Friday, 10 August 2012

Frugal Friday (10th August)

Every so often, when I have the oven on because I am doing some baking for the family, I mix up a few muffins for our birds to enjoy.  They are special "birdie" muffins, made with extra ingredients such as egg shell, fruits and veggies, that they will benefit from nutritionally.   It is much easier to get them to eat these wholesome goodies if they are in the form of a muffin - especially a warm one, and they freeze well too, so I don't have to make them very often.

One of the ingredients that I put in these muffins is a jar of pureed baby food - something like sweet potato and carrot, or apple and apricot.  The reason I use the jar rather than the actual veggies is that this way, I can add just the right amount to my muffins without having to go to the trouble and expense of buying the ingredients separately, preparing and cooking them, just for such a tiny quantity. 

Well, I was making some muffins for the birds this afternoon, and when I was adding the baby food, it struck me that the reason I was using it rather than preparing the ingredients from scratch, was really in truth, the exact same reason why people buy and use baby food in jars rather than making it themselves, for their human babies!  It's just more convenient.

If you have - or like us, have had - children, then you will know that what you decide to feed your children is a raging controversy.  People seem to feel very strongly about the whole baby feeding issue - from birth onwards.   Everyone has their own view - some people think that baby food in jars is as bad as junk food - processed gloop - and others are glad to have an option to feed their baby something which is not only quick and easy, but in their opinon, just as nutritious as home made food.  Some of the arguments I use to hear were that the manufactured food was tasteless, full of preservatives, colouring, sugar and salt (all of which aren't good for babies) and that they were very expensive.  Home prepared food, conversely, is much better, I was told, becuase it has exactly what you've chosen to put into it and no more.  It's much cheaper too, because you can simply prepare a separate portion of whatever the rest of the family is having for your child, instead of having to buy separate foods.  And because it is exactly what everyone else is having, then your child will grow up to be less faddy than a child who has learned about flavours and textures from the food in jars.

I will be honest here.  When Papa Bear and I were new parents, we didn't worry very much about what to feed our children.  We just assumed they would eat what we did, when they were ready.   The guidance about solid feeding for babies was different when Little Bear and Cubby were tiny, to the guidance that exists now.  And we tended to follow the example of our families.  I didn't really prepare separate food for our children - right from the start.  I didn't puree or blend anything either.  I just picked out the bits of our meals that were suitable for them, mashed them with a fork, added a little milk and fed them as they were.  We didn't even use separate equipment - just a saucer and a teaspoon.  They had "finger foods" like bits of toast or slices of apple, and yes, if we were out and we had fish and chips or ice cream, our babies shared it too.  This is how we grew up, and it doesn't seem to have done them any harm.   But could we have done it better?  Would it have been better to prepare separate foods, or buy them ready made, so that we knew exactly what they were getting?

One of the main considerations for us, should we have chosen either of these options, would have been cost.  When we were new parents, as for many families, we didn't have much money to spare.  We had a food budget, and out of that our babies' food had to come too.  Buying special meals for our children wasn't an option.  But would it have worked out much more expensive?  And if so, would the extra cost have been worth it?  Would our children have been getting better nutrition, if we'd bought jars of baby food - or if we'd been using organic, freshly prepared fruits and veggies?  Let's have a look - using today's prices, of course!

A jar of Cow & Gate's "Creamy Carrot And Potato" first food costs 60 pence and contains carrot, potato, cooking water and ground rice.  It can be warmed in a microwave, therefore using only a tiny amount of power (we didn't own a microwave so I recall that instead we used a bowl of hot water in which the food container would be stood until it was the right temperature - this entailed having to boil a kettle, so would have cost us slightly more).  It is ready to feed and any left overs that weren't fed to the baby, as long as they were not in the receptacle that the baby was fed from, can be kept for 24 hours in the fridge.

To create the same dish at home, using the same ingredients, would involve a potato (approximately 50 pence for one large one), a carrot (about 5 pence for one carrot), hot water and the ground rice (which costs 98 pence a box).  I am not sure why this last would be needed, other than to thicken the food, but if you are making it yourself you would simply add less water, so it wouldn't be necessary.  For the sake of proper comparison, we will say that we did use it, and that we used a tablespoonful - about 1/20th of the box, or another 5 pence.  So the initial cost of the ingredients is the same as the jar - 60 pence.

But - you are getting a lot more food for your money!  One big potato, one carrot and a tablespoon of ground rice, will probably yield at least twice as much food as you get in the one jar.  It will be fresher, and will have more nutrients because it hasn't been heat-treated like the jar of food to make it sterile (so that it has a long shelf-life - the shelf-life of the jarred food can be as long as 18 months).  This is even if you don't use organic veggies which of course will have even more bonuses health-wise, but be more expensive.

There's no competition when it comes to cost, but we do need to factor in the expense of cooking the home-made food.  To boil a pan of water for the veggies for 15 minutes probably costs about 20 pence - but again, you could boil many times the amount of veggies than that found in the jar, which will bring this cost down. 

It isn't necessarily less convenient, either, because if you do prepare a big amount of food in one go, you can then divide it into smaller containers and freeze it.  Some people use ice cube trays, and just use as many as their baby will eat in one meal.  This way although there's a little more work to start with, thereafter it is no more trouble than opening a jar and warming it up.  And it's better for the environment too - no glass jar to dispose of either!

Some of the other arguments for using home cooked food over manufactured are that of course you can choose from just about anything you like, rather than be limited by the choices offered by the baby food companies.  That being said, there are restrictions that you do need to consider - the baby food that is sold in stores is strictly regulated for levels of toxins and is balanced to ensure the right level of the good things, too.  And if you serve things like a lasagne made with a ready-made meat sauce and lots of cheese, this isn't necessarily an awful lot better than a meal straight from a jar, because the ready-made sauce could have just as many additives and preservatives in it as the baby food in a jar, but not be regulated in the same way, as it isn't manufactured to the same restrictions.

It's a difficult choice - and as a parent myself, I can't say that I think there is one right way to feed your children.  Other than that, as long as you are providing the best that you can for your babies, then you are definitely doing a good enough job!  We all start out as new mommies wanting the very best for our children - and that is just how it should be.  But we quickly learn that actually, being good enough, is all we need to be!  The odd jar of food won't hurt anyone - but preparing your own food can be fun too, and sharing a meal that the whole family can eat, as we found, is the best way to enjoy each other's company - no matter how fancy the food is!

Now with that in mind, I just might try to make my next batch of birdie muffins right from scratch.  I'd better make sure I label them clearly in the freezer though!