For some consumers, treating Spot and Fluffy as members of the family extends to their diet. After all, if everyone else is getting homemade meals with organic ingredients, why shouldn’t they? It might be healthier than commercial foods — and cheaper, too.
Consumers have become more interested in preparing their own pet foods in recent years, due to both pet food recall scares and a human-diet emphasis on knowing what’s in the foods we eat, says Dr. Jules Benson, the vice president of veterinary services for pet insurance carrier Petplan. There are some economic interests, too, depending on what you currently feed your pet. A balanced, home-cooked diet for a 30-pound dog would cost $3.52 per day; $5.58 if you go organic. That’s two to four times the price of commercial dry dog foods of similar qualities, he says, but up to half the cost of commercial wet foods.
But making the switch isn’t as simple as dishing up a portion of the Sunday-dinner roast for your pet. “There is science behind what your pet needs,” says Dr. Benson. “These diets should be developed for your pet individually.” Home-prepared pet meals aren’t a good solution, or a safe one, for every family.
That means before you give homemade food a try as a significant part of your pet’s diet — and this step is vital — TALK TO YOUR VETERINARIAN. Don’t just go in and ask, “Is this a good idea?” either. Research some of the options, present what you’d like to do, and get their take on what works and doesn’t for your pet’s general health and any medical conditions. You might also seek a consultation with a veterinary nutritionist. (The American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition and the American College of Veterinary Nutrition both recommend PetDiets.com and Balanceit.com as resources.)
Try these other tips to delve into cooking for your pet:
Cook for yourself
“Every Day with Rachel Ray” magazine runs a regular feature of recipes that both you and your dog can enjoy. Personal chef Lindsay Nixon uses lentils as the protein base for her dogs, and mixes in leftover vegetables, potatoes and brown rice from her own meals as well as a pet vitamin supplement. (The combo, she says, has cut her pet food bill from $25 per month for dry kibble to just $10.)
Keep it healthy
Not all foods people eat are good for dogs and cats, Dr. Benson warns. “Don’t feed them hot dogs, or anything we would consider junk food,” he says. “Just because dogs will eat it doesn’t mean it’s good for them.” Low-fat, lean cuts trump fatty bits, which are more likely to cause gastrointestinal problems. But good-for-us foods aren’t always good for them, either. Foods like grapes and onions should never be given to your pet, he says. (Check the ASPCA’s people food list of things that may be toxic, or cause some digestive issues.)
Use a homemade food as a topper
There’s no need to make all your pet’s food to see some savings or health benefits. You could scale back the amount of commercially prepared food you serve, and either top it with a homemade mix, or blend one in. Jenna Dreher, the chief executive of pet-care company Pet It Forward, tops her Great Dane Casper’s food with a soft mix of simmered sweet potatoes, carrots and apples, seasoned with a dash of cinnamon.
If you want to try these kinds of diets but don’t have the time to spend in the kitchen or are worried about getting the right balance of necessary foods, check out premade raw pet food like Primal Pet Foods, Nature’s Variety, and The Honest Kitchen. It’s not a money-saver, however: ThatMutt.com blogger Lindsay Stordahl’s looked at the options for Ace, her 67-pound black lab mix, and found that premade food came out to be $83 to $115 more expensive per month than versions she could make at home. “So far I haven’t done that because of the time commitment,” Stordahl says. “I can barely find time to shop for my own food.”
Seek out supplements
It’s not enough to give your dog or cat some chicken and rice every night, Dr. Benson says. You’ll need extra vitamins, which might be achieved through mixing in different vegetables and grains, a powdered pet-food supplement or other add-ins (like, oddly, human Tums) recommended by your vet. These add just a few cents to the bill, but many — like taurine powder for homemade cat foods — are essential, he says.
They’re a good entry point into homemade foods. Dreher makes these yogurt, apple and oatmeal treats for Casper: Mix two and 1/3 cups oatmeal, one cup French vanilla yogurt and two-thirds of a cup of apple sauce together in 1 bowl. Another of Casper’s favorite treats mixes two and 1/3 cups oatmeal, two mashed ripe bananas, one cup peanut butter and a half-cup chopped peanuts. For either recipe, spoon batter onto cooking sheet, keeping each drop the size of a bottle cap — an optimal treat size. Cook at 375 for 12-15 minutes.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.