There is a growing trend for adults to feel too busy to cook, relying instead on convenience food. Manufacturers have responded by creating healthy and tasty ready meals. Great strides have also been made to improve food in schools. Now the moment has come to focus on the very youngest members of the family, and the way parents feed their babies and toddlers is under close scrutiny, as Bernice Hurst reports.

Parents who don’t have the time, or in some cases the skill, to shop for ingredients and prepare small quantities of healthy, tasty food for their offspring are demanding more from the manufacturers whose products they select.

Recent research from direct marketing company Bounty disclosed that some 73% of 10,000 respondents cited health and nutritional considerations as increasingly influential, as reported on just-food in May of this year. Recognising this, media company Forbes noted that major players have started focusing on innovation to increase sales. Whether that takes the form of new flavours, adding functional ingredients, new packaging or a combination thereof, most of the brands familiar to parents are taking steps to at least maintain their market share.

Mothers are one of the few groups about whom it is probably safe to make sweeping generalisations. They want to feed their babies well. Few would disagree with the principle. The practice, though, is another matter. Although convenient cans and jars of baby food have been available for decades, some hard working mothers, and it is generally mothers, prefer to spend their hard earned cash on fresh products not boasting a shelf life of several years. These parents now have many choices whether they live in the US, the UK or South Africa.

Small-batch produced fresh and frozen products are becoming more widely available both in stores and, in some parts of the US, delivered directly to customers’ doors. The priorities are flavour and nutrition without artificial additives or unacceptable levels of sugar, salt or fat. This is no easy task but an increasing number of baby food manufacturers are meeting that challenge.

Woolworths in Cape Town launched its fresh “really good food for babies” range onto chill cabinet shelves in August. Developed by dieticians working together with mothers, the range offers introductory single-component fruit and vegetable purées for infants from six months as well as complete meals for babies over eight months.

Similar combinations are to be found in refrigerators and freezers across the United States. Companies such as Homemade Baby, Bohemian Baby and Evie’s Organic Edibles specialise in small portions made in small quantities. Homemade Baby even has its own store where parents and children can taste before they buy.

In the UK, relative newcomers to the infant and toddler food market include Babylicious and Fresh Daisy, which both offer quality frozen dishes, the latter company focusing on organic food. Older children are also being offered frozen foods by Wensleydale Foods founder Elizabeth Guy, who recognizes that “stressed-out mums become even more overheated by creating three perfectly balanced meals a day, from scratch, [since] even the best-intentioned have to fall back on ready meals sometimes. But if we do, we want something we can trust.” Her response was to develop a small range of nutritious, wholesome pies aimed at the quality end of the children’s frozen food market.

What the newcomers to the industry have in common is an insistence on avoiding shelf-stable packaging which can be, according to the co-founder of Homemade Baby, “older than the baby you’re feeding them to”.

In this area, as so many others, a battle may be looming for hearts and minds. Ready meals for young children may be a fact of life but many parents will continue seeking the best of all possible worlds, avoiding methods of mass production.