If you can barely find time to cook for yourself, making a meal for your dog may seem out of the question. But your standard dog food is far from ideal, especially compared to simple meals with real food you can whip up in your kitchen. "You wouldn't eat at Burger King and McDonald's every night and expect to be healthy. It's basically the same thing for dogs on dry kibble. That stuff has been cooked, dehydrated, and processed to death," says Judy Morgan, DVM, author of What's For Dinner, Dexter?, a cookbook for dogs. "The stuff that goes into pet food would blow your mind," she adds. Pet foods can contain "human food processing by products." That includes expired grocery-store items and the food containers, meaning plastic and cardboard can find their way into a bag of kibble.
Even if expired groceries aren't the main staple, "the majority of commercial dog food is made from ingredients that are considered 'feed grade,' which means they're unfit for human consumption," says Patrick Mahaney, DVM. Mahaney has been cooking for Cardiff, his Welsh terrier, since the dog was a puppy, and he says that the more he learns about the commercial pet food industry, the more he urges his clients to opt out of it. "People need to be shaken up and woken up about what they're feeding their pets."
Beyond being safer, Mahaney promises that you'll see changes in your dog's health and behavior by the end of his first month on home-cooked meals. Some, like improvements in skin and ear-infection issues, will be easy to spot. Others will be less quantifiable. "They'll be getting better-quality vitamins and minerals from whole food sources rather than from synthetic supplements," he says, adding that over time you'll have a healthier, happier dog.
But just as you can't survive on the same meal every day, dogs need more than a bowl of chicken and rice night after night. "That's actually one of the problems we have. Sometimes an owner will just cook chicken and rice for their dog, but just like humans, dogs need a balanced diet," says Morgan. To really make sure your pet is getting everything it needs, you'll have to put some thought into what you're making. Here's a primer to get you started.
Decide Your Level Of Commitment
Mahaney started out by making his dog food completely from scratch. "I was roasting and grinding eggshells for calcium; it was a lot of work." The good news is you don't actually have to do this.
"I cheat sometimes and use mixes that are already made," says Dr. Morgan. Mixes, like ones made by The Honest Kitchen and Dr. Harvey's include dehydrated veggies and all the vitamins and minerals your dog needs. "It's the easy way to do it without screwing up."
And if you're totally kitchen-averse but want to kick your dog's kibble habit, you can actually order complete, human-grade meals for your dog. Lucky Dog Cuisine will ship pre-packaged meatloaf bricks to your door, but it will cost you. A 14-pound package (enough to feed a 50 pound dog for two weeks) costs $169 if not ordered as part of a subscription deal.
Figure Out How Much To Feed
Morgan says as a general rule, dogs need 20–30 calories per pound of bodyweight per day. That usually works out to feeding 2–3 percent of their bodyweight daily. "So if it's a 100-pound dog, you're feeding two to three pounds a day."
Also, your dog is basically Paleo. The majority of their food should be meat, with cooked veggies and fruits and perhaps some whole grains mixed it. "Carbs tend to be the most allergy-inducing ingredients," says Morgan, so if your dog is prone to allergies, pass on adding in rice. Finally, keep fats moderate. Like all carnivores, dogs need fat. But too much fat in a dog's diet can lead to weight gain, pancreatitis, and gastric upset. Generally there will be enough fat in the meat you're cooking for you to not need additional fat, says Morgan, and if you're cooking a piece of meat, trim the excess fat off.
Pick Your Proteins
When it comes to making your own dog food, it can be as expensive — or as cheap — of an endeavor as you make it. Morgan shops exclusively at Whole Foods and buys all organic, local meats. But she says that if you can't do that, don't despair. "Even the huge package of ground beef you get at Sam's Club is going to be better than what's in kibble."
Almost any meat will work. Morgan likes to mix things up by cooking rabbit one night a week, chicken another, and beef the next. Fish is a good thing to include too, since omega-3s are important for dogs. And although you may not be big on organ meats, your dog probably is. "Chicken livers, duck livers, hearts, kidneys, spleen, tripe; up to 30 percent of your protein can be from organ meats." But Morgan adds this warning: "If you ask your butcher for a beef liver, you're going to be getting a 50-pound organ. Just ask for a slice."
Make Your First Batch
You really should follow a recipe while you're getting the hang of things. Several books, including What's For Dinner, Dexter? and Dinner Pawsible, offer straightforward advice, recipes, and troubleshooting for dogs with common health issues.
Dr. Morgan usually makes two kinds of meals: crock-pot stews, which include ground meats and finely chopped or ground veggies, and giant, baked meat loafs. "I just put a bunch of chopped or ground [for small dogs] veggies and meat in the crock pot and leave it for a few hours, or I make a meat loaf with ground veggies, an egg, and ground meat. Put it in the oven for an hour like you would for a human."
There are some foods you should never put in your dog's bowl. Onions, avocados, grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, chocolate, and currents are all bad for dogs, and large amounts of garlic should be avoided too. Poultry bones get a bad rap for splintering easily, but that's also true of larger cooked bone, which should also be nixed.
As you pull your gleaming meat loaf from the oven, it may be tempting to get Fido's bowl and dish him out a human-sized portion. Resist the urge. Mahaney says this is the fastest way to end up with a pile of dog diarrhea on your floor. "Add it in slowly. Any food change should be done over four to seven days to help them adjust. Each day there should be a 25 percent reduction of the old food and a 25 percent increase in the new food."
Be aware, your dog's poop is going to look different on homemade food. "There will be less poop, which is a bonus," says Morgan. "Commercial dog food has so many fillers, which makes for a lot of poop. Your dog's poop will definitely change," but she says it isn't something to be concerned about unless it's diarrhea-like.
Strategize For Time Management
Unless the kitchen is your happy place, you probably don't want to cook dinner for you and your dog every night. Morgan says that you can easily make a week's worth of food at a time, then portion it out and freeze it. Let thawed portions sit in the fridge for no more than two days; the frozen portions, meanwhile, should keep for several weeks.
Ideally, Morgan suggests having several different frozen options on hand at all times so you can mix things up for your dog. But if that's just too complicated, know your dog is likely going to be happy with any home-cooked meal.