If you’re a busy parent (what parent isn’t?), you’ve probably turned to packaged infant and toddler foods — jarred baby food, yogurt snacks, fruit leathers and the like — for convenience at some point or another. And you probably assume these foods, designed for the under-four set, are healthy. So you might be surprised to learn that many of them are high in salt or added sugar according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed the labels and ingredients of more than 1,000 commercial packaged foods marketed for infants 4 to 12 months old and toddlers 1 to 3 years old. The foods included pureed baby food, soups and vegetables for infants, toddler dinners like pizza and macaroni and cheese, cereals, cereal bars, sweet rice cakes, crackers, dried fruit snacks and yogurts.

Out of 79 mixed grains and fruits for infants, more than half contained at least one added sugar, and 35 products derived more than 35 percent of their calories from sugar, the limit the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations for school foods, snacks and beverages. The same problems went for toddler cereal bars and breakfast pastries, as well as fruit and dry fruit-based snacks: The majority contained at least one added sugar, and one third contained more than 35 percent of calories from sugar.

A salty pickle

The bit of good news is that almost all of the infant foods were low in salt, but the toddler foods were a different story. Among packaged dinners for toddlers, 72 percent were high in sodium. The IOM recommends toddler foods contain no more than about 210 milligrams of salt or sodium per serving. The toddler meals analyzed in this study averaged 361 milligrams.

According to the CDC, nearly 80 percent of one to three year olds consume more than 1,500 milligrams of salt a day, the maximum recommended level by IOM. “We know children are eating too much sodium and a growing number; approximately one in nine, has blood pressure above the normal range,” says Mary E. Cogswell, DrPH, RN, the lead author of the CDC study. “High blood pressure and obesity are major risk factors for heart disease and stroke,” she says. Excess sugar can contribute to obesity and has its own set of risks, including Type 2 diabetes.

Training your child’s palate

Research shows that one of the strongest predictors of what children eat later in life can be what they eat at a young age. “So the more salty or sweet foods they eat while young, the more they are inclined to have a taste for those foods down the road,” says Cogswell.

Suzanne Rostler, a registered dietician in Wellesley, Massachusetts, says, “Ideally, parents would provide toddlers with a variety of whole, fresh foods. Learning early on to eat real food, instead of the salt- and sugar-laden prepared foods, will help train young children’s palates to accept and enjoy these foods as they grow.”

If you do buy commercial kid foods, check labels carefully. Look for foods with less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving, or foods labeled “low sodium” or “no salt.” Cut back on foods with added sugar — including lactose, maltose and dextrose — such as sugar-sweetened applesauce and oatmeal.

Quick and easy tot-friendly alternatives

Follow these tricks, tips and shortcuts from Susan McQuillan, MS, RDN, for preparing toddler-friendly foods that don’t rely entirely on fully prepared or packaged commercial foods:

Go Greek. Plain Greek yogurt has a lot less sugar than the pre-sweetened fruit varieties. Mix it with unsweetened applesauce or fresh fruit or add mild spices to create a dip for fresh veggies.

Make “mash-toast.” Mash ripened bananas and strawberries and spread on toast.

Cook some fruit. Baked apples and poached pears or peaches are a healthy substitute for jarred fruits. These fruits can also easily be cooked in a microwave.

Start with plain oatmeal. Buy the single-packet varieties and top with a touch of maple syrup or fresh or dried fruit. You still get the convenience factor, with less sugar per serving.

Make smoothie cubes. Blend plain yogurt and fresh fruit (use ripe fruit for maximum sweetness). Make in a big batch and freeze it in ice cube trays. When your child wants a smoothie, pop out a couple of cubes and thaw.

Cut the salt in baked recipes. Use half the salt called for in any baked recipe and you can bet your toddler won’t notice the difference.

Stretch quesadillas. Cheese tends to be high in salt. To keep the flavor in a quesadilla but lower the salt, combine a small amount of extra-sharp cheddar cheese with no-salt-added cottage cheese. 

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist for the New York Times, national consumer magazines and websites.