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How to Make Balanced, Homemade Dog Food

All it takes is healthy ingredients and a slow cooker.

by Claudia Kawczynska
July 29, 2017
Young Female Adult Feeds Her Rottweiler mixed breed Dog
Dylan Leeder / Stocksy

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Even if you're confident in the kitchen, putting those skills to use for your dog can be a bit intimidating. It’s hard to know where to begin — and how to ensure homemade meals are balanced and contain the nutrients essential for your dog's health. But with some research and dedication, you can prepare nutritious homemade dog food with little to no fuss.

Slow cooking is a great place to start making homemade dog food. It’s easy, accessible, and you probably already have a Crock-Pot tucked away in a kitchen cabinet — so why not put it to good use? 

That’s the preferred meal prep method for Greg Martinez, DVM, who practices at Gilroy Veterinary Hospital and has written multiple books on pet nutrition and cooking. Below, he provides expert insight and tips on what works for him, how to get started, and most importantly, how slow-cooked meals can upgrade your dog’s diet and overall health. 

Tips for Slow Cooking Your Dog's Meals

Slow-cooking veggies — from kale to parsnips to sweet peas — increases palatability. You can produce around nine pounds of food with two, seven-cup cookers. Be sure to alternate the protein sources from turkey and chicken to beef and pork, plus vary the vegetables, fruits, and carbohydrates.

• For optimum performance, fill the cooker to about two-thirds capacity, and not less than halfway; don’t over- or under fill.

• Six- to seven-quart cookers work best.

• Keep the lid on. Slow cookers can lose 20 to 30 minutes of cooking time if the lid is removed.

• One hour on the high setting equals two to two and a half hours on low.

• Remove excess fat from meats and the skin from poultry. Brown ground meats and drain off the residual fat before putting them in the cooker.

• Never put frozen foods into a slow cooker. Defrost ingredients before adding.

• Cut all ingredients into uniform pieces so they cook evenly.

• Put the densest ingredients — sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, and heavier root veggies such as parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas — on the bottom. Then add the meat and top off with other veggies and fruit.

• Grains absorb a lot of liquid. If you cook them with the other ingredients, you may have to add more water during the cooking process. This is especially true if you’re using brown rice. It's best to add the grains and legumes that require only light cooking (oats, millet, whole wheat couscous, barley, bulgur, quinoa, lentils, and split peas) three-quarters of the way through cooking. Or, cook them separately and then mix them in afterward. (If you do prepare them separately, cook them in the excess broth from the stew, which is tasty and rich in nutrients.)

• Meat and veggies may need to be broken into smaller pieces before feeding to your dog. Transfer the cooled meal to a large bowl, then use a potato masher, spatula, or the back of a wooden spoon to mush it all together and tear apart the chunks of meat. You can also use a food grinder or processor. 

• Meat contains a lot of water and shrinks during cooking. Find out just how much by consulting the USDA’s website. This is important to understand because cooking a pound of chicken, for example, results in much less meat in the finished product, meaning less calories and assorted nutrients. So, in calculating calories and nutrients, consider the “after cooking” weight.

• Adjust the protein-to-carb ratio by simply adding more meat to your recipe. You can even cook some additional meat separately and add it to the finished product at mealtime.

• Let the food cool down before packaging it in freezer-safe containers. Meals stay fresh for three to four days in the refrigerator. Defrost frozen meals in the refrigerator, not at room temperature.

Vet-Approved Homemade Dog Food Starter Recipe

Adapted from veterinarian Greg Martinez’s starter recipe, this slow-cooker homemade dog food recipe is higher in protein (about 50% dry matter) and lower in fat (about 10% dry matter) than in most recipes. But, because every pet is a unique weirdo with specific needs, talk things over with your veterinarian about your dog’s particular medical and dietary needs.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3/4 to 1 pound cubed, skinless, boneless chicken breast or thighs, or lean beef, turkey, or fish

  • 1 to 3 ounces of chicken liver, hearts, gizzards, or another animal liver.

  • 1 or 2 whole eggs (source of healthy fat)

  • 8 ounces of uncooked white or brown rice

  • 16 ounces green beans

  • Bone meal, 1 teaspoon (about 1,500 mg) per pound of meat (if this meal accounts for more than 10% of a dog’s daily diet).

  • Water

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a slow cooker, combine the chicken breasts, chicken liver, chicken hearts, gizzards and eggs.

  2. Add the bone meal, rice and green beans.

  3. Add water, ingredients should be submerged but do not need to be fully covered, then stir.*

  4. Cover and cook on low for 4 to 8 hours, until the chicken breasts fall apart.

  5. Stir and add or drain water as needed to make a drier or moister stew.

  6. Let the mixture cool before feeding and refrigerating.

*You'll need to use more water the longer the ingredients are cooked. So if you are slow-cooking chicken and bones for 14 hours, then more water is needed.

Nutritional Information

Depending on how much fat is in the meat and the number of green beans and rice used. This mixture approximately yields:

  • Qty: 7 to 8 cups (60 oz.)

  • 70% moisture

  • 10 to 15% protein

  • 5 to 7% fat

  • 5 to 7% carbohydrates

Illustration of food bowlDog

How Much to Feed Your Dog

Figuring out how much to feed your dog can be rather confusing. But when it comes down to it, the number of calories a dog needs on a daily basis can be determined by a variety of formulas

The first thing to do is calculate how many kilocalories your dog requires on a daily basis (Daily Energy Requirement or DER). The total calorie requirement should then be divided by the number of meals fed to your dog daily (usually two). All treats and snacks also need to be accounted for (you might have to check with treat makers for nutritional facts), and their calories should be subtracted from the total to be provided in their meals. 

Of course, it’s always recommended that before making changes to a dog’s diet, you discuss the plan with your veterinarian. Also keep in mind that there are a number of different approaches that are used to calculate a dog’s caloric needs, so other formulas may yield slightly different results. 

How much you feed will also depend on how much your dog weighs (as well as their Body Condition Score) and how active they are. Christine Zink, a leading expert on canine sports medicine, provides good thumbnail guidelines for activity: “An inactive dog is one who rarely gets more than a jaunt around the yard, a moderately active dog is one who gets 15 to 30 minutes of continuous exercise every day, an active dog is one who walks twice daily for about 45 minutes each time, and a highly active dog is one who gets at least several hours of exercise every day.” 

It’s important to remember that dogs are individuals. No matter what type of calculation you use, the best way to judge a feeding plan’s efficacy is by simply keeping track of any weight loss or gain, and then adjusting accordingly.

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Claudia Kawczynska

Claudia Kawczynska was co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Bark for 20 years. She also edited the best-selling anthology Dog Is My Co-Pilot.