HOME-MADE meals for babies and young children are not always better than shop-bought ones, researchers say.

A study found that while home-cooking costs half the price, such meals actually contain almost treble the levels of saturated fat and treble the salt compared with shop-bought food.

READ MORE: Sheriff hits out at one year limit on jail term for child abuser

Experts also found a greater vegetable variety per meal in ready-made foods, despite a broader range of ingredients overall included in home-cooked recipes.

Home-made meals were still found to be more nutritious overall than meals from leading brands, although experts said parents should not rule out shop-bought meals as they can provide a “convenient alternative”.

The research, from experts at Aberdeen and Warwick universities, compared the nutrient content, price, and food group variety of home-made meals with shop-bought savoury main meals aimed at under-fives.

Researchers concluded: “The majority of commercial meals met energy density recommendations and can provide a convenient alternative which includes a greater vegetable variety per meal.

“Home-cooked recipes provided six per cent to 77 per cent more nutrients than commercial, however the majority of these recipes exceeded energy density and fat recommendations.

"Dietary fats contribute essential fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins together with energy and sensory qualities, thus are vital for the growing child, however excessive intakes may impact on childhood obesity and health.”

The research included 278 ready-made savoury meals – 174 of which were organic – and 408 home-cooked meals made using recipes from 55 bestselling cookbooks for babies and young children.

READ MORE: Scottish mum credits newborn baby with saving her life from cancer

The pre-prepared meals were from all major infant and toddler brands and were sold in Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Lidl, Boots and Superdrug.

Writing in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, the experts found the average cost of commercial meals was “significantly higher” (£0.68 per 100g) than home-cooked recipes (£0.33 per 100g).

Both commercial and home-cooked poultry-based meals mostly used chicken (92 per cent and 90.8 per cent respectively), while beef was the main red meat offering in both home-made and shop-bought meals.

Salmon was the main fish used in shop-bought meals but cod was more often used at home. A greater selection of red meat and fish and seafood was used at home, and home-cooked recipes used a wider range of vegetables overall.

But shop-bought meals typically contained three types of vegetables per meal compared with two in home-cooked meals.

Home-cooked recipes also contained more sugar (2.5g vs 2.2g per 100g), with much higher levels of salt (0.24g vs 0.08g per 100g), double the protein and twice the amount of fat (4.4g vs 2.2g per 100g) and almost treble the saturated fat (1.5g vs 0.6g per 100g).

But home-cooked meals had more nutrients, although half exceeded the calorie requirements for a single meal and 37 per cent exceeded the recommendation on calories from fat.

Professor Julian Hamilton-Shield, from the University of Bristol, said: “It is very likely that infant-specific, commercial recipe books are only accessed by a minority of families cooking at home for their infants.

“The authors again state they did not look at the prevalence or frequency of use by parents of such books.

“If anything, the study does call into question the value of ‘expert’ infant recipe books over pre-prepared meals or ordinary home cooking.”

In 2013, research published in the same journal found that baby foods made by firms including Cow and Gate, Heinz and Ella’s Kitchen have far fewer nutrients than home-made meals.

It said many contain high levels of sugar and some are promoted for use from four months of age – a time when babies should still be on a diet of breast or formula milk.

READ MORE: Sheriff hits out at one year limit on jail term for child abuser

Babies would need to eat twice as much shop-bought food to get the same energy and protein as meals cooked at home, researchers from the University of Glasgow concluded.

Current guidelines encourage weaning from six months of age, with babies fed only breast or formula milk before this time.