StyleNest chat food, fussy eaters and first tastes with the UK’s no.1 children’s cookery author, best-selling international author, and the mother of all feeding experts with 45 cookbooks…and counting…Annabel Karmel.
Going back to 1991 when your first book The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner was published, what inspired you to start making healthy meals for children?
It was the tragedy of losing my first child Natasha. Although she was born healthy, she died at 13 weeks old from a viral infection and it was this that led me to change direction into the field of nutrition.
It wasn’t a diet related illness but I was understandably cautious when it came to feeding my second child Nicholas. Feeling vulnerable when he became terribly fussy I struggled to find enticing recipes to encourage him and so set about devising my own creations – as a frustrated mum at her wits’ end, you try anything (and everything). I stared to take my recipe creations into my local toddler group and it was my friends there who encouraged me to write my first book – The Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner.
With a legacy of over 25 years and 45 cookbooks published, how do you get inspiration for new recipes?
My vision today is still the same as it was over 25 years ago – I wanted to be somebody who held a mum or dad’s hand through the difficult time of feeding their child, and I think I’ve achieved that. Having spent more than 25 years equipping families with the tools, ideas and inspiration to enjoy good food, I know how powerful food can be in bringing families together and this is what continues to drive me to develop more and more recipes to this day.
You’ll find me cooking in my kitchen every Tuesday, developing recipes, whether it’s for a new book, app, our website or social media channels. It’s one of the best bits of my job and although I’m busy I’ll always make time for this. I like to look at recipes that have worked really well previously and adapt these to create a twist on a signature.
My new range contains all the goodness of a home cooked meal and includes only the best natural ingredients with no added salt, sugar or preservatives. It’s important for babies to explore lots of different tastes when they start out on their weaning journey and it was fantastic developing lots of new delicious first-taste flavour combinations. We also listened to feedback from parents and so the range is also free-from dairy and gluten. Four from the range are coconut milk based which we haven’t done before.
What exactly is Organic and how do you make sure your products are sourced properly?
Organic labelling on food means that the food you are eating (or feeding your baby) is fully traceable from farm to fork with no artificial colours or preservatives or other hidden nasties. The Soil Association have a great summary which you can read here.
Annabel Karmel as a company and our manufacturing partners are both accredited by the Soil Association, which means that all of our organic recipes are reviewed and approved by them to ensure that we meet the criteria required.
Are your Stage 1 Organic Purees just as healthy as cooking fresh?
With more and more parents under daily time pressures, serving-up quick and healthy meals on jam-packed days is often easier said than done. And this is where nutritionally balanced ready meals or on-the-go pouches can swoop in and save the day.
My new purees are a convenient healthy option and will provide your baby with a wholesome, nutritionally balanced meal. However, scratch cooking is always preferable as you are using fresh ingredients to help nourish your baby and provide the critical nutrients for their growth and development, and they are not heat treated to give them a longer shelf life. Also, when you make baby purees with protein like meat, fish and chicken you tend to add more protein when you home cook compared to some pouches which can contain as little as 8% meat for example.
Do you have any weaning tips for new mums?
Enjoy it! Taking your first steps into the world of weaning can be daunting, especially when faced with mountains of conflicting advice and opinions. My mantra is simple; experiment with a wide variety of healthy foods and flavour combinations at the very start of a baby’s weaning journey. Once you’ve mastered the basic steps, you’ll soon be on the road to weaning victory.
My new Weaning book includes everything you need to know about traditional spoon-led and baby-led weaning, advice on when to start, critical nutrients, how to cater for allergies and intolerances as well as lots of healthy and delicious recipes to get started.
There is a huge debate about Baby Led Weaning. What are your views on this and do you think purees are safer for those first tastes?
My approach is a flexible one – no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to weaning. Some feel a need to go with one method or the other, but I’ve always believed that you don’t have to choose. At around six months, you have the freedom to combine an element of baby-led weaning alongside spoon feeding if you feel that’s right for you and your baby.
When doing research for my Baby-led Weaning Recipe Book, we spoke to a number of parents, dieticians, nutritionists and healthcare professionals about the various approaches to weaning. Combining both methods is a popular option and one that many parents are finding the most realistic to adopt. Offering a mix of pureed foods as well as soft fingers foods at the beginning is also advocated by the likes of the Department of Health and the NHS and the British Nutrition Foundation.
Do you get advice from nutritionists for your recipes?
Along with my range of Stage 1 purees, I also have a range of chilled and frozen meals for toddlers and kids. I take the nutritional value of my meals incredibly seriously, and I work in partnership with a leading Child Nutritionist and Dietician to ensure that each and every meal is nutritionally balanced and that they adhere to the Weaning Food Directive and Nutritional Standards.
Making home cooked healthy meals can be very time consuming for a busy mum, should mothers feel guilty for giving their babies pouches, as some mums often do!
Absolutely not. With everyday routines busier than ever, more and more parents are looking for quick, easy and nutritious options to supplement their own home-cooked meals. That is exactly what pouches or ready-meals are there for and no parent should feel guilty about this, you’re only human!
What are your views on bringing children up on a vegetarian or vegan diet?
If you are setting out to wean your baby on a vegetarian or vegan diet then of course this is absolutely do-able, however, parents do have to be extra careful to ensure their baby’s diet is well balanced and they are still getting the critical nutrients required for their long-term development.
The good news is that for the first six months of your baby’s life, they will naturally get most of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients they need from their regular milk. Babies weaned before six months start off vegetarian anyway, as fruit and vegetable purées form the basis of their diets for the first month or so.
Once first tastes have been accepted from around six months, babies are growing at a rapid rate and certain nutrients are essential for their growth and development. At this stage you would typically start to introduce meat, poultry, and fish, so this is when you will need to look for alternative sources of iron, protein, zinc, and vitamin B12 for your vegetarian baby.
Foods such as tofu or beans and pulses (such as lentils) and nutrient dense foods such like cheese and eggs (if vegetarian) as well as green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli and spinach) and fortified breakfast cereals are all fantastic foods to include on the menu for your little one.
Whilst a low fat, high fibre diet is good for adults, too many high fibre foods can deplete your baby of vital nutrients and hinder iron absorption, so go easy on high fibre cereals.
What advice would you give parents of fussy eaters?
My advice is to try and introduce tasty, healthy alternatives early on. For example, most children love chips so why not try baking sweet potato wedges with a sprinkling of Parmesan instead? They are naturally sweet and baking them in the oven caramelises the natural flavour – kids will love them. Other delicious (and incredibly simple) alternatives to fussy eater’s favourites; chicken nuggets and fish fingers, is to coat them in rice Krispies or crushed Cornflakes and bake them rather than frying.
Another top tip is to get your very own little chefs in the kitchen as they will love to assemble their own food. Lay out new foods and veggies in bowls and let your child fill and fold their own wraps or choose their own toppings for their home made pizzas.
Sticker rewards just for trying new things and tasting them are so incredibly simple but can be really effective. If they even attempt to try something rather than ignore it, they should be rewarded.
Also, don’t be too hard on yourself. Believe me, I went through it with my extremely fussy son and came out the other side!
There’s a bit of a ‘cult of motherhood’ at present with hundreds of self-help books sometimes confusing and adding to mothers’ doubts, do you consider your books to be in that category?
I agree that there is a lot of conflicting information out there and it can be very confusing. I hope instead that I am offering parents some clarity and helping to guide them through every age and stage of feeding their families. For the first time, we now have mums joining our community who tell us that they themselves were fed on my recipes as a baby. This provides them with a real sense of comfort, familiarity and trust – effectively a stamp of approval on their feeding methods from their own mums.
Can your Stage 1 Organic Purees be used as sauces for older babies and toddlers?
Yes absolutely – and they are delicious stirred into porridge or in smoothies. One of my favourite tips is to use these in ice lollies – the perfect answer to a hot day. Simply freeze some of my delicious new organic fruit purees into mini ice lolly moulds. These are not only great for teething but also as treats or desserts for toddlers and kids.
Sometimes sweet treats are like the forbidden fruit. How do you overcome that in your own family?
It’s all about striking that healthy balance. My top tip is to get little ones making their very own ‘sweet treats’ so they understand that they’re not readily available and something you have every day. Try my simple Tasty Carrot & Oat Energy Bars.
That being said, I know how difficult healthy snacking can be when you are out and about. It’s a good idea to make your own batch of healthy treats so you’re never caught out. My mini energy balls from my new Baby-Led Weaning Recipe Book are perfect for those busy days. Free of refined sugar and packed with oats, seeds, nuts and dates, these delicious healthy snacks will give your child (along with the rest of the family) a mid-morning or afternoon energy boost.
What are your favourite family friendly restaurants in London?
I recently worked with the new Bluebird Café in White City. The restaurant has a fantastic family-friendly approach and the menu from Executive Chef Simon Gregory is delicious – for adults and children alike! Plus, their fun Kids Packs keep kids interested and entertained and away from screen-time! This also means parents get a nice bit of peace and quiet to enjoy a well-deserved meal out.
What is a typical day in the life of AK with 3 children and a busy career?
No two days are the same! I definitely don’t ever sit still and I am extremely hands on. I like to be in the office as much as I can so this is where you will find me when I’m not out at various meetings with brands, retailers or suppliers, attending an event, filming or working on my next book!
I still dedicate one day a week to developing new recipe ideas, so every Tuesday you’ll find me cooking up something new in my kitchen. I love having this day out of the office, away from my desk, to get creative and discover new foodie favourites – some of which can often spark the idea for a new book. I trial and tweak ingredients, texture and method until I’m happy. I don’t ever want to stop this aspect of my job as it’s where it all began for me back in 1991 with the Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner.
Evenings and weekends are all about family and friends and one of my greatest pleasures definitely has to be dinner with my three children – Nicholas, Lara and Scarlett. Now they are in their twenties, you have to grab these opportunities when you can!
When you are not working what do you enjoy doing?
I try to look after myself by eating healthily and exercising – I love nothing more than taking my three gorgeous dogs out for a long walk! Dogs have this great way of relieving stress and they give you an incredible unconditional love.
I also love watching television late at night. I’ll work until midnight or 12.30am and then go upstairs and watch TV. I also love the cinema and the theatre – it really relaxes me.
Serving-up quick and healthy meals on jam-packed days is often easier said than done. Leading children’s cookery author Annabel Karmel has come to the rescue and turned her most popular weaning recipes from her much-loved cookery books into nutritionally balanced on-the-go pouches for busy days.
With 11 different flavour combinations to choose form, Ananbel’s new Organic Stage 1 Baby Purees include only the best natural ingredients with 100% fruit, vegetables and natural coconut milk – and nothing else. Find them online at Ocado. For more information visit www.annabekarmel.com