Half of Australian parents are swallowing a dubious notion that ready-made baby and toddler foods are at least as healthy as home-made options, a new poll shows.
The Royal Children's Hospital latest national survey, which polled 1023 parents with children four months to less than five years in July 2021, found one in five ate commercial ready-made foods most days of the week.
Convenience (92 per cent), taste (78 per cent) and cost (68 per cent) were cited as the main reasons parents chose to give their kids pre-made foods.
More than half (52 per cent) also thought the ready-made options contained ingredients to promote growth and development, while 49 per cent believed it was healthier than, or as healthy as, meals made at home.
While acknowledging pre-made snacks and meals have a place in busy modern family life, paediatrician and poll director Dr Anthea Rhodes urged parents to be careful.
"These foods often contain high levels of harmful sugars, which can affect a child's taste preferences for life and put them at risk of ongoing high sugar intake," she said as the poll was released on Thursday.
"This can cause tooth decay, unhealthy weight gain and other health problems."
Further, 53 per cent of parents thought the pre-made food's ingredients are tightly regulated to ensure nutritional value, another unsubstantiated notion.
"This is not the case in Australia, with limited regulation of these products for babies and no specific regulations for toddler products," Dr Rhodes said.
Obesity Policy Coalition executive manager Jane Martin said manufacturers are "hoodwinking" parents, marketing their foods as nutritious when many don't meet the billing.
She is calling for greater restrictions on companies to stop potentially misleading labelling and promotions, along with limits on ingredients such as harmful sugars.
"Government needs to act now to set higher standards for the composition, labelling and promotion of baby and toddler ready-made foods to protect Australia's youngest children," Ms Martin said.
Paediatric dietitian Karina Savage, director of online kids nutrition consultancy group Smartbite, said parents sometimes turn to ready-made food when they are busy, lack confidence in the kitchen or have a fussy eater.
For those short of confidence or time, she recommends trying baby and toddler-specific recipe books or supermarket-bought meals made by the likes of children's food expert Annabel Karmel.
"There's plenty of those now," Ms Savage said.
"Having said that, parents have to know what to look for in terms of added salts, sugar and other preservatives. It's about making sure those long-life shelf products don't have added nasties in them."