A comparison of 278 readymade savory meals for young children sold at major supermarkets in the UK and 408 home cooked meals from best-selling cookbooks reveals the homemade options often exceed calorie and fat recommendations and contain fewer vegetables and more sugar than packaged options.
Specifically, the study, published July 19, found home cooked meals provide 26% more energy and 44% more total fat – including saturated fat – than commercial products.
The vast majority of energy in both options comes from carbohydrates, which on average was about 9 grams per 100 grams in homemade meals compared to 8.4 grams per 100 grams in CPGs. Energy from total fat and saturated fat was double in homemade meals than CPG at 4.4 versus 2.2 grams per 100 grams for total fat and 1.5 versus 0.6 grams per 100 for saturated fat in CPGs.
While the difference in the fat and energy content of the meals could play a role in childhood obesity, the researchers also warn that fat consumption for children is more complicated than for adults.
“Unlike adult recommendations which encourage reducing [energy density] and fats, it is important in infants that food is suitably [energy dense] in appropriate-sized meals to aid growth and development. Dietary fats contribute essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins together with energy and sensory qualities, thus are vital for the growing child,” they write.
Still, too much fat could be problematic and 50% of home-cooked recipes exceeded the recommended energy density range for meals, according to the study.
Home cooked meals also had higher average sugar and sodium amounts than those of CPG options, according to the study. It found salt in homemade meals averaged about 0.24 grams per 100 grams compared to 0.08 grams per 100 grams in meals prepared at home. Sugar also was slightly higher at 2.5 versus 2.2 grams per 100 grams of food.
Vegetable variety greater in individual CPG meals
Commercially available meals also tend to have more vegetable variety per meal, but less variety overall when compared to homemade meals, the study found.
On average, CPGs average three different types of vegetables per meal, compared to only two for home cooked recipes. But when looked at beyond individual meals, home cooking introduces children to a greater variety of vegetables overall than readymade meals with an average comparison of about 33 vegetables to 22, according to the study.
The same holds true for variety of meat and fish, as well, the study notes. It found that home-cooked recipes had a greater selection of red meat and seafood species compared with commercial meals, but they ultimately both fell short on options for seafood, which is a “concern when dietary recommendations encourage an increase in oil-rich fish consumption and limitation of red and processed meats,” the study authors said.
Homemade meals offer significant savings
While the nutritional difference between home cooked and pre-made meals may run counter to common beliefs, the study reinforced the notion that cooking food at home is less expensive than buying it ready-made.
Home cooked meals were around half the price of commercially available readymade meals, according to the study. But the authors cautioned that this difference shrinks when organic ingredients are used as they cost about 33% more.
In addition, they did not consider the cost of sugar and herbs in homemade recipes nor transportation – all of which also contribute to costs.