‘My world fell apart.’
Annabel Karmel is a household name in the UK, she is as big as Jamie Oliver in mum circles and her recipes have been filling babies tummies for over 20 years.
She has written 40 cook books since writing The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner and has sold over 4 million copies.
But the celebrity chef’s cooking journey started from a personal tragedy.
“I unfortunately lost my first child,” said Karmel.
She noticed something was “not right” with her new baby Natasha but her doctor dismissed her as a worried first-time mum. The next day, Annabel took her 3-month-old to another doctor for a second opinion. That doctor knew there was something seriously wrong.
“I got her to hospital and five days later she died. My whole world fell apart. You can’t come to terms easily with the death of a child.”
Her career as a musician suddenly felt meaningless but when she had her second child, Nicholas, she found her calling.
“Nicolas was not the easiest of children. He was a bad sleeper, he wouldn’t eat and I was feeling really vulnerable having lost a child and I was determined to get Nicholas to eat, so I started making recipes for him.”
At the time Karmel was running a playgroup and sharing her recipes with around 100 other mothers. They suggested she write a book.
Mother of three Annabel Karmel MBE turned her life around. Image supplied.
“I thought about it and at first I thought - ‘I'm not sure I'll be able to do that’ - but then I thought it would be a great legacy to Natasha and help me come to terms with her death."
The problem with chicken nuggets.
“I started to research child nutrition - which is very difficult because all the experts contradict each other - but eventually I worked with Great Ormond Street Hospital and I worked with researchers and scientists and The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner eventually got published.”
Her work in the field of child nutrition scored her an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2006.
“If you bring a child up on chicken nuggets, chips and hamburgers and pizza – they’re not suddenly going to become good eaters at the age of 13 or 14, they will tend to eat what you have given them in their formative years,” she said.
“It’s really important that we give them good food when they are young so they’re used to it and that’s what they eat when they grow up.”
Some of Annabel's baby food ideas. Image supplied.
Ignore bad eating habits.
But how do mothers stick to that with fussy eaters? What advice does she have for mothers - like me - that have a daily battle that's settled with yoghurt and bananas?
“The more you get attention for not eating, the more likely they won’t eat so I would transfer the attention to when they do eat something. Even if it's in infinitesimally small amount of something new - you give them heaps of praise and just ignore bad eating habits,” she says.
“Otherwise you just end up giving the child the one thing all the two or three things they like and they become even more extremely fussy see need to break the pattern.”
Mix it up.
Karmel stresses the importance of trying new foods as a baby and as a family. She tried to “demystify cooking" and the difficulty of variety in her latest book which has a wide range of ingredients that may be unfamiliar.
“I think what happens is – and we are all guilty of this, even me - you get stuck in a rut and make four or five things and you rotate them. You make these over and over again, and then everyone gets fed up with them and they never want to eat them ever again. So the idea is – let’s try something new – maybe something you thought you’d never cook – like duck. Or quinoa.
"And then you realise it’s actually oh it’s really easy to cook, and we really like this.”
Annabel Karmel's Chicken Goujons and Quinoa Edamame. Image supplied.
She assures me that recipes from the book – Annabel Karmel’s Busy Mum’s Cookbook - do not need cooking skills.
“When you think something is overwhelming you just do the individual steps – each step is really easy.”
A lot of new mothers discover Annabel Karmel when they first feed their baby solids – when they are asking questions about what, how much and when to introduce foods.
Baby's first food.
“The truth is that physiologically babies can have simple solids from 17 weeks – but the guidelines in the UK are that they should start solids at six months. That's partly because of undeveloped countries where breast milk is sterile but food could cause gastritis and they want to make sure that babies at breastfed for longer.
“In countries like Australia in the UK where we preferred prepare food in a hygienic way there's no reasons why you can't give simple solids like apple and pear puree but if you think your child's doing very well on milk it’s fine to wait until the child is six months.
“Every child is different. I don't think you can make one rule for every child.”
Top tips for mums and bubs.
But she does have some basic tips for babies and food:
- Don’t give fruit and vegetables only for too long.
“I think a lot of people make that mistake because babies actually need iron from six months – they need meat, they need fish, they need chicken. You need to move onto these foods because there isn’t enough iron in breastmilk and formula milk and your baby needs to get it in their diet. That’s one of the reasons why they have to have solids from six months.”
- Healthy eating guidelines are not the same for adults and babies.
“So babies actually need proportionally more fat in their diet and less fibre. That’s because they have very small tummies and they are growing very quickly and their waist grows as fast, so they need to have nutrient dense food. So foods like avocado are good or putting a bit of cheese in your puree is good, and a lot of people give fruit and veg only and they are low calorie - so that’s not good.”
- Don’t worry about allergies unless you have a family history.
“If you do think your child is allergic to something please get your child properly tested by a paediatric allergy specialist. It isn’t a good idea to take something out of your baby’s diet. It makes your life much more difficult and very often it’s not a food allergy it’s a temporary intolerance. Sometimes when a child has gastritis they have a temporary intolerance and it doesn’t mean they have a food allergy. Also, sometimes if a child has eczema they do have an allergy, but sometimes their skin is just more broken and open around their mouth and they get redness around their mouth when they eat strawberry – it doesn’t mean they are allergic to strawberries it’s just irritation of the skin. So there’s all sorts of things you may think is an allergy but actually isn’t.”
- Fresh is really important.
“Baby purees that are in pouches are heat treated and a lot of the nutrients are therefore destroyed. We do a range of frozen food in Coles so that everything in the baby food is locked-in – it’s locked-in goodness. So that’s the best quality you could get or when you make it yourself and it is important to do that. Don’t rely only on pouches. It doesn’t really taste like real food. You do want your child to be eating what you eat so you want to get them onto real food as early as possible.”
And finally, Annabel Karmel helped me with my own battle every dinner time.
“Bribery works quite well,” she said.
“Putting things they don't like with things that they do like is good too. My son didn't like chicken but he liked apple so I made chicken and apple balls which she loved and he ate some chicken.”
She told me to make food that tastes great, that looks attractive and give smaller portions with finger food. Well, honestly, I don’t know how to do that so I am going to have to buy her book.
For lots more simple, delicious family pleasers, Check out Annabel’s brand new Busy Mum’s Cookbook (Penguin Random House) for lots of simple, delicious family pleasers – from 20 minute meals to store cupboard recipes. And don’t forget to follow Annabel’s Australian Facebook page
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