Interview: Annabel Karmel

With one of her titles remaining continually in the top five UK best-selling cookery books for the past 16 years, Annabel Karmel is the undisputed queen of meals for kids. But the reality behind the recipes leaps from a colourful showbiz career to a life-changing tragedy. Words Claire Bates

It is like a secret code……

My friends and I simply say “p11?” and nod knowingly at each other.
So entrenched in many mums’ daily lives is The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner that we can identify what’s on little Freddie or Olivia’s plate purely by its page number.

When a baby is born, something else is too. A mummy. And it’s a tough old role, largely unrecognised, often unrewarded, but pivotal.
So when something comes along to make that journey a little less bumpy, us Mummies cling to it, and cling to it good.
After being given it by my older sister, I’ve bought “Annabel’s book” – as it’s known in our house – many times as a present for new mothers and years down the line, it is always still there on the shelf, albeit spattered in sauces and soups, for the second, third, and even fourth siblings.

The complete Baby And Toddler Meal Planner has become the definitive, authoritative guide on feeding babies and children, is sold worldwide and has now been updated, improved and extended.
Endorsed by Great Ormond Street Hospital, total sales are in excess of several million.

Since penning that, she has written 13 further books ranging from Superfoods For Babies and Children and Lunchboxes, to Children’s First Cookbook and Favourite Family Recipes.

Not bad for a girl who started working life as a musician, playing alongside Liberace, Denis “Minder” Waterman, the Queen and Boy George!

“When I finished school, I was a musician and singer – I played the harp,” she explained.

“I’m sure my parents encouraged me to play the harp because they knew very few boyfriends would want to help me carry it around and that would keep me focused on my work!

“I was really lucky as a musician, I played with Liberace in Las Vegas, appeared as Cinderella in pantomime with Denis Waterman and Rula Lenska, made a video with Boy George and then crossed the Atlantic as a musician and cabaret artist on the QE2.

“I even had a recording career – and the records are still available if you want to hunt them down at car boot sales, on ebay or in a charity shop!”
But it was to be the tragedy of losing her first child Natasha, who was born healthy but who died at 13-weeks-old from a viral infection, that led to her change of direction into nutrition.

“It wasn’t a diet-related illness that led to my daughter’s death but I just felt I wanted to give my next child, Nicholas, the best start in life.

“I felt quite vulnerable when he didn’t eat properly but the only books I could find had quite bland recipes, so I started adapting all the healthy foods we ate as a family like soups, into things he could eat.

“It grew from there really.”

And life in the notoriously tough world of showbusiness was to stand her in good stead for her new venture, as 15 publishers turned her down before Random House agreed to give her a chance.

Her strengths are in getting your child to eat a healthier diet, no matter how fussy an eater they are, without them even noticing.

She realises that young children have favourites like burgers, but she quite simply puts vegetables inside them.

It’s not all about lining up plates of greens and bribing children to eat them – her recipes actually make them tasty by incorporating them into the dish.
She says she still cooks a lot of her recipes for her family today, even though her three children are now teenagers.

“My son has just started at university and he’s really popular where he lives because he’s the only one who can cook!”

she laughed.
Annabel, who lives in London, believes parents these days are more receptive to the idea of good nutrition and in the value of ensuring youngsters to eat healthily thanks to high profile press campaigns and the work of celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver.

“When my children – as well as her 19-year-old son, she has two daughters, 17 and 15 – were babies people kept telling me they liked bland foods. No-one would’ve dreamt of using the ingredients I do today.

“There is so much in the press about obesity that people are being forced to look more closely at what they feed their children – that’s a good thing.”
So did she not sell out just a little then, when she launched Eat Fussy, her own range of ready meals – often the target of the anti-junk food brigade – aimed at one to four-year-olds and cooked in just three minutes in a microwave?

“I don’t believe I did sell out. People have asked me that. The difference is, I use the same principle – healthy ingredients that are fresh, and salt and fat controlled, for a guilt-free solution for busy mums.

“I’d like to think that because it’s got my name on it, it gives parents the confidence to buy. I wouldn’t make anything that wasn’t true to myself.”
And, to coin a phrase, Annabel knows her onions.

She has been employed as a consultant to many manufacturers including Marks and Spencer and Harvey Nichols, in August this year she launched Make Your Own – a range of equipment in Boots for making baby food, including blenders, cutlery and ice cube trays – and she is the children’s celebrity chef on the BBC website.
She appears frequently on radio and television as the UK’s expert on nutritional issues and recently completed a series on the Richard and Judy Show as the “foodie godmother” where she travelled the UK solving the problems of fussy eaters.

She is a petite, softly spoken woman, whose demeanour belies a background of tough challenges and determination, but there’s a sparkle in her eye and a genuine zest for life that makes me think she’d be a riot at a raucous dinner party.

I get the feeling she would’ve succeeded at whatever she’d turned her hand to.
Thank goodness for the legions of stressed-out parents sick of wearing re-heated bolognaise, she turned her hand to cooking.