Parents making home-cooked meals often provide babies with too much fat and overall calories, while store-bought meals may not have enough of the fat children need to grow, according to a UK study.

Meals made at home also tend to be cheaper for parents of young children and to offer a larger variety of vegetables, the researchers write in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Because they are growing quickly, young children need more fat in their diets than adults, said lead author Sharon Carstairs, a public health researcher at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland

Carstairs noted, though, that too much fat in the diet can also be an issue. "We don't wish for our young children to continue high-fat diets into their later childhood and adult life as this is linked to health problems," she said by email.

Past research has found that commercial baby foods provide about as much nutrition as breast milk, but they lack variety in the types of food they include, Carstairs and her colleagues write.

The introduction of solid foods to infants at about 6 months of age is a critical time when babies will start to form food preferences and when they need the right amounts of energy and nutrients to grow, they write.

More on this...

To compare the quality of store-bought and home-cooked meals, the research team assessed 278 commercial meals sold in UK supermarkets and 408 recipes from best-selling cookbooks for young children. Among the store-bought meals, more than half were labeled as organic.

Researchers found that commercial meals were significantly more expensive than home-cooked meals, even when they estimated the cost of buying organic ingredients for cooking.

The greatest proportion of home recipes, 44 percent, were vegetable-based, followed by red meat-based meals, seafood-based meals and poultry-based meals.

Commercial meals were most likely to be red meat-based, with 35 percent featuring meat, followed by vegetable-, poultry- and seafood-based meals.

Store-bought meals had a greater variety of vegetables in each meal, but home-cooked recipes offered more types of vegetables overall.

On average, home-cooked meals often exceeded recommendations for calories and some nutrients, while commercial meals more often fell short on nutrition.

For instance, home-cooked food provided 50 percent more calories than prepared meals - with an average of 101 calories per 100 grams (3.5 oz)of food, compared with 67 calories per 100 g in commercial meals.

Home recipes contained more salt, carbohydrates and fat per meal than the prepared foods as well.

Nearly 30 percent of commercial products did not meet the minimum requirements for children's nutritional needs, while only 13 percent of home cooked meals fell short.

Just over half of home recipes went above the overall nutrient recommendations and 37 percent had more fat than recommended. In contrast, 52 percent of store-bought meals were below the recommended fat content.

It is important to consider that recipes from books may not represent what parents actually cook for children, cautioned Ada Garcia, a researcher and nutritionist at the University of Glasgow.

And even if store-bought foods contain a wide variety of vegetables, when they are in a processed form, children may not truly experience the taste of each individual vegetable, Garcia said in an interview.

"Texture is very, very important and that's one aspect that you normally lose with highly processed foods," said Garcia, who was not involved in the study.

"I understand that parents are struggling for time and that they need to find fast solutions, but they don't need to find over-complicated recipes to provide proper nutrition to children," Garcia said.

"At this stage in an infant and young child's life gaining exposure to a variety of tastes and textures is vitally important in their learning of food," Carstairs said.

"Parents should be aware of how they are cooking the foods for their child and look at how much high-fat ingredients are being used," Carstairs advised. "Parents who solely use commercial meals need to be aware that the dietary fats in these are lower than recommendations and also need to consider that different textures are important for the child."

SOURCE: bit.ly/2a0bAcm Archives of Disease in Childhood, online July 19, 2016.