Baby Food Makers
Do these specialty appliances make cooking purees from scratch any easier than a blender?
How We Tested
While packaged baby purees continue to be popular, some parents opt to make homemade versions. It doesn't require much: just something to cook the food in, such as a steamer basket, microwave, or roasting pan, and a blender or food processor to puree the food. Many parents already have all the tools they need to cook for their babies, but a growing category of dedicated “baby food makers” promises a hands-off approach to preparing baby food from scratch.
These machines come in two styles: those that only puree food and those that both cook and puree food. We focused on the latter. We rounded up six of these small appliances, priced roughly $75.00 to $160.00, and used them to prepare recipes from our upcoming The Complete Baby and Toddler Cookbook for pureed peas, fresh mango, and sweet potatoes and apples. All the machines cook by steaming the food with water from a tank that you fill. As the water heats up, the steam is pumped into the cooking container. Once the food is soft, you either blend the food right in the steaming container or transfer the food to a second container for blending with the push of a button depending on the model. After we'd prepared our purees in the baby food makers, we compared the results to batches we'd either cooked on the stovetop in a steamer basket (peas) or roasted in the oven (sweet potatoes and apples) and then pureed in our favorite food processor or midpriced blender, depending on what the recipe called for.
The Advantage: Walk-Away Cooking
Baby food makers do offer one big advantage over traditional cooking methods: You can walk away without fear of burning the food. The machines stop cooking either when the timer goes off or when they run out of water, which is great for busy parents with roaming toddlers to watch over.
The Murky: Nutrition Claims
Many of these machines also claim that they allow you to better preserve nutrients that can be lost during cooking. In a traditional steamer basket, moisture from the food drips down into the cooking liquid. For our baby food recipes, we add some of that liquid—a mixture of food liquid and steaming water—to the solid food before blending because it's convenient and may contain a bit of flavor. However, the liquid collected in the baby food makers is more concentrated because it collects in a separate cup and doesn't mix with the steaming liquid. Before blending, this concentrated liquid can be added back in with the food in place of (or in addition to) water, formula, or breast milk. Manufacturers claim that this liquid is filled with nutrients that otherwise would be lost during cooking.
However, our science editor explained that this nutrition claim is murky at best. Steaming is already a great way to preserve nutrients in food; the amount of nutrients “lost” when vegetables are steamed is likely so minimal that the concentrated liquid is not a significant source of nutrition. While it's possible that the baby food makers may produce a more flavorful puree, our tasters didn't detect any flavor differences between the purees made in the baby food makers and those made conventionally.
The Drawbacks: Reduced Capacity, Less Precision, Extra Washing
That said, there were a lot of drawbacks to the machines. Our baby food recipes make about 24 ounces of food because we figure that if you're going through the effort of making it from scratch, it's nice to have extra to freeze. But most of the machines hold between 12 and 17 ounces of food in their steamer baskets. Only one model could cook an entire 24 ounces, and it even had room to spare—we managed to fit up to 42 ounces (though the company recommends no more than 28 ounces).
When we tried halving the recipes, many models could cook the food but still failed at pureeing it because of their inadequate blenders. The blades spun aimlessly under the food, leaving chunks of food untouched. Worse, some motors threatened to give out—three models smelled like burning rubber whenever we tried to blend for more than 20 seconds at a time. Only two machines were able to turn out fully pureed, smooth blends.
To determine why some of the blenders struggled to puree food, we looked at the wattage of the motors and the shape and structure of the blending blades. Our favorite midpriced blender and full-size food processor have 750 and 1,300 watts of power, respectively. These machines work quickly and efficiently. The power of the baby food makers paled in comparison: The machines ranged from just 110 watts to 250 watts. The three baby food makers that couldn't fully puree foods and smelled like burning rubber when they blended had especially low wattage—between 110 and 130 watts. Their blades were also flimsy, rattling around unsteadily as they blended and likely contributing to the unevenness of the purees. The model that could fully puree an entire batch of food had a sturdy, rigid blade and the most powerful motor of the bunch, which helped it blend the food quickly.
Many of the baby food makers were also a lot of work to use. Each has upwards of seven parts (base, jar, lid, blade, water cup, water tank, and steaming basket), the same number as (or more than) you would use to make the recipe using a stovetop steamer basket and blender, so we weren't left with any less washing to do. Plus, some had water tanks that were inaccessible for cleaning (much like a drip coffee maker), leaving them potentially prone to mildew and mold. These machines also didn't make the process of preparing a batch of baby food any faster. We still had to prep all the ingredients, load the steamer baskets, fill the water tanks, transfer the hot food to the blending container, package up the purees, and clean all the parts of the machine.
Finally, these dedicated baby food makers are less precise than typical cooking methods. Only two of the products we tested allow you to set a specific cooking time. The rest simply steam until they're out of water, so you use an included measuring cup to figure out how much water to add (using manufacturers' guidelines). All of them required trial and error on our part to figure out cooking times and water amounts. Products on which we couldn't set a specific cooking time made army-green, overcooked peas that were dull in flavor. We preferred the baby food makers with interfaces that allowed us to set a cooking time; we found that they churned out brighter, fresher-tasting purees because we could better control the cooking times.
One Good Baby Food Maker
Ultimately, a blender or food processor and a steamer basket (or even the microwave) is still our preferred way of making baby food. It's faster and easier, and the equipment is more versatile.
However, if you like the idea of walk-away cooking, we found one baby food maker we can fully recommend, the Babymoov The Duo Meal Station: 6 in 1 Food Maker. This machine had the most parts (10) and the largest footprint of any machine we tried—similar to an average toaster oven—but it made silky-smooth purees that rivaled the food made in our favorite midpriced blender and food processor. We particularly liked this machine's two-tier steamer, which allowed us to either cook a lot of something at once or cook different foods in separate baskets. The steamer was so big (42 ounces) that we could even fit adult-size portions, which, along with its bottle-warming, reheating, and sanitizing functions, gives this appliance a bit more versatility than just steaming and blending baby food.
That said, a good blender or food processor is just a little bit more expensive than our top-rated baby food maker and can be used for years after baby graduates from purees. . . or from college.
We tested six baby food makers, priced roughly $75.00 to $160.00, using them to prepare our recipes for mango, pea, and sweet potato and apple purees. A panel of tasters evaluated the taste and texture of the finished purees as compared with batches made with our winning steamer basket and our favorite midpriced blender or food processor. If a product could not accommodate an entire recipe, we tried again using a halved batch. We washed all products in the dishwasher five times. For our winning product, we used temperature-tracking software to evaluate its “sterilization” function. Results were averaged, and products appear below in order of preference.
Capacity: If you're taking the time to cook baby food from scratch, you should at least be able to make a sufficient amount to store and freeze. Our favorite product could hold more than 24 ounces of food—an entire recipe's worth. Low-ranking products held as little as 12 ounces.
Blending: We evaluated how well the products could puree fresh mango, steamed peas, and steamed sweet potato and apple. Top marks went to machines that made silky-smooth purees in less than a minute, while lower scores went to products that left behind whole chunks of food no matter how long we held down the blend button.
Ease of Use: We preferred machines with built-in timers and parts that fully and easily disassemble for cleaning. We docked points from products that lacked a precise timer, were fussy to assemble and clean, or had unreachable crevices we couldn't clean.