Making your own baby food is incredibly easy. When I used to hear people talk about making their own a decade ago, I used to roll my naive lil' not-a-mama eyes and mutter, "Granola!!!" Baby food from a jar is not the devil. These days it is completely possible to find baby food made with simple, organic ingredients and no or very little preservatives and it's true that you can't get much quicker than opening a jar.
However, homemade baby food takes only a few seconds more to prepare, you know exactly what's in it and where it came from, you can control yourself how it was prepared - meaning you can choose cooking methods that retain more nutrients, you know the food is incredibly fresh and you can control the texture to suit your baby. In the beginning you might be making special little meals for baby, but this is equally fun for you and for them! They are discovering foods for the first time and that exploration is awesome and hilarious!
Later on when their palate is more developed, all you have to do is reserve a little of whatever you're cooking for the rest of the family and mash it up. In that case it might be easier than opening a whole bunch of little jars.
You don't need fancy baby food makers or special food processors. Most of your preparation can be done with a fork. Contrary to popular belief, babies don't need their food to be the purest puree ever. There shouldn't be any lumps big enough that baby can choke, but texture is good. It teaches baby not to become one of those annoying kids who will refuse to eat a yogurt with the tiniest chunk of fruit in it. Steamed, simmered or baked foods require such little attention you will hardly notice the extra effort.
Baby's first food doesn't need to be rice cereal, either. This has become the custom for a few reasons. Firstly, it's very bland and nondescript taste-wise. It's easy to introduce something that doesn't have much of a taste; nothing to complain about or refuse. Secondly, all rice cereal in the States is required to have iron added.
When your baby was in your belly they got all of the iron they needed directly from you through the umbilical cord. Baby was born with huge stores of iron to keep them functioning, but was not making iron on their own yet. Around six months is when baby starts producing iron by themselves, but it is also the the time where they have the lowest level of iron they will probably have in their entire life as the iron store gift from you has almost been used up. Adding iron to rice cereal was a convenient way to make sure baby got a kick start. It was promoted as the perfect first food to ensure baby didn't become too anemic.
As long as you start introducing solid foods around six months and as long as you are getting enough iron in your diet, baby will get all the iron they need from solids and your breastmilk or formula until they start producing it on their own.
Pretty much anything can be a first food for baby, though whole dairy products, foods with gluten (like wheat and barley), berries, citrus fruit and nuts are typically avoided for about the first year to reduce the likelihood of developing allergies. This is because your baby's digestive system isn't fully developed yet. Your intestines are like a giant sieve, and when you are a baby those tiny holes are much bigger, allowing larger pieces through. If certain foods pass through the bigger holes less digested, they can cause the body to react to them later on, causing a food allergy for life. Berries and citrus fruits are avoided because the acidity can upset baby's stomach.
The only things to completely avoid are salt and honey. Absolutely no salt should be added to any of baby's foods. Their kidneys are not developed enough to handle salt, and giving them even a little can cause permanent damage. Honey should be avoided because of the risk of botulism, although if boiled for five minutes it should be sterile enough for consumption (though in my personal opinion no baby under two needs any added sugar).
It is a myth that introducing vegetables before fruits will ensure they like them before getting trapped in a diet of all sweet. Babies like the taste of vegetables; when they are tiny they do have an affinity for sweet foods because breastmilk is sweet, but this does not mean they will never eat veggies, I promise! As their palate grows they will learn to love a variety of flavors. If baby refuses something one day they might love it the next, and vice versa. Keep offering! You might be surprised!
Last but certainly not least, make sure you introduce new foods one at a time, introducing only one new food every three or so days to make sure they don't have any reactions to it. If they do, such as diarrhea, rashes, vomiting, bloating or gas, remove the suspect food from their diet. In a few weeks, introduce it again and see if they react again. Be sure to let your pediatrician know.
It's very helpful to keep a little journal to jot down when you introduced the foods, how you prepared it, any reaction they might have had, and whether they loved or hated it. You only get to introduce a new food to baby once - have fun with it! It is an amazing learning process for everyone!