Annabel Karmel is the little secret of every mother with a fussy eater. The food writer has been luring children to tasty home-cooked food for a generation. Walk into any Waitrose or Spinneys outlet in the UAE, and her healthy food ranges will most likely be on shelves and in freezers.
No one, apart from perhaps a certain Colonel, has done more to influence the way children eat than Annabel. But whereas his brand of food is said to be loaded with salt and saturated fat, nutrition guru Annabel is one of the good guys; a diminutive, entrepreneurial Tinkerbell, undoing the ruin of processed meals with home-cooked fairy dust.
Annabel has fed a generation of fussy eaters and provided no-nonsense advice to millions of parents around the globe. She’s a regular visitor to the UAE and her iconic cookbook, New Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, is the second bestselling non-fiction hardback of all. So when Annabel talks about feeding kids, parents listen. And currently, uber mums who fill their little ones with wholegrains and high fibre are in her sights.
‘In reality those diets are the worst possible kind for children,’ scolds Annabel. ‘Some mums put their kids on high-fibre veggie diets with lots of lentils and brown rice because they think it’s healthy, but children have small tummies that get full easily. If they eat that kind of food they do not get the balanced nutrition they need and they deplete their body of nutrients such as iron. So it might be good for an adult but it is certainly not good for a little child. In reality children don’t need brown rice, lentils and low-fat yoguts, they need full-fat milk.’
In the UK where she lives, Annabel, 58, is the top bestselling cookery writer in the crowded market and the bestselling children’s cookery writer. She began her crusade to improve childhood nutrition after sharing recipes with mothers at a playgroup she ran in a well-heeled North London suburb almost three decades ago. The meals were a hit and mothers urged Annabel, who was professional concert musician at the time, to write a cookbook.
She did and also approached experts at the renowned Great Ormond Street Hospital for advice on nutrition. After meticulous research and positive feedback from her playgroup focus group who tested the recipes, Annabel took the book to publishers, who initially ignored her.
Today Annabel’s business empire is testament to her determination and belief. She offers no-nonsense advice and simple methods that work. Parents of a fussy eater will know the frustrating negotiations that mealtimes can become. Annabel’s tips are brilliantly simple. Starve them a bit first and feed them good stuff when they’re hungry.
‘A hungry child is a less fussy child,’ she shrugs. ‘The best time to introduce something new and nutritious to a child’s diet is when they are hungry, but usually that’s when they get a bag of crisps or chocolate. We are all programmed to have dinner at a certain time later in the evening. It doesn’t matter if you give children dinner at 4.30, as long as they eat well.’
New Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner was rejected by 15 publishers because many of the tips in it went against conventional wisdom. Some of the advice in it still raises eyebrows today. One hot topic is allergies, and Annabel has worked with world experts on the subject and advises giving babies peanut butter and eggs from six months provided there is no history of allergies, hay fever or asthma in the family. But before including peanuts in the child’s diet, please consult a doctor.
‘If a mother wraps a child in cotton wool, the child is more likely to get allergies,’ she says. ‘Exposure desensitises the child. Even children with peanut allergies are now being given tiny amounts of peanut protein to try and desensitise them so they don’t have anaphylactic reactions. Withholding these foods if not a good thing.’ Gluten-free products also come in for question.
‘Gluten allergies are not that common in children but there is a fad for gluten-free diets. Why would you take something like pasta out of a diet? Have these parents tested their children? I am not a fan of taking things out of a diet unless there is a real reason behind it,’ she asserts.
Even sugar and salt have their place in the school lunchbox. Common sense, rather than knee-jerk overreactions are needed.
‘It is ridiculous,’ sighs Annabel. ‘A tiny pinch of sugar in tomato sauce doesn’t harm and can reduce acidity. A tiny pinch of salt in a toddler’s meal will give it some flavour. Stick to the guidelines, no salt before a year, but use common sense,’ she says.
‘And the backlash against fruit is also ridiculous. Fruit is good food. If you say you can’t have a banana or a smoothie because it is high in sugar, how are you going to get your five-a-day?’
However, she does caution against too much sugar. ‘In the UAE alone there are 1.5 million diabetics – a huge problem,’ she says. ‘We used to see type 2 diabetes in older people but now younger children are being diagnosed as well, because of overeating and obesity and poor weight management. If you target children, that’s the best way to try to beat this: get kids to eat well early on, because it is very difficult to break habits after the age of five.
‘Obesity is really bad and that’s because a lot of food manufactured for children is the worst-quality food. Even the cereal bars that used to be nutritious are not any more. The yogurts have chocolate sprinkles. All these healthy foods are not healthy anymore.’
Annabel drew her inspiration from looking at other cultures and believes that the best way to get children to eat a balanced healthy diet is to introduce them to different foods early. She advises introducing spices at an early age to get children interested in different flavours. Indeed, her interest in cooking child-friendly nutritious meals developed after a doctor in France shared some Gallic recipes with her following a discussion about her son, Nicholas’s, challenging dietary tastes.
‘He was a really fussy eater and we were in France when he was little and he was ill. I mentioned to the doctor that he was a fussy eater and the doctor gave me some recipes. Nicholas enjoyed them.
‘People told me that babies only liked bland food and I started to wonder if that was true. Maybe they’d respond to more interesting meals. So when I went home I started to make more interesting dishes.’ Annabel’s concerns over her son’s diet were understandable. Tragically, she lost her first child, a daughter named Natasha, after she contracted a virus that spread to her brain at just three months old. The loss became the inspiration for the book.
Within four months of the death, Annabel was pregnant with Nicholas and admits she wanted another child to help her cope with the grief.
‘I needed another child,’ she says. ‘It had taken two years to have Natasha, I couldn’t wait that long again. I went to my doctor and asked how can I get pregnant quickly. He realised how upset I was and put me on a fertility drug.’
When Nicholas was born, Annabel was particularly protective and became fixated with his eating habits. And as she developed the book, she realised it would be a fitting memorial for her daughter.
With no publicity the book became a word-of-mouth hit. Annabel went on to write 17 others and became an MBE in the process. Along with child nutrition books she has written a glossy adult cookbook and also one about being an entrepreneur.
In 2000 she was asked to develop a children’s meal range for UK store chain Marks and Spencer and has also designed a co-branded range of food equipment with chemist chain Boots.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the New Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, the book is being reissued and updated with new recipes.
‘It’s been constantly refreshed over the years. New things come in and tastes change,’ says Annabel. ‘There are new recipes that include things such as kale, which is very popular.’
But she concedes that after a generation of growth and change, some things in food repertoire must always remain the same.
‘My chicken and apple balls are a legend,’ she laughs. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if they are still being cooked in another 25 years’ time.’