Annabel Karmel is probably on your bookcase.
Not literally of course, but there’s a good chance that one of her many books has made its way into your home.
Since her first book was published more than 20 years ago Annabel Karmel has become a household name, a leading figure in the world of children’s food and nutrition, and the UK’s number one parenting author.
But did you know that before kids, she was a professional musician? Did you also know that it was the devastating loss of her first child and the extreme fussiness of her second that led to her starting on this path?
Here, while on a trip to Australia, she chats to the Bub Hub about her life and her work …
Q. We all know you for your baby and family cookbooks, but is it true that you were a professional musician?
Yes, I was a professional musician. I studied classical music and played the harp and I sang. I performed at many concerts all over the world. Then I started to play more popular music and I performed on television and made CDs. Music was a big part of my life and when I had my children I taught them all to play violin. Playing music teaches you a lot about life, it teaches you a discipline as I had to practise for hours, it helps train your memory as you have to remember complicated pieces of music by heart and you gain confidence as you learn to perform in front of people at an early age.
Q. When did you become interested in infant nutrition?
I was always passionate about cooking but it was a hobby rather than a profession. I enrolled in a Cordon Bleu Cookery Course in London which inspired me to be creative and come up with my own recipes. I left home to study music in Holland and that’s when I started to cook for myself and experiment with food. I would often have friends over and cook for them.
It was the tragedy of losing my first child Natasha and the birth of my second child Nicholas who was the world’s worst eater that got me into the field of infant nutrition. I was running a playgroup of about 100 children every week and realised that many children were fussy eaters and parents were finding mealtimes a real battle. So I would hand out the recipes that I made for Nicholas to the mums and each week they would ask me for more recipes and eventually the mums said that I should write a book on feeding children.
At first I wasn’t sure but then I thought it would be a wonderful legacy to Natasha and make some sense of her short life to bring out a book on healthy food for babies and toddlers dedicated to her. So I set about writing my first book interviewing experts and researchers on child nutrition so that the advice I gave was based on scientific facts. The book took two and a half years to finish and every recipe was tested on a panel of very discerning critics, the babies and toddlers themselves. It was interesting as everyone was saying that babies and young children only liked bland food but I found that they favoured food that was tasty and found ways to add flavour without adding seasoning.
In 1991 the Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner was published … it has since sold 4 million copies and has become a bible on feeding young children to many mothers all over the world. It is the most popular parenting book in the UK since records began. Just shows that you should never give up as about 15 publishers turned me down before it was published by Random House.
Q. What has changed in the world of infant nutrition since you published your first book in 1991?
There was a lot of confusion over the age at which you could introduce certain foods. However from my research it was clear that babies needed food like red meat and oily fish like salmon from 6 months as iron and essential fatty acids are both important nutrients that will help the mental and physical development of your child.
Very often parents give only fruit and vegetables for too long. I started mixing fruit and savoury together with combinations like chicken with sweet potato and apple or a beef casserole with carrots and dried apricots as babies like the hint of sweetness that the fruit gives. Also a lot of people were boiling vegetables and vitamins B and C are water soluble so a lot of the nutrients were lost and more recently people have moved to steaming their vegetables. I think the types of recipes that we give to our babies are a lot more adventurous which is important and babies tend to eat pretty well between 6 and 12 months so its important to introduce lots of different flavours early on to avoid them becoming too fussy.
Q. And what has remained the same?
Well, I still believe in starting with purees and then quickly combining with soft finger foods. The sort of foods we give as first foods are still root vegetables like sweet potato, carrot and things like butternut pumpkin. And the best first fruits are things like apple, pear, banana, avocado. These are unlikely to cause an allergy. We still avoid giving certain foods like honey, unpasteurised cheese, under cooked eggs, nuts, spicy foods etc….
Q. What advice do you have for mums of fussy eaters? How do you get a child to eat their vegetables?
- Try to ignore bad eating habits and focus on the positive so praise your child for trying something new.
- If your child refuses to eat anything other than junk food, chill out, he will soon find out there’s not much point making a fuss if you don’t react.
- Try to limit snacks between meals … remember that a hungry child is a less fussy child.
- Don’t get into the habit of giving in and letting your child eat the same things all the time as this just encourages extreme fussiness.
- Make food look attractive, make mini fish pies in ramekins, make mini chicken and apple balls they can pick up with their fingers, thread chunks of colourful fruit onto a straw rather.
- Most children adore cooking and tasks like cracking eggs or mashing potatoes are well within the capabilities of a young child. It’s amazing how being involved in the planning and preparation of a meal can stimulate a child’s appetite.
- You can disguise vegetables by blending them into a tomato sauce and serve with pasta or use mashed carrot and potato instead of a plain potato topping.
- A lot of children like to eat with their fingers so serve something like corn on the cob or mini steamed carrots or broccoli florets.
- Children often prefer raw vegetables to cooked. Try some new ones like sweet sugar snap peas or capsicum and a tasty dip.
Q. And what’s your best tip for new mums in general?
Trust your intuition. You know your child better than anyone else and if you think something is wrong get them checked out by a doctor.
Also on food, don’t remove a staple food like dairy or wheat without the help of a dietitian and if you think your child is allergic to a certain food, make sure he or she is tested by an allergy specialist as t could be a temporary intolerance.
And remember low-fat, high-fibre is not suitable for young children as they are growing rapidly so give whole milk dairy products rather than low fat and don’t give too many high-fibre cereals
Q. How can your instil life-long good eating habits in your children?
By starting with good eating habits. Children make up their minds in the first few years what they like to eat. So once a child is hooked on sugary breakfast cereals or salty snacks, its much more difficult to instill good eating habits.
Q. What is your favourite recipe for the whole family?
Its very difficult to choose one but some of my favourites are: My Salad Dressing which is a Japanese style low-fat dressing which tastes incredible and my children want salad every day; My Chicken burgers with leek, apple and carrot are delicious; My Fish Pie is the best Fish Pie ever and I make them in individual ramekins; and for dessert you have to try my Peach and Raspberry Crumble and my Summer Fruit Brûlée with Amaretti Biscuits
Annabel has released two new books this year – Quick & Easy Weaning and Annabel’s Family Cookbook. You can also access more than 200 recipes and a host of other features, on Annabel’s app – Annabel’s Essential Guide to Feeding Your Baby & Toddler – from the App Store or via www.annabelkarmel.com