‘We all start off with good intentions when it comes to feeding our children. We do want the best for them but we don’t realise until we are a mother, how a small person can be so difficult and obstinate.’
Annabel Karmel talks sense. When I talk to her about the best food to give my toddler, she doesn’t tell me that sugar and salt should be banned, and babies should be weaning according to a strict schedule. She doesn’t say that birthday cake is bad, and carrot sticks are good. She seems to understand, having raised three children of her own, that feeding our children is not a simple linear path from breastmilk to steak tartare. There will always be false starts, but she offers advice that is practical and no-nonsense.
Kitchen table recipes
Annabel’s food empire started from her London kitchen, with her own children, Nick, Lara and Scarlett.
‘They were fussy, and difficult. Had they been easy, I would not have had my career! So I think I have lived through it and breathed through it. I lost my first child, so when I had my son Nick, who was such a fussy child, I was so worried because I thought he might suffer like my first child and wouldn’t have the reserves to fight it.’
Annabel started experimenting with food for her son: ‘I started to make things for him. He liked apple but he didn’t like chicken. I made apple and chicken balls, which were minced chicken, with onion, fresh thyme, breadcrumbs, a little bit of chicken stock and a little bit of apple. The apple gave a slight sweetness to the balls, so he decided to like chicken.
‘I sympathise with mothers. People say, it is easy to get children to eat things. It isn’t easy. Sometimes they don’t like the look of it or they don’t like that everything is mixed in together. They are the fiercest of food critics. It is hard if you have a fussy child.’
Children deserve ‘proper’ food
From creating her own recipes, Annabel was inspired to write her first cookbook in 1991, The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner. It became a runaway success and was the number one bestselling book on food for children for 15 years. Perhaps the key to its success was the way in which Annabel doesn’t see ‘child’ and ‘adult’ food as separate things: ‘I think stereotyping children’s food, wherever you go, doesn’t help. Children go to a friend’s house and the mother makes chicken nuggets, because they know they like them and she wants them to be happy. Nobody thinks that a child might like chicken satay, or a stir fry, or a Mediterranean chicken dish with tomato sauce.
She also thinks it is easy to get into ‘bad’ habits with your children: ‘I think that children are never hungry now. You will always give them something, and it isn’t necessarily something healthy. I think that’s not a good idea, because we as parents end up giving them four or five things that we know they will eat. If you do that over and over again, and you don’t try new things, then the child becomes even more fussy and you get into this cycle where you think, I can’t bear a battle at mealtimes. I know they will eat pizza and nuggets, I will just give them that.
‘We don’t want to do it, we feel guilty about doing it, but at the same time, we feel guilty about our child not eating. But we have to reason with ourselves – why is it such a terrible thing if a child misses a meal? Because let’s face it, a hungry child is a less fussy child. You have got to break the pattern. You have got into that cycle of giving them those four things and the only way you are going to do it is to get that child to be hungry enough to eat something new. Otherwise, they look at it and they say, that’s yucky, I am not eating it. And they haven’t taken one mouthful.’
She also believes that parents should remember the importance of snacks in a child’s diet: ‘You have to focus on the fact that sometimes they eat more between meals than they would at mealtimes. So think about making something in the morning that could be a healthy snack. So perhaps a pasta salad with broccoli and chicken and tomatoes and sweetcorn. Or a wrap, or fresh vegetables and a hummus dip. Otherwise the children tend to eat cookies and a bag of chips.’
The big sugar question
Sugar is another key topic in child nutrition, and perhaps the one that is most controversial. While Annabel is obviously against giving children huge amounts of sugar, she doesn’t believe a small amount is harmful: ‘There is such a fuss about sugar in the UK. A banana has four teaspoons of sugar in it. Okay, so are we not going to eat fruit?
‘They say, don’t drink fruit juice. Yes, a whole fruit is better than fruit juice, but juice is still good for you. If your child is obese, don’t give them lots of fruit juice and smoothies. But it is scaremongering, and makes it more difficult for parents. If I shouldn’t be giving juice, and bananas have sugar in, well, what am I going to give?’
‘When I add a small amount of sugar to something I make, I have done it for a reason. It is so that the child will eat it. As well as ‘scaremongering’ in the press, Annabel believes the problem with sugar in processed food lies with the law: ‘There will be no responsibility from manufacturers until there is legislation regarding the amount of sugar you are allowed to add to meals designed for children.’
Annabel in the UAE
Obesity and early-onset diabetes are a big problem in the UAE. Annabel suggests keeping a food diary so you know exactly what your child is eating: ‘Often we are not around during the day when the child is being fed. Sometimes when the child is unhappy or crying, they will be given food. We need to know what they are eating during the day.’
Apart from her 40 books, Annabel’s baby and toddler food ranges can be found all over the world, including within the UAE. She has just launched a frozen baby food range in Australia, which she hopes will be the next step in children’s food: ‘It is difficult to get mums to go to the frozen food aisle, but it is the best way of preserving all the nutrients in food. The baby aisle is all long-life food We as adults just don’t eat like that!
With sensible statements like that, there is no question that Annabel Karmel offers sound advice. Whether you’re weaning a baby or feeding your whole brood, she might just be able to give you a hand.
Annabel on….snacks for journeys
‘Take my snack range! Fresh fruit is sticky and messy, as are vegetables. Dried fruit is good, like apricots. Also try rice cakes and sticks of cheese.’
Annabel on….baby-led weaning
‘I am not against finger foods. I give them babies them as soon as they can hold them, as long as they are soft. What I am against is why it has to be to the exclusion of purees. I do baby-led weaning and purees. I don’t think pure baby-led weaning leads to a less fussy child.’
Annabel on….birthday parties
‘Sugar and cakes at other people’s birthdays are fine. I am not a purist. If you ban those things, then your child will want them even more. There are occasions when your child is going to overdose on sugar, and you can’t tell your child not to eat cakes and sweets at a party. It’s annoying, but what are you going to do? Everything in moderation is okay.’
Explore a world of flavour with Annabel’s Organic Stage 1 Baby Purees and Sauces, inspired by her home-cooked recipes. If you’re looking for snacks too, check out Annabel’s wholesome Disney range complete with tasty rice cakes, raisins, breadsticks and biscotti biscuits. Both ranges are available in Spinneys, Waitrose and Carrefour.
For more recipes and ideas, visit www.annabelkarmel.com or follow her on Instagram.