She is Britain's leading expert in child nutrition with more than 20 best-selling cookbooks to her name, a hugely popular range of meals for children and an MBE. In 2011 she celebrated the 20th anniversary of The Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner, the go-to guide on feeding your child which can be found – well-loved and splattered with sauce – in kitchens all across the UK. HELLO! Online's Gemma Strong sits down for a chat with the undisputed queen of children's meals, Annabel Karmel, to find out how she got into writing the baby food bible.
You are Britain's most renowned child nutritionist with more than a series of best-selling books under your belt. Can you explain how you got started and what inspired you to write your first cookbook?
"It took me quite a long time to get pregnant, but I did have a little girl called Natasha. One day when she was about three months old she didn't look quite right, so I took her to see a doctor and he gave me a lecture on how first-time mothers worry unnecessarily about their children, thinking they are more fragile than they are. So I went home feeling I had disturbed him unnecessarily. The next morning she still didn't look right, so I took her to see another doctor. He examined her, and then said 'I have to go and see another patient'. When he came back in the room ten minutes later, he said 'I think you had better sit down. Your child is seriously ill, there is something wrong with her brain.'"
"It was one of those moments when you think 'This isn't happening to me'. He told me he had left the room to try to get her admitted to Great Ormond Street, but that they didn't have a bed, so we had been admitted to St Mary's. They called an ambulance, I went with her, and they did tests on her all day. Then they called me into a room and said the thinking part of her brain was very badly damaged and that they were unable to treat her at St Mary's so we were transferring to Ormond Street."
"She was there for five days. On that fifth day, they called a meeting and told us that the thinking part of her brain had gone and asked what we wanted to do. She was on a ventilator at the time, we took her off the ventilator, they put her in my arms and she died after about four hours. And I was no longer a mother. That was the first thing that happened to me."
"I was lucky that I got pregnant again fairly soon and I gave birth to Nicholas, although in rather unfortunate circumstances. My doctor told me not to go to hospital and I ended up giving birth on the staircase delivered by my husband. For two-and-a-half hours nobody came… I always have terrible, terrible trouble with doctors!"
"Nicholas was a terrible eater, very difficult to feed, and I felt particularly vulnerable because I had just lost Natasha. And I felt I really wanted him to have that reserve should anything happen."
"I loved cooking, it was my passion, so I started to make up recipes for Nicholas. At the time I had started a baby group, once a week about 150 mothers came with their babies, and I was giving out all my recipes to the mums who would say to me 'They're so good, why don't you write a book about feeding babies?'. And I thought, 'I don't even know how to type, let alone write a book!'"
"But I thought it would be a great legacy to Natasha; I wanted some meaning from her life, and also thought it would be therapy for me. So I devoted myself to writing, talking to all the experts on baby food and nutrition, allergy experts, spent two and a half years researching child nutrition, spent two and a half years in the kitchen cooking up all these recipes, and I wrote The Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner. But I couldn't get a publisher, I couldn't get a literary agent, and honestly thought I would never get it published. And then a friend of mine took it to the Frankfurt book fair and Simon & Schuester - a big publisher in America - bought it, then it was published by Random House over here and it went on to sell four million copies. It's the fourth best-selling cookery book in the country and has just been phenomenally successful. It's just touched a chord."
Absolutely, it's widely considered the bible of feeding your baby. I'm a first-time mum and I was given your book by a friend, and it's been a life-saver! And I certainly think it's true that with your first child, you are so wary about what you are give them - can they eat this, can they not eat this…
"That's the thing actually, because I think sometimes people are too concerned with allergies. There's this hygiene hypothesis - you can wrap your child up in a very sterile environment and you don't expose them to foods you think are possibly slightly allergenic, like wheat, eggs, fish or peanut butter, but you're actually not helping that child build up those immunities. And they say now that from six months you should give well-cooked eggs, you should give fish, you should give peanut butter, because it's helping the baby get used to those foods and not think of them as some foreign body which then causes an allergy and causes anti-bodies. So sometimes you can be too precious about your child!"
Check back soon for part two of our interview with Annabel.