I admit it now that I am a bit of a fangirl over Annabel Karmel. I bought The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner – the second best-selling non-fiction hardback of all time – when I started to wean my son. It gave me the confidence to try him with different foods and it provided a sensible approach to purées and baby-led foods through to meal ideas that I still use to this day.Whether or not this book is responsible for the brilliant little eater I have who knows, but thankfully he eats pretty much anything.
Others are not so lucky. There are a lot of fussy eaters out there and it is the early years caterers who deal with the brunt of them. Which is why Annabel has begun collaborating more with nurseries and preschools. She works with Fennies and Treehouse Nursery Schools, plus a number in Australia, working with their cooks to create menus that the kids will love, and she is keen for more nurseries to reach out to her and tap into her 26 years of experience.
“It’s so important for a fussy eater to go to nursery and try new things,” she stressed at the recent Childcare Expo in London.
Eating with parents is a different kettle of fish, not helped by the exasperated parent who is reluctant to repeatedly try the same foods that are going to end up on the floor. But at nursery, where fussy eaters can see their friends try and enjoy a food, they are much more likely to change their habits for the better.
Of course, it’s not all about peer pressure, asserts Annabel. Making food look attractive and hiding ingredients also goes a long way to changing habits and importantly, getting nutrition into the child.
“My career has always been about how to make food that is healthy, but that they don’t realise it’s healthy, they just enjoy it,” she says.
Food that looks like junk food is a particular trick of hers. Polenta pizza, cauliflower-based pizzas and tortilla pizzas, for example. A chicken nugget coated with breadcrumbs and Rice Krispies.
Another is energy balls, which children can help to make themselves. Annabel’s no-sugar chocolate orange energy balls contain dates, cashew nuts, raisins and a host of other ingredients, all mixed in a food processor and refrigerated.
The key, she says, is to find new ways of serving a food if other methods fail. One of her most popular recipes of all time – and one that I use myself – was created because she couldn’t get her son Nicholas (“the world’s fussiest eater”) to eat chicken. He liked apple, so she blended grated apple with chicken thigh, breadcrumbs, chicken stock and onions, rolled them into mini balls and baked them. He loved them and the small portions took away the feeling of being overwhelmed at what was on the plate.
“Sometimes we’re too stereotypical about what to give toddlers to eat. But our best-selling children’s meal is chicken tikka masala,” says Annabel, who has since gone on to create a range of baby food, chilled and frozen children’s meals in all the major supermarkets. “Give them teriyaki chicken noodles! If you can’t add salt, then garam masala and curry powder adds that flavour.”
Snacking is a real bone of contention for Annabel. Unlike for older children, snacks are hugely important for the early years, but must be a source of nutrition.
“I get despondent with the number of children I see with snacks in bags,” she says. “They say there’s no junk but you’d still need 15 bags to get the goodness of one carrot. Why can’t we give natural snacks? Cucumber snacks on pitta bread and hummus.”
All of what Annabel has learned about children’s nutrition has come from research and taste trials with children, rather than any formal education. A former musician, her first baby Natasha tragically died and she chose to do something with children to make sense of Natasha’s life.
Her second child was a fussy eater, which made her obsessed with getting the right food into him and “he has been the catalyst for my career”. She was running a playgroup with 100 children and sharing her recipes for Nicholas with the other mums, who suggested that she write a cookbook.
“You’d think that writing a book about feeding children wouldn’t be that difficult,” she recalls. “I decided to go up and down the country to interview all the experts on childhood nutrition but they all contradicted each other. When do you give fish? What do you do about peanut butter? I was so confused and thought, how am I going to write this book? If the experts contradict each other then how
do I know what’s right?”
She visited the Institute of Child Health, which was doing lots of research into child nutrition and spoke to the scientists themselves.
“That’s where I discovered about giving meat at six months and peanut butter. At the time people were withholding peanut butter and the incidence of allergies was going up, there were all these things going wrong because no one knew what the truth was.”
That was in 1991 and the controversial advice made the book hard to publish. But she did it, confident that having trialled recipes with now two of her own children and 100 playgroup toddlers would be a success.
Forty-five books down the line and a partnership with Marks & Spencer in 2000 which saw her create a children’s food range – giving her insight into food development, packaging and marketing – she has gone on to forge a successful career in her own right, but regularly shares her recipes and advice with anyone who asks.
She has recently returned from Australia where she has developed a new passion for helping nursery schools with their menus. She was contacted by one of the largest childcare providers in Sydney who asked for her help and she has spent time visiting their centres to try their meals and snacks and observe the children.
“The one thing that stuck with me that I hadn’t realised before is you cannot underestimate the importance of children seeing other children they know eating food they would never touch,” she says. “We were making watermelon pizza and put yogurt and fruit on it, and some of them were tucking in and others were looking at it thinking, I’d never eat that. But by the time we were finished every child had tried it. It’s about getting that child to take that first mouthful, making it look attractive, taste good and having other children around.”
Since working with more nurseries in the UK and abroad, Annabel has realised the importance of having the right nutrition at nursery and setting habits early.
“They probably eat more at nursery than they do at home,” she says. “So it’s important to work with children to create the menus because what they like and what we like isn’t always the same thing.”
One thing that Annabel is particularly keen on is increasing red meat on nursery menus. In Australia she observed red meat on the menu three to four times a week, as early years children suffer from iron deficiency more than anything else. It goes against a lot of what is being talked about in the industry at the moment, but Annabel is also exploring more plant-based methods, too.
“It is difficult to absorb iron with spinach or wholegrain cereals, so it’s important to give vitamin C at the same meal,” she explains.
But she is also discovering new ingredients for flexitarian diets; that tempeh is great with soy sauce, vegan cheeses add lots of flavour and vegan tofu burgers with ground pecan nuts can be packed with nutrients.
Annabel’s focus on nuts is still a controversial one and she recognises that nurseries and schools do sometimes require a no-nut policy if there is an allergic child. But she is a firm believer that early exposure in pregnancy and in weaning will reduce the number of children who develop nut allergies.In Israel, for example, very few children have nut allergies because of a popular baby snack called Bamba, while a clinical trial called Leap has shown clear evidence of the benefits of early exposure to peanuts. But putting science aside, transforming a fussy eater into one who eats anything and everything is about trial and error and patience.
“Some children just don’t like eating something,” says Annabel. “And sometimes foods can put you off for life. Nurseries are a good opportunity to discover new foods and parents should be open minded by that. Children also change their minds all the time. I don’t like beetroot but I like it in a brownie. You can make any food into a way that children will eat it.”
It might be disheartening when a child leaves their plate uneaten, but nurseries are the best place to – with a little patience and imagination – expose children at this crucial age of discovery to not be fearful of food and develop healthy eating habits that will last them a lifetime.