meat and lentils per serve. When you then factor in all the different meals you cook at home, you end up offering a great range of nutrients giving your little ones a greater chance at getting an adequate intake of nutrients. This is also true for children of any age.
So, how do ready-made baby food jar, pouch or frozen meals fit in?
I am a true believer that balance is the key. Using pouch foods and frozen meals on occasion would still allow your baby to learn about a range of foods you want them to learn about. It might just be the handy quick and easy meal a parent might reach out for when they’re on a road trip or time poor one evening.
For children to learn how to eat different foods, lots of different food TEXTURES and TASTES need to be offered. Issues with the acceptance of family food (5) may arise if there are too few family food experiences to learn from. Furthermore, reliance on pouch, jar and frozen meals for kids may result in delayed feeding development.
Ines Astudillo, paediatric dietitian
- Toomey, K. 2010. CRITICAL MOTOR & ORAL-MOTOR MILESTONES FOR FEEDING