Last Bite: Annabel Karmel MBE

Annabel Karmel MBE talks about inspiration and childhood obesity
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Annabel Karmels Baby-Led Weaning Recipe Book and baby and toddler recipe app include ideas to keep young diners happy.
Annabel Karmels Baby-Led Weaning Recipe Book and baby and toddler recipe app include ideas to keep young diners happy.

You’ve written 43 cookbooks. What — or who — inspires your recipes?

My three children are my inspiration and motivation — and Natasha, my first child, who passed away due to a viral infection when she was just 13 weeks. Whilst Natasha’s illness wasn’t diet related, I was understandably cautious when my second child, Nicholas, came along. I wanted to give him the very best foods. But I’d landed myself the world’s fussiest eater.

I struggled to find enticing recipes to encourage him, and set about devising my own. At the time, I ran a local playgroup, and I soon had mums queueing up for my recipes. I started compiling a cookbook for babies and toddlers — the Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner.

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After being rejected by more than 15 publishing houses, I finally secured a publishing deal. But never in my wildest dreams did I foresee that this cookbook would go on to sell more than four million copies, or that I’d go on to publish 42 more.

Having spent more than 25 years equipping families with the tools, ideas, and inspiration to enjoy good food, I know how powerful food can be in bringing families together, and this is what continues to drive me.

How often do you come to Dubai?

I love Dubai, and one of the many attractions is the amazing food. La Petite Maison is one of my favourite restaurants. I come to Dubai two or three times a year.

The UAE has a high rate of childhood obesity. What do you think needs to be done to combat the problem?

We have the same problem in the UK, and I work with the National Obesity Forum to help raise awareness about obesity among children. Good eating habits are formed from an early age, so it’s incredibly important to introduce a good variety of foods at the earliest possible opportunity.

The secret is to get children to take an active interest in what they’re eating. A good trick I found is to prepare my children’s dinner with them. You’ll stand a good chance of instilling a love of good, healthy food when preparing simple meals together from scratch. Children like to assemble their own food, so you can layout ingredient bowls with lots of bright, fresh veggies and let your child fill and fold their own wraps, or choose toppings for their homemade pizzas — it’s a proven tactic to get them to try more healthy foods.

Avoid empty-calorie snacks where possible, and try to avoid crisps or sugary soft drinks. Instead, keep a supply of healthy snacks on hand. I like to have a low shelf in the fridge with cut up fresh fruit and other healthy foods.

I would also suggest trying to make your own versions of healthy fast-food favourites, using good-quality lean meat for burgers, or English muffins for pizza bases. A good way to coat homemade fish fingers is to dip them in seasoned flour, beaten egg, and crushed cornflakes. For dessert, it’s easy to make fresh fruit ice lollies from fruit juice and puréed fruits. And if you can sit down to eat together, do it.

What’s your pet peeve when it comes to kids’ menus in restaurants?

Regardless of the type of the cuisine, children’s menus can be very predictable, and more often than not you’re presented with the same three or four meals. It can be frustrating, as children’s tastes are more sophisticated than we think. You’d be surprised at the flavours they enjoy and the foods they’re happy to try.

Parents want their children to be fuelled on the right foods while at home, at school, or eating out. I’d love to see healthier and more interesting options on restaurant menus, to get children excited about different foods from all over the world.

What advice would you give to restaurateurs in the region with regards to childhood nutrition?

I don’t think it’s about changing whole menus. Instead it’s more about making healthier versions of the favourites. We all have an important role to play in feeding children, as well as promoting a healthy lifestyle. You can easily sneak foods like red lentils into a cottage pie and cover it with a potato and carrot topping, or hide veggies in a Bolognese baked with carrot, red pepper, and red onion.

It’s also really important that menus cater to all children, offering balanced and healthy meals with gluten-free, dairy-free, and soya-free options, too.

What are you working on next?

We are heavily investing in our digital channels. We currently attract 4.3 million users annually, so we will be developing even more content and helpful advice for parents. We also want to work on making our products available to parents in even more territories.

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