Gerber Graduates Healthy Meals for Preschoolers. Indeed?

We’ve gotten some requests from readers to review baby / toddler foods over the past few weeks, so we’ll try to oblige. I strongly urge you read a previous posting entitled Do Children Need Kids Food?, Children meaning toddler from one year up.

Before Gerber and other companies discovered this beautiful market niche called babies, toddlers, preschoolers, etc…, humanity was able to feed its offspring pretty much the same food the grown ups were eating, but in smaller bite-size pieces, once the child had teeth in place and passed the one year mark. And perhaps a bit less spicy as well.

So why do parents buy prepared meals for their young? Probably for the same reason they buy it for themselves: Convenience.

But what about the taste and nutrition? We decided to take a look inside the label of  Gerber Graduates for Preschoolers Healthy Meals, Cheesy Pasta, Chicken and Vegetables

What you need to know:

Here’s the ingredient list:

Water, Peas, Cooked Chunk-Shaped White Meat Chicken Pattie (White Chicken Meat, Water, Soy Protein Isolate, Potassium Chloride, Rice Starch, Sodium Phosphate, Sea Salt, Chicken Broth Powder (Chicken Broth, Salt, Natural Flavor)), Carrots, Cheddar Cheese (Cultured Milk, Salt, Enzymes, Sodium Citrate, Annatto Extract Color), Enriched Macaroni Product (Wheat Semolina, Egg Whites, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Corn, Squash, Modified Cornstarch, Less than 2% of: Nonfat Milk, Cream, Chicken Fat, Salt, Sugar, Disodium Phosphate, Chicken Broth, Soy Lecithin, Natural Flavor, Onion Powder, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Potato Starch, Celery, Carrot and Onion Juice Concentrates, Paprika and Annatto Extract Colors.

Oh my, look at all those ingredients (all 46!).

The first ingredient is water! You’re paying for food here, not water. Why would it be the ingredient with most weight in this product? This is not a good sign. We’ve got peas as ingredient #2 (good) and then at #3 a “chicken pattie” that is made from chicken PLUS 9 additional elements. Why can’t junior just have bits of plain chicken breast?

The cheddar cheese and macaroni are standard with a tiny amount of corn and squash added as well. The list goes on with a bunch of ingredients making up the sauce, presumably.

While there are no artificial colors or preservatives, this is a highly processed product. Gerber boasts “no preservatives”, but salt is used copiously here. (Salt is one of mankind’s first preservatives)

Which brings us to the main problem with this meal – the amount of sodium in it. 450 milligrams for a toddler/preschooler  is too much. Adults are advised to consume no more than 1500-2300 mg per day for a 2000 calorie diet. Toddlers consume about half that number of calories and thus should need no more that 750-1200 mg of sodium per day.

Here, in one meal, they’re getting a third to a half of the daily maximum of salt. It’s not only too much, it takes over the flavor of the food. Kids need to get used to the taste of new foods. By masking the real flavor with excess salt, we’re doing them a disservice.

Bottom line: If you want to control the sodium your child is getting while getting her used to the texture and mouth feel of real chicken breast, better make it yourself.

What to do at the supermarket:

Buy chicken breast, pasta, some cheese, and veggies (carrots and peas). Get ready to prepare your own baby dinner in 10 minutes work, 30 unattended.

In a pot – boil water. Dice then cook the veggies in the water and remove. Use the water to cook the pasta (will absorb the vitamins left over from the veggies). Either cook, broil, or fry the diced chicken pieces till fully done. Place veggies, pasta, chicken in a plate. Grate some cheddar cheese over the mix. No need to add too much salt – there’s enough in the cheese.

Prepare a batch and freeze for several weeks or refrigerate for a few days.

  • Zorbs

    I’ve never actually seen anyone with these things in their cart, but if that day ever comes, I would seriously ask the parent wtf they think that crap is ok to feed to their child.

  • Lauren Slayton

    Laughing at Zorbs comment above. I’m actually thrilled the first ingredient is water as it goes downhill from there. Sadly, I think you did a great service pointing out to people, who perhaps but gradutates, how to make chicken, vegetables and pasta. There are people who do not know. As for people who think this is a time-saver or not that bad, check back when your graduate is middle aged and ask them how much time they spend on their diabetes or hypertension.

  • Andrea

    I’ll never understand these marketing ploys. I guess they provide the illusion of convenience to parents who are too frazzled to think for themselves?
    Or maybe I’m being too harsh.

  • WilliamB

    I think there’s another dimension that’s missing in this discussion – serving size. It can be painful to make a lot of food only to discover the child doesn’t like it, or to go to all that work to make just a little food. One solution, of course, is to feed your children what you eat, so that whatever it is is already made and you’re willing to eat what the child doesn’t. But we can’t fix a problem if we don’t understand why it exists.

  • sandy

    @WilliamB There would be no reason the parent could not divide the finished meal into portions and refrigerate or freeze the remainder. Humans did just fine before Beechnut and Gerber (and Betty Crocker, for that matter). There are many parents and grandparents who do not know how to cook other than to open packets or microwave. Maybe we need to reinstate real homemaking classes in junior high, help the Lunch Lady change school food, or provide Visiting Cooking Instruction for the cooking-challenged, kind of like the visiting nurse service.

  • Rachel Assuncao

    When my daughter was about a year old, we went to visit my mom. I remember getting off the plane and as we walked towards the baggage she was telling me about going into Target to get a few last minute things for her granddaughter. She told me about seeing this aisle full of ‘toddler meals’ that they never had when we were children and that she stopped and looked at them and wondered if my daughter would need some of those. About this time in the story, I was getting alarmed – please, I was thinking, tell me she didn’t buy that crap! And then, she told me she looked at the ingredients and couldn’t believe it was even allowed to be sold, let alone eaten, and I breathed a big sigh of relief. It was a perfect example of marketing working at its finest, and an informed consumer making a choice to steer clear. It also taught me how easy it is to buy into their claims.

    For eons our children have eaten what we have eaten, and it seems like a pretty good tradition to continue. For our part – we have always fed our daughter what we are eating. That has included ‘normal’ foods like whole grain pasta, veggies and chicken. It’s also included more exotic fare like sea vegetables, sashimi, and a variety of Thai and Indian curries. People often watch us in restaurants as she’s eating things like this and their children are having the requisite chicken fingers and fries as though we are somehow depriving her of a normal childhood, but I look at it as though we are providing her with normalcy and stability.

  • kc

    @Rachel Assuncao
    I think you hit the nail on the head when you say others assume you are “somehow depriving her of a normal childhood” because she isn’t eating crap. Since we learned of our corn allergy, we get comments about how horrible it is to never be able to eat junk food or fast food. My kids and I are enjoying our food for the first time in a very long time now that it isn’t making us sick and now that we make everything from scratch from the best quality ingredients (cheap ingredients usually mean corn derivatives are included). We are experimenting with new herbs and spices and new vegetables and meats and enjoy some of the most delectable desserts known to man. Boohoo, they can’t eat twizzlers and drink Mt. Dew or anything from McDonalds. How did junk food get associated with a “normal” childhood? Why do people assume a child is suffering if they can’t eat cheap, additive-laden pseudo-food when it is doesn’t even taste as good as homemade?

  • Linda

    I fully agree with all these comments! However, what I’m struggling with is to make food and eating fun for my children. And that is what these companies are well capable of. How do you add fun or excitement to your home made meals to get children, if they are fussy eaters, to eat?

  • sandy

    @Linda First rule of thumb is not to become a short order cook for your children. They will not starve! Children’s food should be the same as healthy adult food with changes made in texture and portion size in order to accommodate the child’s age/size and developmental needs. Do not mistake toddler revulsion (making faces and gagging dramatically) with some inherent set of likes and dislikes. Continue offering healthy food, try not to overreact yourself when your child refuses to eat the lovely caramelized brussel sprouts on the plate, and don’t allow the child to dictate the menu nightly unless you want that menu reduced to the holy trinity of mac and cheese, chicken nuggets and french fries.

  • J in VA

    Rachel–our dd was never given special kids food either. She always ate what we ate. Breastfeeding helps too in getting them used to different tastes and variety. We have a pic of her at about 9 mo eating corn bread and black eyed peas and loving it. Today, she will eat anything but bananas (??) and recoils at kids who eat pizza pockets and lunchables.

    Linda–let the kids help choose the food, prepare it and make it into fun shapes, use fun dishes, stickers on the containers etc…Maybe if the green beans start purple and turn green “magically” in to pot that will also add to the novelty. Take them to a local farmers market and choose somethings to try. It may cost a bit more but the adventure will probably buy willingness to try things. Depending on how old they are, you can start teaching them about how bad food makes us feel bad. There’s also a kids version of Omnivore’s Dilemna. You can also go to U-pick places for fruits and veggies and visit a local farm to get meats/eggs.

  • sandy

    @Linda Additionally, it does not hurt to point out that certain foods will have an intriguing and delightful (to a school-aged or toddler child) effect upon their body functions. Beets, for example, whether roasted, steamed, boiled or grated raw, will cause a lovely red color in urine and feces. Cruciferous veggies can cause room-clearing gas. A tad of advance information before eating these foods can make them irresistable. Slicing veggies thinly and roasting them with olive oil, lightly salted, and calling them “chips” makes them delicious and harder to resist.

  • Monica


    telling kids that veggies cause room-clearing gas will not make the irresistible. if i was a kid i would be scared to eat them upon hearing that.

  • Mabel

    @Monica, don’t be so harsh with Sandy. This would probably horrify two of my kids but the others would find it amusing. We do what we can to get them to try something new!!

  • Dot

    “Chunk-Shaped chicken patty”… Those kinds of ‘foods’ make me a little nauseated. Mmmm, chunk-shaped poultry-smash!

  • Anonymous

    Let us just not forget to balance our meals and prioritize health above anything else, especially with the preparation of our food. I apreciaite blog posts such as this that also provide additional information regarding the recipe that they sharing.