Tuesday 20 February 2018

Eat, purée, love: Annabel Karmel began food empire as a legacy after her daughter's death

Our reporter meets baby food pioneer Annabel Karmel and talks success, failure, fussy eaters and how the death of her daughter spurred her multi-million-euro empire

Annable Karmel wrote her first book as a form of therapy.
Annable Karmel wrote her first book as a form of therapy.

Orla Neligan

'Brilliant," squeals Annabel Karmel, clapping her hands together in delight at the sight of my dog-eared, sauce-splattered copy of her first book The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner - the definitive guide to feeding babies and toddlers. "I always love to see copies of my books with the pages stuck together."

I am just one of many women around the world who consider Karmel's first book (and the 39 that followed) kitchen bibles when it comes to feeding my children.

First published 25 years ago this month, it remains the second best-selling non-fiction book of all time in the UK despite taking two-and-a-half years to write and being rejected from 15 publishers before it got to print. "If that book hadn't been successful I probably wouldn't have written another book or had a food business. I like to think of it as my fifth child," admits Karmel, who is a mum to Nicholas (26), Lara (25) and Scarlett (23), and is now the UK's fourth best-selling cookery writer, number one children's cookery author, owner of a multi-million euro empire that includes a range of supermarket meals and kitchen equipment. She has recently launched her 40th tome The Busy Mums Cookbook - an essential bible for time-pressed mothers.

But her success is double-edged since the catalyst for writing her first book was the death of her first child, Natasha, in 1987 at three months old. Karmel was working as a professional harpist when her daughter died from a viral infection that affected her brain. The tragedy changed everything.

"My whole world fell apart; I had no interest in playing music or doing anything." Shortly after, she became pregnant with her son Nicholas, a fussy eater, who inspired her to get 'creative' with his baby food. "It was a very vulnerable time for me. Having already lost a child, I was terrified that something would happen to Nicholas if I didn't find a way to get the food into him. But, equally important was this drive to leave a legacy for Natasha. I didn't write the book to make money; it was more of a therapy for me, a way to come to terms with her death and to leave something in her memory."

At the time Karmel was running a day-care centre. She started sharing her menus with other mums who encouraged her to put them together in a book. "Everyone said babies only like bland food but I disagreed. I was making bland food and my baby wasn't eating it."

Her son Nicholas was a 'difficult eater' but she knew he loved apples so she started introducing them into his food, adding other ingredients to make it tastier. "The first recipe that I tested for the book was the chicken and apple balls, which Nic loved. I now do a dinner-party variation of that recipe," she laughs, and Nic, she tells me, is now a fantastic eater. "He'll try anything - kangaroo, crocodile. I'd like to think I helped develop his love for food."

Unsurprisingly, Karmel is something of a guru on fussy eating, citing parents as playing a vital role in the eating habits of our children. According to her, parents are terrified of their children not eating so often give them whatever they want until their range of food becomes so small it's even harder to diversify. "Often it's a battle of wills, but the less attention you give the 'non-eating', the better."

So, hunger is good sauce then? "Well, a hungry child will be less fussy so missing a meal every now and again is not necessarily a bad thing." What about bribery, I ask sheepishly. "Stickers are probably best," she laughs, "or their favourite toy or TV show, as long as the bribe isn't unhealthy food such as sweets."

A great way to get children interested in food is to encourage cooking, says Karmel. Her own children were in the kitchen from the age of four, which she believes encouraged a healthy attitude to food.

"Friday was their night to cook dinner. They would choose the recipe; I would chop everything and leave them to it. One of my daughters would write up the menu, one would be the waitress. It was fun, they loved it and always ate what they cooked."

Despite her can-do attitude, in person Karmel is demure and softly spoken, her petite frame impeccably dressed as she tucks into a huge bowl of rhubarb jelly and ice-cream. This, she admits, would be her death row meal along with seafood spaghetti and a blue cheese salad. Nothing too complicated.

This seems to be her modus operandi when it comes to her books. Her latest, The Busy Mum's Cookbook, follows suit with simple, no-fuss family recipes. "I don't like to overcomplicate things. I know how busy life is and wanted to produce a book that catered for families and, in particular, busy mums. One of my favourite recipes from the new book is sweet potato curls, made using a spiraliser - a six-ingredient dish that is so tasty. Just add salt, pepper and olive oil and bake for 20 minutes."

The premise is to inspire you out of a cooking rut, using ingredients you may not normally consider in an accessible way. Inspired by her own hectic lifestyle, Karmel knows only too well the perils of the work-life juggle. "It's not easy. You have to find your own guilt threshold. If you say you're going to be back by 5pm, be back on time and turn your phone off. Kids always know when you're not present."

It doesn't come as a surprise to learn Karmel is a self-confessed workaholic but is quick to point out that "if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life". When she's not researching recipes, appearing on TV and writing books, she's busy playing bridge, out walking with her three dogs or at the movies.

She's just been to see the film Eddie the Eagle, which she loved mainly for its sentiment - a guy who's passionate about what he does, not particularly good at it, but doing the best he can. It's clear she possesses a similar mettle that has helped navigate her through challenging times.

In her words, the opposite of success is not failure, it's not trying. "Some of the most successful people have failed spectacularly. You can't go back and start again but you can make a new ending." The mere mention of taking risks and she's off on a passionate pique about one of her greatest failures - a fresh baby food range for supermarkets - which, thankfully, had a silver lining. With only a seven-day shelf life, the fresh food range resulted in huge wastage and loss of revenue but if she hadn't dipped her toe in, she wouldn't have discovered baby food pouches, now a huge seller.

"I like trying new things. Everyone told me I was mad when I developed a chicken tikka masala range for supermarkets but it's my biggest seller. I always try to stay true to my own instincts."

Some challenges, however, are beyond her control. She recalls with great humour a TV appearance she made in the US alongside her friend's child. Unaware the child had any allergies, the TV anchor shoved a piece of kiwi in his mouth. Moments later he projectile vomited on live TV. "There's very little you can do to save the moment when that happens," laughs Karmel.

The subject of allergies spurs a lively conversation, being a subject on which she is often asked to comment. In her view, people are quick to take food out of a child's diet without getting proper tests.

Cow's milk, for example, is a common allergy among children, which, unbeknown to many, often dissipates at the age of three. A peanut allergy is more serious but some paediatric allergy specialists recommend introducing a tiny trace of peanut under medical supervision to build an allergic child's immunity.

"Children need antibodies to fight infection so I don't believe in disinfecting everything and wrapping them up in cotton wool, so to speak." What about the 'five second rule', I ask? "Probably best to put the piece of food in the bin if it's been on the floor," she smiles. Her view on sugar is equally sensible. "Everything in moderation," she confirms. The poor smoothie has had some bad press, in Karmel's opinion, undeservedly. "These days parents are very aware of sugar. It's helpful to know that 4g of sugar equals 1 teaspoon so it's always good to look at the nutritional information - as lots of food you think is healthy, isn't."

As someone who has remained at the top of the food business for the last 25 years, she has seen the rise and demise of food trends and seems somewhat wearied by the very thought of dehydrated nuts and dairy-free diets. "What's the point?" she says rather indignantly. "Unless you present major allergies to certain foods, there's nothing wrong with wheat, dairy, yeast. The first thing I do every morning is go down to the bakery for bread. It's one of my favourite things to eat."

Her new book offers a chapter on store cupboard essentials for mums who don't like to 'endure' the weekly shop. "I personally love the weekly shop - it's always great to see what's out there - but I know for many mums it's a chore, which is why I included a chapter on things you can stock such as balsamic vinegar, rice wine vinegar, sun-dried tomato paste... all items with loads of flavour."

With that she is pulling out her phone to show me photos she and her daughter have taken of tasty recipes for her Instagram account and Apps. The mere mention of social media and she's practically out of her seat with excitement.

"The Apps were number one and two on the Food and Drinks chart this week," she says proudly. There's also a new website on the way and a range of Disney kids snacks she's developing for Lidl. Her frozen food range is doing so well in Australia, she'd like to develop the range for the UK and Ireland and then there's her new book.

It's a treadmill, albeit a happy one, but one that requires temerity, dogged determination and a good dose of ambition. "Not ambition," she corrects me. "Passion. If I never achieve anything else, I'll be quite satisfied. I can go to any country in the world and I'll meet a mother who has my book and that's so much more than I ever set out to achieve."

Annabel's top tips for cooking for kids

1 Try making your own healthy junk food using good quality lean meat for burgers, pitta bread for pizza bases and fresh fruit lollies from puréed fruits and fruit juice.

2 If your child is reluctant to eat vegetables, try using a spiraliser. They are cheap and a really fun way to transform vegetables into spaghetti. You can also blend vegetables into sauces for pasta or hide them in wraps, cannelloni, lasagne and quesadillas or under grated cheese in pizzas - what children can't see, they can't pick out!

3 Try not to stereotype children's food. You'll be surprised at how much children love flavour: satay chicken, paella, teriyaki salmon and mild fruit chicken curries. My daughter was eating olives at the age of two, and sushi not long after.

4 Make your children's food look attractive - mini portions of meals like fish pie in ramekins make them easy to freeze but more attractive. Make funny faces with vegetables or try threading bite-sized pieces of fruit on to a straw instead of presenting a whole fruit bowl.

5 It's helpful to have a low shelf in the fridge where children can help themselves to healthy snacks such as fruit or raw vegetables with dips, especially after school when they are hungry and likely to go for the biscuit tin.

6 If your child is underweight, choose full fat dairy products like cheese, milkshakes and good quality ice-cream. If your child is obese, don't restrict their diet; they're still growing and require a variety of healthy foods but it's important that the whole family starts to eat a more healthy diet with less fried food and more lean meat, vegetables and fruit.

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