Dylan DeNeve of Brooklyn dined on homemade baby food of vegetable purées, delicately seasoned with leeks, red peppers, cumin and thyme, prepared by her mother, Alexandra, a lawyer. In Atlanta, Wes and Hadley Stewart enjoyed homemade mashed-up kale, butternut squash and ancient grains.
“I was a big fan of introducing all sorts of tastes, and my rule was to try new things at least 10 times before I gave up,” said their mother, Morgan, an independent educational consultant. “I was determined to establish good eating habits early, and now the two of them will eat anything.”
Thanks to mothers like these, sales of commercially prepared baby food have been steadily falling since 2005. But the baby food industry is hardly waving a white diaper. Instead, it is competing head-on with mom’s kitchen.
Beech-Nut, one of the oldest names in the business, has just revamped its line of baby food, adding hip ingredients like pomegranate and quinoa. It has redesigned its packaging as well, putting the food in attractive contoured glass jars with clear labels and using a new process that eliminates the ascorbic acid and leaves carrots bright orange and beets red. It is promoting the new line with its largest marketing budget in a decade.
And last year, Hain Celestial acquired Ella’s Kitchen, a maker of premium baby food with ingredients like blueberries, to add to its Earth’s Best organic baby food brand, then created a new global division for infants, toddlers and children.
Jeff Boutelle, chief executive of Beech-Nut Nutrition, said, “When I got here a year and a half ago, the common sense was that the category was declining because birthrates were down.
“But I knew that birthrates had stabilized,” he added, “and babies are not getting any thinner.”
“Underlying our problem, there was a silent, pernicious trend going on that no one was really paying much attention to,” he said — mothers making their own food at home.
Gerber is the No. 1-selling baby food in the United States. But homemade purées like those made by Ms. Stewart and Ms. DeNeve are second, accounting for about one-third of the baby food consumed, according to market research paid for by Beech-Nut, a percentage that has been steadily rising over the last several years.
Beech-Nut, which is owned by Hero, comes in third, with the rest of the market divided among new brands with exotic flavors and sexy packaging in pouches. That category is gaining market share.
“Today, moms are 50 times more busy and don’t have the cooking skills that women did when we introduced baby food 80 years ago,” Mr. Boutelle said. “But the category is so bad that they’re going to the grocery and spending an afternoon boiling and cooking and filling jars and sealing them because they don’t like what’s on the shelf.”
Gerber has no plans to revise its lineup, said Wendy Askew-Johnson, head of corporate affairs at Nestlé Nutrition in the United States, which owns the brand.
“Women are breast-feeding longer and therefore introducing baby food sometime a little later,” Ms. Askew-Johnson said. “That may be resulting in fewer eating occasions — but Gerber offers baby food and toddler food in its wide portfolio.”
Food companies measure sales by dollars and by volume, which in the case of baby food is generally ounces. On a dollar basis, baby food sales are up, according to IRI, a data and research firm, but that is largely because new brands like Plum Organics and Ella’s are more expensive, not because more baby food is being sold.
Measured in ounces, sales of baby food have declined more than 4 percent a year on average since 2005, according to IRI.
Parents say making food for their babies is not such a big deal. Devices like the Beaba Pro Baby Food Maker and the Baby Brezza, not to mention the stick blender, have made making baby food a snap, they say.
“I’m not a cook, but I saw this thing on a shelf one day and was intrigued by it,” Ms. DeNeve, Dylan’s mother, said of the Brezza. “You literally cut up vegetables, put it in this thing and it steams and purées it — I can do it in a half-hour at night.”
Jeff Cretan, a legislative aide in the San Francisco government, said he used a stick blender to purée vegetables for his daughter, Eloise. The main commercially prepared food she eats is yogurt and applesauce. “She likes kale,” he said, “but isn’t into avocado, and she doesn’t like pasta and mac and cheese — how weird is that?”
Mr. Cretan said he sometimes relied on pouches of baby food, either mixed into rice or on its own when the family is on the go.
Pouches are by far the biggest driver of the increased dollar amount of baby food sales in the last few years, said Robyn Mermelstein, manager of the children’s division at Hain Celestial.
Pouches were introduced in the 2000s, but their use has exploded with the advent of newer brands like Ella’s Kitchen and Sprout.
Meghan Graham started her 10-month-old son, Max, on baby food about four months ago, feeding him homemade, traditional and organic store-bought varieties. “He wants to eat what he sees us eating, so I’m making him omelette-y things that are soft,” said Ms. Graham, a vice president at Defy Media who runs the website Mommyish.
The store-bought food that Max eats includes yogurt, applesauce and food from some pouches, mostly Plum Organics and Happy Baby, because of the convenience.
“Pouches are great when you’re on the go, but they’re more expensive,” she said. “For me, it’s more cost-efficient to roast some vegetables than to spend $1.50 on a pack of food.”
Beech-Nut’s new line will offer 40 varieties to start, including “Just Honeycrisp Apples” and “Beets, Pear and Pomegranate,” made from nongenetically modified fresh and flash frozen ingredients without additives or preservatives.
The products required the development of new technology that uses cold and high pressure, which halt oxidation.
The new Beech-Nut baby foods will sell for $1.09 a jar, cheaper than organic baby foods, which range from $1.39 to $2, but more expensive than its traditional line. The company will continue to sell its traditional products.
“We’re not trying to change behavior cemented in the culture for a thousand years,” Mr. Boutelle said. “Rather, we’re hoping to reverse a trend that really just began showing up in 2005.”
An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of a father who spoke about puréeing vegetables for his daughter. He is Jeff Cretan, not Kretan.
An earlier version of this article misstated when and by whom pouches for baby food were introduced. Pouches were introduced in the 2000s. They were not introduced by Gerber in 1997. It also erroneously described some of the products made by Ella’s Kitchen. It makes premium baby food with ingredients like blueberries, but not with avocados.