Updated on 10.10.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Baby Food

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Calista writes in: Does making your own baby food purees save pennies or dollars?

As always, it depends on the source of the food you use to make the puree. If you’re using excess produce from your garden, it’s going to be cheaper, of course.

However, where Calista raises an interesting point is with fresh fruits and vegetables that you can buy at a very low price at the grocery store. How do you decide when it’s worth it to make it yourself versus simply buying those convenient Gerber baby food containers?

I’ll use bananas as an example. I can frequently buy bananas at my local grocery store for $0.49 a pound – and, often, they’re on sale for less than that. If I peel out a pound of bananas, I’m left with about eleven ounces of fruit, based on my weighings on my kitchen scale. To this, I would add roughly five ounces of water, milk, or formula to create a smooth texture, then puree it in a blender. After that, I’ll have to individually package it in some method, usually by filling up an ice cube tray with the puree and freezing it. Boom – a pound of “banana baby food” for about $0.50.

On the other hand, I can buy a 3.5 ounce tub of pureed bananas from Gerber for $0.57 per container (16 containers for $9.13). A pound of these containers would be about the same as four and a half of these containers, or $2.28.

In other words, I’m saving about $1.78 per pound of bananas that I turn into baby food. This requires the time to peel a few bananas, put them in the blender, add some liquid, hit the puree button, then pour the liquid into the ice cube tray and pop it in the freezer. That’s about five minutes of work for a pound of baby banana puree.

So, in the case of straight-up bananas, you’re saving dollars and not cents making the baby food yourself.

So, what’s the cutoff for value? I’d be willing to make my own baby food if I were saving about $8 per hour. I would estimate that I could convert a pound of raw foods (like bananas) into baby food in about five minutes, and a pound of food I’d have to cook (like broccoli) into baby food in about ten minutes. Thus, I’d have to spend an hour to convert twelve pounds of raw food into baby food or six pounds of cooked food into baby food.

It costs roughly $2.28 to buy a pound of processed baby food, or $13.68 for six pounds of processed baby food or $27.36 for twelve pounds of processed baby food.

To make cooked baby food worthwhile, I’d have to find a source of the food at $5.68 ($13.68 minus $8) for six pounds of the food, or about $0.95 per pound for the raw food. So, if you can find, say, broccoli at $0.95 a pound or less, it’s probably worth your time to turn it into cooked baby food.

To make raw baby food worthwhile, I’d have to find a source of the food at $19.36 ($27.36 minus $8) for twelve pounds of the food, or about $1.61 per pound for the food. So, if you can find, say, bananas at $1.61 per pound or less, it’s probably worth your time to turn it into cooked baby food.

In the end, you can certainly save dollars by turning some foods, like bananas, into baby food. It gets trickier when you look at out-of-season fruits and vegetables, though, as the cost for a pound of those foods tends to make the savings quite small (and can even result in a loss).

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  1. Jenny says:

    Taking a strictly monetized view of making baby food, this makes sense. But what about the value of knowing exactly what is in your baby food? If I’m serving myself and my husband organic peas for dinner (for instance) and I turn the leftovers into baby food, I would imagine I would save quite a bit over the cost of purchasing organic baby food peas. Plus I would know exactly what went into the food. There’s definitely something to be said for the peace of mind and potential health benefits.

  2. Kerry D. says:

    And, beyond cost savings and knowing exactly what ingredients went into the baby food, is the tremendous convenience of being able to feed baby some of the same food the family is eating.

    By our third child, we discovered it didn’t take long for him to have the coordination to eat a smooshed version of age appropriate foods we were eating. And he was very excited to get it, grabbing and reaching toward out plates. :)

  3. valleycat1 says:

    I’m with #2 Kerry D – instead of looking at it in terms of making a huge batch you have to store somehow, why not just take a little of the veggies, fruit, or meat you’re making for the family & puree the baby’s servings? You could either use an immersible blender blade or one of those small food processors (or the small bowl on a regular one).

  4. Fiery says:

    If your making the food completely separate from the everyday meals you cook then your cost break down seems about right. Though if your honestly just cooking extra food as you cook your own family meals then it takes even less time and costs even less.

    I only kept jar food on hand for traveling or the rare instance I needed to feed the baby “now” and didn’t have something already made. Otherwise I just always cooked extra and then processed it before I cleaned up the meal. Once the baby moved onto combo foods it was easy to just take dinner as prepared and process it. Plus I moved them onto chunkier solids as soon as I could so it involved less processing.

  5. Jane says:

    While I also made my own baby food on occasion, I take issue with the statement that you don’t know what’s in commercial baby food. It says exactly what is in there. It is usually just the baby food and some type of preservative or citrus acid. Am I missing something here? I think the bigger reason to make your own baby food is because it tastes better. My kids didn’t mind fruit in a jar or even some veggies, but any of those meals in a jar were just atrocious.

  6. Lisa says:

    To me, it doesn’t make sense to put a price of $8 per hour on your own time for making baby food but not for other “Saving Pennies or Dollars” topics such as making your own juice, grinding your own coffee or washing out ziploc bags. It seems kind of arbitrary. I would personally find washing out ziploc bags to be much more tedious than making food for my child. I think to be consistent across the Saving Pennies or Dollars series, I’d like to see NO price put on time since everyone values their time a bit differently.

  7. Shelley says:

    I’ve never raised a child at this stage so I’m genuinely stumped about this. What did they do in the days before Gerber? How did a child go from breast feeding to actual food? Is that where you get gruel and the like? I just wonder, because in the Tightwad Gazette some commenter wrote that if her baby needed mushed up baby food she figured she would have been genetically provided with that facility. She called it ‘A third one.’

  8. rebecca says:

    Esp if you look at organics, homemade is way cheaper, plus it just tastes better.

    Shelley, most women breast fed significantly longer before the introduction of Gerber and the like. And then soft table foods, like cooked peas and soft carrots, potatoes, applesauce, bits of bread, etc could be introduced as the child was able to chew or mash them, between 9 to 12 months or older. Most children weaned between 18 and 24 months, it is only within the last 70 yrs or so that weaning tends to happen earlier and earlier, esp since many moms now have jobs that take them out of the home, which was rare before 1900.

  9. Steve says:

    +1 to commenters who said to grind up whatever you are eating for dinner. I wouldn’t even count it as “making extra” – a whole meal for a baby is merely a bite or two for an adult; you’d hardly miss it. With most meals you can set aside a portion for the baby before you add spices, combine ingredients, whatever. For my baby, she only ate mashed up foods for a couple months anyways. After that she started insisting on tiny bites of normal-textured food.

  10. Steve says:

    @Lisa (#6) I agree that the $8 in this article is arbitrary. But since many frugality tips trade off money for time, you can’t completely ignore the value of your time. I would rather see it merely broken down into a savings per hour, so each of us can compare that to how we value an hour of our own time.

  11. EngineerMom says:

    I agree with the other comments about just serving whatever is part of your own meal. I made our son’s baby food for a few months because it was dramatically cheaper to cook and puree sweet potatoes, beans, rice, frozen peas, etc.

    As for purchased baby food vs. homemade, shelf-stable baby food has been exposed to canning temperatures, which are higher than just boiling and destroy certain nutrients. Others can wash away if the foods are cooked by boiling instead of steaming (no way to know that with pre-packaged baby food).

    By making it at home, you know you’ve prepared the food in a way that preserves vitamins.

  12. Rockledge says:

    #5 Jane “I take issue with the statement that you don’t know what’s in commercial baby food. It says exactly what is in there.” Well, there was the time Nestle recalled baby food because it had glass in it. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t on the label.

    When we had our first kid, I quickly got tired of buying tiny, expensive jars of bland baby food and bought a small baby food grinder. We’d just stick a little of what we were eating and grind it into a healthy mush. My kids are picky eaters, but I think it would have been a lot worse if they had been raised on that bland junk.

    Honestly, using the little grinder was simply easier than carting around jars of baby food.

  13. S says:

    I used a small hand cranked food grinder to make my own baby food. My children ate the same food we ate. They grew up to be adventurous eaters, eager to try new foods.

    I never could agree with the feed your baby only x for a week to check for allergies. I’m pretty sure my adult body would react to a diet of x for a week, so I would expect an infants body to react to that overload. No wonder kids grow up hating veggies.

    My son’s pediatrician was on board with eating from the table after we discussed our cooking habits etc. He was quite impressed when my son was dining on pheasant at 7 months.

  14. SwingCheese says:

    There is also the enjoyment factor. When kiddo was an infant, I made all his baby food. We already had a food processor that predated him, and I was so excited for him to try different fruits that I would buy my bulk fruit at Costco, then clean it, blend it, and freeze it. I enjoyed being able to do this for him, and he enjoyed being able to eat grapes, plums, peaches, etc., at an earlier age than if we’d waited until his teeth were in. It was a good experience for all of us, and since I was enjoying what I was doing, I have no idea how long the process took, but in memory, it wasn’t particularly arduous or time consuming, and I never really considered the expense of it.

  15. Cheryl says:

    RE: small babyfood grinder. Used it exclusively when DS was transitioning to real food. I STILL use it for grinding up foods small for soups and for grinding chopped spinach for making spinach noodles.

  16. deRuiter says:

    Home made is better, cheaper, you know what’s in it, and there isn’t the huge stream of packaging going into the landfill. Better for you wallet, better for your baby, and better for the environment. Some baby food is heavily salted, you can leave out the salt.

  17. Susan says:

    It’s about quality. Homemade/home-prepared baby food seems to be the healthful choice: you know exactly what the ingredients are (and aren’t!), exactly how the food was prepared. Many foods, such as the banana used in Trent’s example can be mashed with a table fork, no equipment needed.
    It’s about convenience.
    It’s about reducing waste.

    Even if saving pennies is not deemed worthy of the time it takes to cook and prepare higher quality food, isn’t it a saving in the long run to do all we can to contribute to the immediate and eventual health of our children?

  18. Jonathan says:

    @Jane #5 – “I take issue with the statement that you don’t know what’s in commercial baby food. It says exactly what is in there.”

    I suspect the issue isn’t with not knowing the ingredients list for commercial baby foods. Rather it is not knowing the source of those ingredients. For parents who only eat organic vegetables or humanely raised meat making homemade baby food would have a huge advantage. The possibly that a commercial baby-food maker applies the same standards when choosing ingredients as those parents would is incredibly slim.

    @Lisa #6 – “To me, it doesn’t make sense to put a price of $8 per hour on your own time for making baby food but not for other “Saving Pennies or Dollars” topics such as making your own juice, grinding your own coffee or washing out ziploc bags.”

    From what I have seen Trent always applies some minimal per hour rate to such tasks when determining if they are worthwhile or not. I don’t know if he has explicitly stated this for all of his Saving Pennies or Dollars topics, but he has mentioned applying such a minimum several times in the past, so it seems reasonable to assume they apply to these topics as well. I do know that he has calculated a per hour rate for washing ziploc bags. I checked and this was included in the Saving Pennies or Dollars article. He found that the savings rate of washing sandwich bags was not worth it, while the rate of washing gallon and quart bags was. Both did fall below the $8/hour rate, although gallon bags were close, but he also talks about the environmental impact of re-using the bags, so the decision obviously wasn’t entirely a financial based one.

  19. Amy K says:

    I’m a dissenter, I’m in the “it was worth it to buy baby food” camp. We were given a wonderful baby food maker that steams and purees, and I did use it several times, but anything I made just made my daughter gag, sometimes to the point of throwing up. I made everything too thick, and didn’t puree long enough. 2 or 3 months later she’s eating those foods as finger foods (yes, I froze them rather than wasting food!) and in the interim we bought jarred. The commercial food showed me the texture she was ready for. We also used a small food processor to puree pre-cooked foods, like canned pears, but that only saved pennies per serving, only made 4 or 5 servings, and I had to hand wash the parts. When I’m only getting 4-6 hours of sleep/day, the extra few minutes are priceless.

  20. littlepitcher says:

    A relative used the blender to puree table food, and her daughter has no food allergies, eats nearly anything, has normal weight in her 20’s.
    With concerns about additives including salt and HFCS and BPA’s in plastic and jar lids, it would appear to childless me that this falls into the “priceless” category. When a toddler grabs lettuce and raw onions from her mama to nosh upon, that’s healthy eating.

  21. Katie says:

    Of course, I can offer counter-evidence. My brother had homemade baby food and then spent the rest of his childhood being a spectacularly picky eater. He’s not as an adult, but I’m not sure anecdotal evidence alone should lead us to conclude that what baby food a child is fed will say much about their later eating habits.

  22. R S says:

    Homemade baby food is how a lot of Asian kids grow up. Their parents believe it develops their palate for Asian flavors. The few Asians I know that grew up on Gerber are unable to appreciate homemade Asian food. They prefer the westernized restaurant versions.
    I’ve seen this within our family too, purely anecdotal. :)
    OTOH, I have had a hard time getting used to steamed veggies, etc.. too bland!

  23. elyn says:

    I’ve never bought a jar of baby food- it was easy to make my own, and jarred baby food has disgusted me since my babysitting days. For things like bananas, avocados, etc, I never bothered pre-prepping. You take a piece, you mash it with a fork and it’s ready to go. I pre-prepped and hoarded roasted bell peppers, beets, peas, etc because the workload is a bit more involved.

    One of the perks of making your own food not mentioned here is that there is less food/money wasted if you make your own in small amounts, to test and see if your child will even eat the food you made. If you buy a jar of something that your child refuses to eat not matter what, that whole jar is wasted. If you make a small sample of something, and your child hates it, you can just chop up the rest and use it in your grown-up food.

    When I was making baby food for my daughter, I knew several other people who were making baby food too. We traded little frozen samples of pureed veggies we’d made. This is how I learned that my daughter hated broccoli puree (though she LOVES broccoli as a toddler), but loved parsnip puree. This trading saved all of us food-makers time and money…

  24. Sara says:

    Is it cheaper to buy Gerber food? Yes, no, perhaps… I do not think this should even be an issue… That crap has nothing good in it, even if they say there are no preservatives etc. If there are no preservatives, there are no vitamins, if there are preservatives the vitamins remain but the additives are nasty and you do not want to give that to your baby. So just cook your own veggies and stop giving money to these Gerber people. That is not food. Studies show that fruits start losing their vitamins the second you peel it! The get oxidized by the O2 in the air and/or degraded by light…
    It’s same rationale of eating fast food and making your own food. One should not eat much processed food. So keep the Gerber crap for emergencies (long trip etc…)

  25. Baley says:

    Homemade baby food looks and tastes better, too. It’s so easy, as well. I steam the veggies or fruits and puree them in a food processor then plop the puree into standard ice cube trays and cover them with tinfoil. When the cubes are frozen I dump them in a ziploc in the freezer. Easy peasy. They’re really easy to grab and go, too. :)

  26. Tom says:

    But what about the value of knowing exactly what is in your baby food?
    [Canned baby food] has nothing good in it, even if they say there are no preservatives etc.
    Homemade/home-prepared baby food seems to be the healthful choice: you know exactly what the ingredients are (and aren’t!)
    Homemade just tastes better!
    Please. We made our own food too, and I’m all for it, but let’s not act like Gerber is out to poison our kids or lead them to a life of chronic disease and malnutrition. Just because you bought something that said organic on it doesn’t mean you inherantly know that product better than another food. Many terms on our food packaging are marketing terms and not controlled by any government standard.

    I hope you people who “know everything that’s in your food” also knew it’s not a good idea to feed your baby most types of carrots and beets. These foods can be incredibly high in nitrates and not a good thing to prepare on your own for your child. Baby food companies specially process (oh no, not process!) these foods so that they’re safe for your infant.

  27. lilah says:

    #26 Tom
    The odds of your baby getting nitrate poisoning from Carrots or other veggies is about 0%. The issues seems to be the well water used to prepare the foods, not the foods themselves.

    From the AAP:
    Some commercially prepared infant food vegetables are voluntarily monitored for nitrate content by private industry, including spinach, squash, and carrots.

  28. Tom says:

    Funny, I got my info from the AAP too. Their book on raising infants specifically warns against preparing carrots on your own to feed your infant.

  29. elyn says:

    On the nitrates issue: nitrates cannot be removed from food, even commercial companies can’t do so. They can “screen” for them, but it is not actually mandated, so the baby food companies police themselves.
    It is recommended not to introduce carrots until your baby is about 7-8 months of age- at that point the risk of nitrates is 0% due to the maturity of their digestive system. (It is actually 3 months of age and younger that the APA says not to introduce nitrate-rich food).

  30. Baley says:

    My pediatrician warned us about nitrates in carrots, too, but said that once frozen the carrots are safe. So, yes, it’s probably not best to serve a young infant freshly prepared carrots, you would do fine to cook, puree, and freeze them first, then serve them. FWIW.

  31. Emma says:

    If a pound of bananas costs $0.49 and you add milk or formula to it, how does a pound of food cost $0.50?

    I think the math on this one was particularly poorly done. Even if you can find bananas on sale for less, what about the costs of the milk or formula? That’s not even mentioned, which makes the figure of $0.50 seem like it was just pulled out of the air.

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