Researchers from the University of Warwick and University of Aberdeen analysed the nutrient content, price and food group variety of 278 ready-made savoury meals for babies and toddlers, sold in Asda, Tesco, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Lidl, Boots and Superdrug.
They then compared the nutrient content to 408 home-cooked meals, made using recipes from 55 ‘bestselling’ cookbooks designed for babies and toddlers.
Researchers concluded the home-cooked recipes contained “much higher levels of salt, double the protein, twice the levels of all fats, and almost treble the saturated fat”.
The research, published in the journal BMJ Archives of Disease in Childhood, stated that home-cooked food had 26% more calories than the ready meals on average and 44% more protein and total fat, including saturated fat.
Although home-cooked meals included a greater variety of vegetables (33) than ready meals (22), the ready meals contained a greater vegetable variety per meal, averaging three compared with two per meal.
The researchers, whose work was funded by the Scottish Government, said: “The majority of commercial meals met energy density recommendations and can provide a convenient alternative, which includes a greater vegetable variety per meal.
“Home-cooked recipes provided 6 to 77% more nutrients than commercial, however the majority of these recipes exceeded energy density and fat recommendations.”
However, the researchers warned they would not advise feeding babies and toddlers only ready meals.
“For parents concerned with providing a varied diet, if the parent relied solely on the commercial market then it is likely that the child would be exposed to a lower overall range of food types in terms of vegetables, meats and fish options,” they said.
Commenting on the study, Jenny Edelstein, a child nutritionist at Brain Food London told The Huffington Post UK: “These findings will come as an unwelcome surprise to the many parents who prepare food at home for their young children.
“It is generally assumed that home-cooked meals will be healthier than their supermarket equivalents, but this research highlights the need for parents to increase their awareness of nutritional guidelines when cooking at home.
“Parents should refrain from adding salt to their young children’s food and keep an eye on the fat content and overall calorific load.
“While dietary fats provide essential fatty acids which are vital to young children’s growth and development, it is important not to exceed recommended quantities as this can contribute to childhood obesity.
“Parents should not be discouraged from cooking at home, but should try to include more vegetables in each serving and keep fat and overall calorie levels within the recommended range for their child’s age group.”