Are ready-made toddler foods unhealthy?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I buy lots of ready-made infant and toddler foods for my little one. A friend told me I should make my own foods for my son at home. Are ready-made toddler foods unhealthy?

DEAR READER:

Eating salty, sugary foods in childhood can set the stage for childhood obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Therefore, you might assume that foods created for infants and toddlers would be low in salt and sugar. But a recent study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that infant and toddler foods might be less healthy than you think.

Using a national database, researchers looked at the amounts of sodium and sugar in more than 1,000 infant and toddler foods sold across the United States. The foods included infant and toddler dinners, snacks, fruits, vegetables, dry cereals, juices and desserts.

The researchers found that:

  • Most foods made only for infants were low in sodium and sugar, and did not have added sugar. That’s the good news.
  • However, almost three out of four (72 percent) toddler dinners had too much salt. Most toddler foods also had added (extra) sugars. That’s the bad news.

Not surprisingly, most toddler desserts and juices contained added sugar. And snacks contained plenty of added sugar and salt.

The foods kids eat influence the tastes they like as adults. Eating less salt and sugar in early childhood can help set good habits that lead to better health later in life.

If you have the time and inclination, then by all means, make your own toddler foods. But you can also make sure your child eats healthy, nutritious foods by making good choices at the grocery store:

  • Check servings and calories. Don’t assume one package equals one serving. Look at how many calories are in each serving and give your child the proper serving size.
  • Buy foods low in sodium. Children ages 1 to 3 years should consume less than 1,500 mg of sodium each day.
  • Look for foods and drinks low in sugars. Sugars can be listed as sucrose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, maple syrup or fructose.
  • Cut out soda and juice. This will reduce empty calories from added sugars.
  • Give your child water and milk. Milk has a lot of nutrients that your child needs to stay healthy.
  • Make sure your lifestyle is healthy, as well. You’d be surprised by how much your child notices when watching you. Your child is more likely to eat healthfully if you do.

The good news about commercially produced foods for infants and toddlers is that manufacturers are required to tell you the contents of their foods on the Nutrition Facts label. Spend a little time examining those labels. You’ll be doing your child a big favor.